How the percolator works

Posted by nightphoenix on December 6, 2012 in Process |

A writing book I read a while ago compared a writer’s brain to a coffee percolator. Ideas are like coffee grounds…sometimes you have to gather a bunch and let them sit in there and soak for a while, maybe even multiple soakings, before you get something, er, drinkable. And even though I don’t drink coffee, this stuck me as a good metaphor for what I do.

I have ideas that have literally been sitting in my head, evolving and changing and growing for years that still aren’t what I would consider “ready” (Hello, Tindaari, my darling sprawling epic fantasy…I have not forgotten you). “Ready” meaning at a point where I could sit down and start building the basic plot.

I’ll tell you something that, if you are any sort of artist at all, you probably already know. Ideas are cheap. Ideas are everywhere, in everything, all the time. Everyone has them. Most people have more ideas than they could ever realize in a whole lifetime. The human imagination is a busy little shoulder devil, always yapping and pestering and going “omglookatthis! and you could do thisandthisandthis with it!”.

(Especially at night. Or in the shower. Or during long car rides when you have nothing to write on.)

Or in my case, when I’m brushing my teeth. Maybe it’s the mint?

I tend to divide “story ideas” into three basic categories, when it comes to putting them together to create a working project. And it’s very, very rare that I’ll come up with all three in one sitting. In fact, most of my projects are the result of several completely unrelated thoughts or dreams or brainstorming sessions.

The first category is what I’ll call the “interesting premise”. It’s the “hey, what if you had a world where ____ and ____ were true?” or “what if people could do ____?” These normally come from odd passing thoughts I have (“Dang, what was I going to say just now? Maybe the ether ate it. Hey, what if there was something like an Ether of Lost Thoughts, that actually did steal thoughts out of people’s heads?” or “Wow, when the wind blows through the trees it almost sounds like they’re talking to each other. What if that was how they communicated…and without the wind, they couldn’t talk? What would happen to that world if the wind died?”)

…or I’ll watch a movie and think of something I’d change or an element I’d like to play with (“Those Mall Cop hip elves on skateboards are kind of cool. If I were to build a team like that, what would they do…? Maybe fight faeries…”)

…or I’ll try to weld some fantastical idea onto Real Life and try and make it plausible (“There has to be some reason for all the discrepancies in the characteristics of vampires and werewolves. How will I account for all of them without dismissing any as “just rumor”?). Magic systems fall into this category, as I tend to build these in a very methodical fashion. (What does it do? How does it do it? Born or learned? Who has/learns it? Uses? Limitations? Drawbacks? Costs? How does society treat its wielders? Factions, differing philosophies? History? Etc. Yes, all my magic systems go through this, even the relatively simple ones.)

Next, there is the “interesting relationship” or character dynamic category. Because what really draws me into a story is not so much the characters themselves, but how they relate to one another. This is different from making up a character to fill a certain role in an established story, which I usually don’t do until after a project is in the plotting stage. This is when the dynamic comes to me as a dynamic, as “these two or three characters are bringing this particular relationship to the story”. The Karu/Sendossar/Liss triangle came to me this way, as did Saeli and Raphel, Miriam and Rane, Arav and Sioned, Jas and Sanda…a lot of my “pairs” are dreamed up together. Often literally, in that I will have a dream that stars a couple of made-up people. At this stage, they don’t always have faces or even names…I have to tack those on later. Sometimes they’ll have names in the dream that wouldn’t work in a novel (like if the dream is heavily derivative of something I just watched or read), and I have to change them.

Character dynamic is very closely related to my third category, the “feeling that knocks you down” idea. This is a scene, or a moment, or a line of dialogue that I just feel…so strongly that my mind immediately starts trying to come up with ways to get to that moment, just so I can experience it again. This is what actually makes me want to write a story (as opposed to just tinkering with premise ideas or magic or whatever). This is the mood and overall theme, what I want it to “feel” like. Two lovers separated by time. Chihiro on the spirit train. The girl suffering from unrequited love who quite literally cannot say a word. Nostalgia, regret. Those sorts of things.

If the story nugget comes from a dream, it will usually be in the form of a powerful character dynamic + knock me over emotion. Those two usually walk hand in hand. More rarely, I’ll have an action/adventure romp in an awesome world with an awesome history/magic system/race of people/etc, and that’s what I take from the dream. With the more disjointed dreams, I may get little bits from each category that I’ll usually end up disconnecting from each other when I wake up.

Now in order to have a working project, I need at least two of these elements in place, if not all three. These can mix and match…I may take two or three premises and marry them to a pair of characters with a certain mood…or dump a couple sets of characters in one particular world. But it is very, very rare for me to come up with all three of these elements for a project all at the same time. I don’t give birth to the baby; I literally weld it together from scraps and jolt it into life. This is the point in the creative process where I become Frankenstein.

Or rather, Mockingbird. I do not create my song. My song already exists. The world is my song. All I do is make you hear it.

Projects come together the easiest when I have one of each element to combine: premise, characters, emotion. Sometimes I can work if I have two of the three: the third element gets created in the process of fusing the first two. If I only have one element, well, I can brainstorm the other two in, but I’ve discovered that the result is just…never as good. For some reason anything I come up with on the spot to pack in with a premise or a character or an emotion to “complete” a story never works as well as using something I already have. I can fill in minor details, minor characters, subplots, round off edges, tie everything together…but those three major elements: major premise, major characters, major thematic emotion…I can’t magic those into existence at the behest of another idea. Inevitably I have found that it’s better for me to wait for the “missing piece” in a story rather than try and fill in the gap myself.

This is why this part takes the most time.

Because I never know when I’m going to wake up from a “story dream”, or what odd passing thought will spark something. I can force myself to think creatively but I cannot force those inspired moments: they just come. All I can do is write them down, throw them in a computer file, and hope they become useful one day. I have nuggets I haven’t used yet. I have projects waiting for the final piece that will pull it all together and make it viable…and I have no idea what that final piece will look like.

My projects are put together typically one of two ways. First way: I have a fantastic dream one night, and excitedly write it down the next day. Or I’ll have one of those awesome premise ideas, and spend a couple of hours refining it. Once I’ve taken that idea as far as it can go on its own, I’ll go digging through my “nugget” folder to see if there’s anything there I can “pair” with the new idea.

Second way: on an off-day when I can’t get anything done, I’ll just dig through the nugget folder, look at all the ideas, and see if time and current circumstances have given me any new insights as to what could work together.

Sometimes nothing jumps out at me, and the new idea just gets put in with the rest.

Sometimes in the process of refining the new idea, I think of a way to pair it with an existing idea, and they blend perfectly. Free was the result of blending a powerful character dynamic dream with a completely different action/adventure dream involving teenagers fighting dragons on a certain night of the year. For Shades, I dreamed up Saeli and Raphel, the world of White Mantles and Black Cowls, and Saeli being the “odd one out” in three separate dreams. Fall. Reconcile happened when a dream about time traveling met a weird thought I had while reading Elantris (what if the Shu Dereth religion did manage to conquer the world, but their god’s promised appearance didn’t happen as they said it would?) met a sci-fi idea that had been sitting on my computer for years. As soon as I looked at all three together I saw how they could fit.

Sometimes I deliberately try and pair the new idea with another nugget that is completely, utterly, ridiculously unrelated, and see if I can find a way to make it work. Briar Rose happened because I decided to add vampires/werewolves to what was essentially a gritty, modern, non-fantastical YA story (and thus something I wasn’t sure I could write). And I realized I already had what was essentially a werewolf mythos in my Changer premise (which I had come up with months beforehand). The Spindlewyrd (semi-sentient time-connecting entity that got loose on the internet) from Dragon Singer had to be created somehow…why not by literally painting it into existence? (My Occula Spectra magic system needed a home).

Sometimes I need a third nugget in order to make the new idea and an old idea work together. Actually…usually I need that third nugget. Because what I’m typically welding together is my working triad: premise, characters, emotion. Which of the ideas is the “main idea”, which is the “secondary idea that contrasts/expands/explains the main idea”, and which is the “tie-in” determines what kind of story it’s going to be: milieu-driven, character-driven, event-driven, idea-driven. Which element gets to be the main plot and what becomes the subplot.

At all points in this process, there is music. Characters collect songs. Emotional scenes collect songs. Premises…usually don’t, because I don’t “feel” a premise like I do the others. That part is all technical, worldbuilding, tinkering work for me.

But at some point, usually at that magic moment when the three elements start coming together into something that makes sense, I will discover the story’s “theme” song. It’s the song that unites the pieces all together in my mind, organizes them. I…don’t really know how to explain it, other than it’s crucial. I build my story playlist around that song. The playlist songs give me my individual scenes. Those scenes are what I string together to make the plot.

Oftentimes a story’s theme song will change, as the story evolves and my understanding of it evolves. In my Projects page, you’ll probably notice that every novel has a song, and every series has a song. You may have noticed some that have changed, some several times. There’s the reason for it.

After I have a theme song and a few other songs, I’ll start making what I call a writing playlist. This is every song I can find on my computer that even remotely puts me in the mindset of that story…and sometimes just songs that are current favorites. It’s a list that will play without repetition for several hours (so I don’t get tired of it while I’m writing, and so I don’t have to keep clicking over to iTunes). After I’ve been working with the story for a while, I’ll try and organize the songs to more or less match the chronology of the story, and if I’m writing in a particular section, I’ll have that little bit on repeat.

Once the story is finished, I may cull some of the true outliers from the writing playlist…songs that no longer work with the story, songs I’m sick of, etc. Since I also know which songs actually really, truly “fit” the story (as opposed to just “providing inspiration”), I’ll also pick 12 or 13 for a proper soundtrack.

Sometime I may post Free’s (and Hands, Like Secrets’).

So now that I’ve explained a bit of my creative process…next post I’m going to talk about a story idea I had just last night that happened nothing like that.


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