When, where, and how do writers’ ideas originate?
The short answer: anywhen, anywhere, anyhow. I’m speaking about fiction writing, of course. For non-fiction writing, including essays and memoirs, authors generally have all the ideas laid out and just have to connect the dots (that in itself is a nontrivial process, especially with essays, but usually the ideas are already there). For fiction writing, the question in the title is the most common one I receive from readers.
I wrote my first novel during the summer I turned thirteen. It was terrible, although not very different from the movie City of Angels—so maybe the idea wasn’t half bad. If I remember correctly, I had a lot more erotica in my novel than what happened between the Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage characters in the movie (it was PG-13, after all). The sexes of my protagonists were also inverted (if angels can have a sex). Not bad for a pubescent teen, but a terrible writing job, nonetheless.
I live my short answer above. For example, I have managed to drive two wives crazy when I shuffle off in the middle of the night to my desk to write down an idea that just came to me. The frightening thing is that I did the same thing when I was wrestling with a theory or algorithm in my previous career as a physicist. Story detail or equation, the middle of the night is one source of ideas for me. I find this completely natural. When you finally vanquish insomnia and enter that REM world, your mind relaxes and can make intuitive leaps not possible when you’re consciously panning for that golden nugget of an idea.
In both science and writing, I work top-down. I have the big picture; I just need to fill in the details. Orson Scott Card once said, “Novels aren’t built out of short stories. They are built out of scenes.” The first ideas that come to me are a general plot, then the scenes. Short stories are different. The so-called literary novel often is too, although the best of those, the ones with staying power, are still built on scenes. That’s because real life is often just a series of connected scenes. Once I have the general plot and the scenes, I have the solution to my novel writing problem. The adage then holds—I work hard from thereon to fill in the devilish details.
The details are what come to me in the middle of the night. Or, in my previous career, when I was driving home from work after my day job. Or, sitting around the lunch table, shocking the young kids with my radical politics and irreverent observations about modern society (this has carried over to my op-ed posts on my blog, if anyone is interested). Or, faced with a blank paper napkin in a coffee shop or bar. Coming up with the details is a bit like Zen enlightenment—you have to empty your mind or at least completely distract it, putting it into a state of relaxation.
Sometimes this process is fast; other times it’s painfully slow. I can’t control that, although my characters sometimes help by taking over. I often use many characters. Pirandello’s author only had six to torture him. I’ve found that the more I have, the easier it is to put the meat on the scenic skeleton of the story. They don’t all survive, of course. I’m a slash-and-burn editor of my own material. Sometimes I get even and kill off a character. (That happened to Old Bob in my novel Full Medical. A reader complained, so I wrote the short story “Character Assassination” to make him feel better.)
The Midas Bomb was one of those novels where I couldn’t seem to type fast enough. The details came in an intense rush. The plot came to me in the shower one day and I thought it through as I drove to my day job. I wanted a vehicle for my favorite villain, Vladimir Kalinin, who played a minor role in Full Medical and major ones in Evil Agenda and Soldiers of God. As luck would have it, in the process of writing The Midas Bomb, I created two other more noble characters, NYPD police detectives Chen and Castilblanco. Nevertheless, the original plot, the big idea of The Midas Bomb, came when I was rinsing off the soap in the shower: a hedge fund owner teams up with al Qaeda to short the stock market after an attack on Wall Street. Considering that the book was written just after Bear-Stearns and before the financial collapse of 2008, it’s my most prescient work.
I write sci-fi thrillers. In The Midas Bomb, the thriller aspect (fighting terrorists) is obvious. The sci-fi is in the dirty bomb, the “radioactive dispersive device” that Vladimir concocts for the terrorists to use (I should say “sci” since the “fi” is evident, although the Times Square bomber came very close to negating that). But what about the characters?
Vladimir, a sociopath, is also a sex-aholic. He’s not a pervert, though, since he has enough money to buy all the gratification he needs (a different kind of perversion?). The terrorist, Lydia Andreyevna Karpov, is probably my sexiest creation. This brings me back to characters and the details mentioned above. Human beings are sexual. Sex, all kinds of sex—normal, kinky (what’s normal?), lesbian, gay—play such a role in human affairs that I believe characters become two-dimensional if there’s no sexuality. Maybe I’m wrong.
I’m reminded of the famous sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein who ended his life as a “dirty old man” if his last books are any indication. It all started more or less with Strangers in a Strange Land that became something like the hippies’ bible back in the sixties. Maybe he wrote an erotic novel at thirteen and came full circle? My writing future might come full circle too. Who knows?
I do know that sex and sexual tension are some of the details I’ve mentioned that are hard to write. To go from the scene title “Lydia seduces Enrique” in The Midas Bomb to describing the details was not easy for me. In this and many other instances, the adage “write what you know” just doesn’t cut it—the writer often has to use his greatest asset, his imagination. Sorry, that’s something you can’t teach—I don’t care how good your MFA program is.
I was de facto an only child. My brother, bless his soul, was six years older and generally didn’t like a little bugger like me tagging along in his “big boy” activities. I was forced to develop an active imagination. I wasn’t into imaginary friends or anything like that, but I would do things like pretend I was Tarzan and swing naked on a vine with knife clenched in my teeth and then drop into the murky waters of an irrigation ditch (Californian words for “river”). Moreover, I was an avid reader.
If you allow me to make the analogy between writing a novel and solving a physics problem, imagination is what we call the intuitive leaps we use to perform both these creative activities. Many of the details readers wonder about well up from that imagination spring. I think the proverbial writer’s block is just that spring running dry. I don’t know what to do for the writer when that happens. Wait for the Poland Springs truck, I guess.
Many writers only have one good story to tell. Two examples are Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, although one can argue that Capote’s friend Lee should have been a co-author of Capote’s book. My old English prof, N. Scott Momaday (House Made of Dawn), is another example. Others have many stories to tell—both Heinlein and Asimov come to mind in the sci-fi world, Follett in the more literary world. The latter are lucky. The former, like Lee and Capote, sometimes lead traumatic lives (fortunately, Momaday hasn’t). Maybe the human tragedy is that often those single novels are superb works of art. It’s as if Beethoven wrote only one symphony.
I have the good fortune that I have many stories to tell. In my mind’s closets, there are many skeletons, many plots with a good number of scenes already configured. I just have to find time to write down the details. And there’s the rub….
Steven M. Moore has written six sci-fi thrillers: The Secret Lab, The Midas Bomb, Full Medical, Evil Agenda, Soldiers of God, and Survivors of the Chaos. The first is a novel for young adults. His interests include mathematics, physics, forensics, genetics, robotics, and scientific ethics, as well as writing dystopian novels containing a glimmer of hope. He has an active blog comprised of op-ed posts, book reviews, interviews, short stories, and comments on the writing business. His wife and he currently live in New Jersey. Visit him at his website: http://stevenmmoore.com.
Angel art by Adi Holzer