Tag Archives: novels

The Ideas Factory

But when you got a story idea, no one gave you a bill of sale. There was no provenance to be traced.  Why would there be?  Nobody gave you a bill of sale when you got something for free. You charged whoever wanted to buy that thing from you – oh yes, all the traffic would bear, and a little more than that, if you could, to make up for all the time the bastards shorted you – magazines, newspapers, book publishers, movie companies. But the item came to you free, clear, and unencumbered.

Stephen King, Secret Window, Secret Garden

I never believed that babies were delivered by a stork when I was a little girl. I don’t think my parents ever tried that kind of nonsense on me, and I like to believe I’d have seen through it if they had(though given that I fell hook, line and sinker for Father Christmas, that’s probably unlikely).  Well before the time my mum told a five-year-old me that I was going to have a brother or sister, I had arrived at my own theory, which seemed to me to be self-evidently true and to require no further explanation: a woman became pregnant in the same way she caught a cold or had heart problems or whatever – it was just something that sometimes happened to her body. Apparently, I was always something of a fatalist.

Hans Andersen's Dreams, by Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone

Hans Andersen’s Dreams, by Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone

Now that I’ve been asked a couple of times where I got the idea for my book, I find I have much the same kind of explanation: it just “came to me”. But that’s not very satisfying really, is it? And for someone who’d dearly love to be able to make a living from writing, it feels like a very sandy foundation on which to attempt to build a career.  I mean, if ideas just pop out of the ether, what’s to say that one day they won’t stop coming just as inexplicably?

At the Faber Academy course I attended three months ago, I heard that a commercial author should expect to write a novel a year. That’s not too bad really, I thought. I mean, setting aside the small matter of the work involved in actually coming up with a novel length manuscript, that’s essentially one core idea a year. Surely that should be manageable?

But what if the ideas aren’t fit for purpose?

A few weeks ago I went to a talk by noted short story writer Zoe Fairbairns, organised by the London Writers’ Café. Someone asked her why she had focussed in her career on writing short stories rather than novels, particularly since the market in short stories in the UK is nowhere near as developed as that for novels; in other words, and without wishing to sound too craven, even a successful short story writer isn’t going to make very much money. The main reason for her chosen medium, she said, was that she found she had plenty of ideas that would make good short stories, but she’d simply run out of ones that would stretch to novel length.

I found that a slightly alarming thought.  It’s not that I don’t like short stories, but given the choice I’d much rather curl up with a novel. I want to be immersed for hours, developing my opinions about the characters, trying to work out that’s going on inside their heads, watching as some kind of mystery unfolds and is then resolved.  And because that’s the kind of experience I most enjoy about reading, it’s why I’ve always wanted to write novels.

So where do novelists get their ideas? How do they keep them coming, without finding that they’re unconsciously giving different ideas to the same characters, changing the place names but creating parallel sets of circumstances? How does someone like Stephen King keep coming up with things that are fresh, whilst at the same time having the same sense of King-ness that means his readers know the kind of thing they’re going to get, and that they’re going to enjoy the ride?

I can see that there are techniques for stimulating the creative process: the daily writing prompts that appear all over WordPress, the pictures and the snippets of prose that invite you to imagine what is happening and develop a story around them. Zoe Fairbairns suggested building a short story around an object, preferably a small one (her most famous short story centred around a bus ticket).  I can see how that would work to stimulate some writing, any writing – and there are times, of course, when that’s just what you need – but is it really possible to keep extrapolating until you hit 100,000 words? I think I’m with Ms Fairbairns here – there are surely some ideas that just aren’t big enough for the job.

At the moment, I’m in the preparation stages for the next book. The idea is there, just waiting to be brought to life.  And I have a great title for another one – at some point I’m hoping that’s going to be enough to get the creative juices flowing.  But – then what? I’ve never been one of those people who feels they have so many ideas bubbling around that they don’t know which one to start with.  It’s a scary thought that the time might come when my meagre store just runs out.

So I’m going to ask that question.  You know, the really annoying one that makes you feel as if you’ve failed somehow if you don’t have a proper answer.

Where do you get your ideas?

Let’s Get Metaphysical

Ooh, I wanna hear your philosophy talk…

Right, that’s enough of that. Despite being one of those people who if asked “If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no-one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” would reply, “Yes, of course it bloody does! What a ridiculous question!” I have found my mind wandering in a vaguely philosophical direction in recent weeks.

Tree in forest The culprit was a blog post by a playwright who was talking about her first experience of having a play staged.  To her shock, she found the finished product didn’t bear that close a resemblance to what she’d had in mind when she wrote it. “That’s the thing with writing plays,” she said, “It’s a collaborative effort.”

To start with, I breathed a big sigh of relief that I’d never tried my hand at any kind of script.  I wasn’t sure I’d like that, I thought to myself, handing over my work to someone else –  a whole bunch of someone elses, in fact – and then holding my breath to see what emerged at the other end.  I liked the feeling that, in writing a book, I was in control: my characters would say and do only what I told them to. Ok, sometimes they developed minds of their own and tried nudging me in different directions to the ones I’d planned, but when it came down to it, I was the person who decided what words went on the paper; the product began and ended with me.

Until I thought about it a bit more and realised that was rubbish.

For the last month or so, I’ve been sweating away over a re-write of my first novel.  After much excitement and getting to acquisitions stage with six UK publishers, sadly no-one got as far as making an offer to publish.  I did, though, get lots of feedback.  It’s that feedback, together with the wise suggestions of my agent, that I’ve been soldiering away with for the last month, desperately hoping that the next version will have dealt with enough of the issues for someone to say “Yes.”

So the most recent incarnation of my book is already, to a considerable extent, the product of a whole range of people: my brilliant beta readers, who took so much time to give me their comments and encouragement; a whole pile of editors, who distilled their reasons for rejecting me (hmph!) with varying degrees of clarity; and my agent, who helped me work through it all and come up with some ideas to respond.

But of course, it’s not just those people who are helping decide what my book will be – ultimately, it’ll be the creature of whatever handful of people I can bribe, cajole or threaten into actually reading it.  I might think I’m the god of my own little literary world, setting out my story, deciding who does what to whom and why; but just because I think I’ve explained something, it doesn’t mean my readers will agree (there’s a life lesson lurking here somewhere…). They might interpret the words I think of as being only mine in any number of different ways. They might see all kinds of different motivations for the way my characters behave.  They might – whisper it – not like the characters I like.

I remember in one GCSE English class the teacher reading a passage from To Kill A Mockingbird.  As I recall, there’s a bit where Scout is in fancy dress, oddly enough as a ham (can that really be right? Sounds unlikely, but it’s what I remember). The costume was held in shape by a frame of wire mesh, and the teacher said that if we were studying the novel at A’-level, we’d be talking about the way that this mesh represented the cage of expectations and social convention in which Scout found herself. There was a good deal of snorting at this, with one boy making the point that perhaps the author meant nothing of the sort; perhaps he was simply describing her costume.  “Well, perhaps,” said the teacher, “But if that’s the case, why is it there?”

Fast forward a couple of decades, and Lionel Shriver is being interviewed about the creepily brilliant We Need To Talk About Kevin.  There were deep divisions, apparently, amongst the readership: was Kevin the way he was because his career-focussed mother starved him of love and affection as he grew up? Or was it just that he was born an evil little so and so? Infuriatingly, Ms Shriver said she wasn’t going to tell us. “If I haven’t told you after 300 pages,” she said (a little sniffily, I thought), “There’s no point in telling you now.”

At the time, I found this rather annoying: couldn’t she just put all those irritating people who obviously thought a woman should sacrifice her whole personal identity the minute she reproduced back in their boxes, and tell them that Kevin was a nasty piece of work?  But now I think: maybe it doesn’t matter.  After all, I’m bringing my own ethical framework – alright, my prejudices – to my interpretation of this book, just as much as anyone else; and the author is doing exactly the same thing.  Maybe that means that Kevin has his own life now, independent of Lionel Shriver, existing in the imaginations of all those different readers? Maybe it doesn’t matter what the author thinks is the truth – perhaps each of those interpretations, each one of those different Kevins, is just as valid as hers?

Recognising that we don’t really own or control our story may be frightening – but it’s also fascinating.  Sending your characters out into the world for people to like or loathe, to decide what they think about their behaviour and motives – well, it’s a pretty exciting business, isn’t it? And while writing may be a solitary pursuit, I think that means that telling a story really isn’t.