In WFC’s very first post, I said that there’s no way to know how a story will fit together until all the pieces are out of the box. Today I’d like to explore another aspect of this idea: if you’re having trouble pulling the pieces out of the box, try being deliberate about it instead of simply grabbing at anything that reaches your hands.
I understand that the technique of simply putting down on paper whatever comes out of your head can be an effective means for some writers to get started (a few of which I knew – or knew of – from various writing classes), but any time I try to just vomit everything out on the page in the hope of “finding my subject,” the result reeks of complete, blithering incoherence. Whether that says something or nothing at all about my general mental state I have no idea, but what I do know is that it is usually much more aggravating than inspirational. Instead, when writing, I try to be deliberate. To illustrate what I mean, let me give you a recent example.
Last week I used the story prompt from May 4th, about a couple of thieves who encounter an abandoned space station and decide to explore it, as the basis for a sci-fi short story. So, first of all, if you’ve ever wondered if I use my own prompts (I can almost hear you shouting “no!” at the screen right now, and to that I say: tough), the answer is yes. Secondly, I knew the general thrust of the plot when I started: they’d go in expecting to just loot the place, and discover that the station is harboring a Dark Secret™. However, all of the details, like who the thieves were, what their reasons were for being there, what they find, etc., were vague or nonexistent to start with.
However, I didn’t start randomly jamming the keys on my keyboard like an infinite chimp, hoping to produce Ray Bradbury at some point and call it an evening, which, now that I think about it, would be some sort of mutant-variety plagiarism, but I digress. Instead, I tried to envision how the station would look, what the characters would do first when they got there, and what would keep them there long enough to explore the rest of the station. I ended up with a few crime fiction tropes, such as the obligatory safecracking scene, but remixed to fit into the sci-fi context, which was a blast to write, and a fun exercise in trying to do something a little different (for me, anyway; I’m sure there’s a “safecracking in spaaaaace” plot out there. I just haven’t seen it yet).
And in fact, that’s all the story was supposed to be, an exercise to stretch my writing muscles. I’m currently in the process of editing it for submission. So far, what I’m seeing from my first draft is an internally coherent piece of work that has a lot of fun details to it, many of which were born from things I’ve read due to my interest in space and the physics of space travel. Although the ending is going to need some work, all of the things that are, more or less, complete came about because I stopped and thought about what I was writing and what kinds of details would work in the setting.
For some writers, the idea generation stage entails throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks. For me, however, knowing the kind of wall I’m dealing with helps me to know ahead of time what ideas are likely to stick.