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That Awkward Question: Where Do Writers Find Their Ideas?

Leonid_Pasternak_001Throes of Creation by Leonid Pasternak

Yesterday I watched a really interesting set of readings from the Cheltenham Literature Festival. This was a special event (link to the programme will expire in 4 weeks) welcoming all six writers on the 2014 Man Booker Prize shortlist to the Festival: Joshua Ferris, Richard Flanagan, Karen Joy Fowler, Howard Jacobson, Neel Mukherjee and Ali Smith. The authors discussed and read from their shortlisted novels, then took questions from the audience. The readings gave a good sense of the tone and subject matter of the books. What was particularly interesting, and uncomfortable, though, were the questions after the readings. I don’t think there was a single question posed to the authors that wasn’t either ‘naughty’, in the words of the host, or just difficult to answer. They were asked, if they had to swap their novel with one of the longlisted books, which one they would choose. Needless to say, nobody answered this question. They were also asked how they felt about sitting with two Americans (the Prize was opened up to American authors for the first time this year). Neel Mukherjee said he preferred an inclusive approach over exclusivity. This has been much debated over the years. Joshua Ferris broke the ice with some humour, adding, ‘I think I speak for Karen when I say, we are completely beside ourselves’. The most awkward question, and this was possibly the worst set of questions I’ve heard from any audience to a panel of writers, was whether they had read each other’s books. Ali Smith, thankfully, had read the whole set and thought that they were ‘fantastic’. They were also asked how you know when you have truly finished your novel. The authors agreed that it was much like a painting where you added the last brush stroke. This was one of the better questions, but the question that struck me as particularly familiar came from a young girl in the audience. She asked the eternal, ‘Where do you find your ideas?’, question. And it’s one that makes many writers uncomfortable, primarily because it is difficult to answer.

WHERE DO WRITERS FIND THEIR IDEAS?

The responses from the authors varied. Karen Joy Fowler said that her ideas came from her daughter, and that the question had once been difficult to answer, but was now all sorted. A very tongue-in-cheek, and slightly evasive answer. Howard Jacobson suggested that the word ‘ideas’ may not be the right one to use, and that he sees a scene. He mentioned Milan Kundera in his point that it might be better to try not to have ideas. Joshua Ferris’s answer was closest to what I experience when I write. He said that he has sentences before he has ideas, and that those sentences come from somewhere. From that sentence come other sentences and at some point you find a rhythm. Ali Smith, after a joke about Waitrose (although she failed to mention Peter Andre), says that ideas are absolutely everywhere. Every single thing that we encounter is filled with possibilities and at some point there is a chemical process, a fusion of ideas. She talked about the need to have your senses open. Neel says he gets his from reading other people’s books. But don’t tell anyone! His title came from a a book called Light Years, by James Salter. And finally, Richard Flanagan shared his view that novels are a ‘crack diary’ of your soul.

“NOT TO LOOK FOR THE IDEAS BUT TO HAVE YOUR SENSES OPEN.”  ALI SMITH

I don’t think I have ever managed to answer this question successfully. But, if I look back to the seeds of a novel or a short story, and I have many short story ideas, the ideas come in the waking moments of half sleep, of semi-consciousness. Are they a dream? Not really. They are the thoughts that creep into my mind when it is not preoccupied with the thoughts of the day and the ‘to do’ lists. We wake with so many things to do and places to get to, that our imaginations become squeezed out by the necessary thought processes that we go through on a daily basis. Our imaginations wait on the sidelines for the quiet moments, to come into play when we have a conversation with the lady in the local chemist and talk about travel and family, when a friend tells us about a particular issue that they are facing (although I never use confidential information in my writing). They feed on the everyday encounters that we have, as Ali Smith said, when we have our senses open. Writers tend to notice people, body language, unusual situations, things that are out of the ordinary. They observe. Most will admit to being people watchers. Ideas also come from memory, from fears and from the ‘what if’ scenarios that play out in our minds. Neil Gaiman wrote a good essay on this question, saying that the ideas are not the difficult part, but creating believable characters and making the story interesting. He suggests that the most important questions are, What if, If only, I wonder, If this goes on, Wouldn’t it be interesting if…

I often begin with a scene, as Howard Jacobson mentioned, and if it won’t go away, I commit it to paper, building a story from that scene, asking who the characters are and what they want, what is blocking their desires and what might happen next. I try to feel the atmosphere. With my current work in progress I initially had five key scenes but I knew that they were scattered, and the difficulty lay in linking these once they were written. It became a jigsaw puzzle. I usually write chronologically, but there are no rules. And there in lies the problem: no rules, no solid idea of where the stories begin, but you only need a seed. You allow it to grow and then shape it into something that you hope will inspire and challenge readers. Ideas are as much a mystery to writers as they are to readers. You experiment with different ideas to see what works and, often, ideas will surprise.

 

 

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Hilary Mantel’s rules for writers

Hilary Mantel rounded off an astounding year by winning the Costa prize last night for her novel Bring Up the Bodies. Having also won the Man Booker Prize, she is the first person to win both. To celebrate, here are the golden rules for writing that she first shared with the Guardian on 25 February 2010.

Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel. Photograph: Murdo Macleod

1. Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.

2. Read Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. Then do what it says, including the tasks you think are impossible. You will particularly hate the advice to write first thing in the morning, but if you can manage it, it might well be the best thing you ever do for yourself. This book is about becoming a writer from the inside out. Many later advice manuals derive from it. You don’t ­really need any others, though if you want to boost your confidence, “how to” books seldom do any harm. You can kick-start a whole book with some little writing exercise.

3. Write a book you’d like to read. If you wouldn’t read it, why would anybody else? Don’t write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book’s ready.

4. If you have a good story idea, don’t assume it must form a prose narrative. It may work better as a play, a screenplay or a poem. Be flexible.

5. Be aware that anything that appears before “Chapter One” may be skipped. Don’t put your vital clue there.

6. First paragraphs can often be struck out. Are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?

7. Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change. This is especially important for historical fiction. When your character is new to a place, or things alter around them, that’s the point to step back and fill in the details of their world. People don’t notice their everyday surroundings and daily routine, so when writers describe them it can sound as if they’re trying too hard to instruct the reader.

8. Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It ­usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.

9. If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.

10. Be ready for anything. Each new story has different demands and may throw up reasons to break these and all other rules. Except number one: you can’t give your soul to literature if you’re thinking about income tax.

 

 


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Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules for Writing Fiction

typewriter

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.