Thursday, March 7, 2013

When the Story Finds You

Any writer can tell you that they have ideas for stories all the time. When we choose to write, we're often preloaded with concepts and characters and crazy plots that we've been thinking about, often for years. I thought up one story back when I was in the fifth grade that I didn't actually write until three decades later (thankfully that story was one of the very few that took long for me to get it on the page.)

I've also learned over time that some story ideas have to find me. I can decide to write a story, and think and plan and write notes and research and end up with? Zero. Nothing. After all that work the result is lame or tired or something I don't want to write. When that happens, I know I'm overthinking it, and I have to stop and let inspiration come to me in its own time. Because I'm also a very organized pre-planner type person I don't like this at all; it makes me cranky and I tend to worry. What if the story idea I need doesn't find me? Being a professional writer means creating on demand and pitching in advance and knowing exactly what the heck you're writing at all times -- even when you've got nothing, you have to tell them something.

Such as last year, when I told my editor I was going to write a promotional story for the Disenchanted & Co. books. My plan was to give the story away for free on the internet so people could get a decent preview of the universe and some of the characters. I've done this several times before with my StarDoc and Darkyn series novels so I'm very comfortable with it. I like writing in my universes; they're great big playgrounds to me. At the time I told my editor about the idea I hadn't planned exactly what I was going to write, but I gave him some vague ideas and then set it aside so I could deal with the holidays.

Once the holidays were over, I decided to get to work on my promo story. At which point I realized that every vague idea I'd had wasn't really worth writing. In hopes of dreaming up better I focused on developing some new ideas. I wrote loose outlines. I switched around characters. I came up with five or six new plots, too. Yet the more I work on these ideas, the less I liked them. They were okay -- competent, but nothing special. I needed a very special, exciting, thrilling story idea that would have me running to the computer every morning, just as the first of the Toriana novels had. I wasn't going to do that with any of this lukewarm ho-hum stuff. I'd drag my feet. I'd be distracted by other things I wanted to write. I'd end up with a disaster.

I knew what I had to do. I wadded up all the plans and notes and ideas and threw them in the garbage (which was exactly where they belonged.) Once I'd cleared out all the rubbish, I stopped thinking about the story project. I meditated, listened to music, painted some watercolors and wrote poetry. I began work on an art quilt that had absolutely nothing to do with my Toriana series. I read books, I took long walks, and I keep myself open, waiting for the inspiration for my story to find me.

One night I was searching for a gift for a quilter friend on Etsy.com, which is one of my favorite sources of creative supplies, and a random search popped up this wonderful piece of art created by Sparrow Salvage, a mixed-media artist in Australia:



I can't tell you why this image sparked my story idea, only that it was right there. I took one look and I had it all. Everything. The longer I looked at the image, the more story details played out in my imagination. I could clearly see the characters, the setting, how the events in the story unfold, and even the way it ended. By the time I purchased the art (which was absolutely imperative; I had to own it) I knew the whole story, start to finish -- and I couldn't wait to begin writing it.

If I didn't trust the universe as much as I do, it probably would scare me to think about how slim the odds are that I would have ever seen this image. I wasn't even looking for mixed-media artwork that night I was browsing through Etsy. I can tell you that I have never been more grateful for the amazing power of the internet to provide the chance for an author like me to connect with and be inspired by an artist on the other side of the planet.

In the past I've always been too self-conscious to talk much about the creative side of my writing process, which I'm well aware is often strange, regularly illogical and occasionally bizarre. When you have a passion like mine, things often do get a little weird. Still, weird can be wonderful, as it was when this story found me -- and that's what makes every day I write an adventure.

12 comments:

  1. How awesome!!! Looking forward to seeing more of this world you've created :D

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    1. Oh, you'll be seeing plenty of it here. :) Thanks, Dawn.

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  2. I am amazed and awed by your creative process, its so inspiring. I love that you share with others and inspire them to give it a go. I also love the artwork and can easily see why it struck you between the eyes. "Midnight Marauder" just screams old world, Moriarty type villain to me. And those creepy hands ... Thank you for sharing x

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    1. You and I must be tuned to the same wavelengths, Fran -- it immediately invoked the feel of a Victorian mystery for me, too. The artist has a wonderful sense of setting a mood with the text, too -- it gives that wonderful aura of menace to an otherwise ordinary image.

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  3. I love that this one visual piece gave you everything you needed. It's always such a wonder how the universe provides, isn't it?

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    1. The provision was amazing, Terlee, but I'm really in awe of the timing. I was an inch away from becoming a bit desperate when I saw the artwork and everything fell into place. Felt a wee bit eerie, to be honest. :)

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  4. I can see why this piece caught your eye. I can't wait for the first book.

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  5. I love it when you talk about your creative process, regardless of how bizarre you think it is. It gives me hope when I see something on TV or the internet or a research book that suddenly runs through my mind like a movie, the story is so clear, that I'm not nuts :) So these glimpses are wonderful.

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    1. I think the reason I've always hesitated to discuss my process is because while it feels 100% natural to me I know it can sound very eccentric, especially to people who feel creativity should be regimented by a lot of rules. I mostly encountered that kind of mindset among the writer organizations (they never met a story element they couldn't workshop to death) but on the Internet there always seems to be someone ready to throttle you for not following the herd, too.

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  6. Oh my gosh! I feel so honored here, it's so wonderful that I could inspire someone on such a level. When I made the collage I was guided by a sense of surety that I don't usually feel- often I have to work on something for hours to get it right (like all creatives, we are so hard on ourselves!) But the moment those two scraps came together I knew it was right, something in me said 'that's what someone is looking for'. :) Thank you so much for sharing your story- just think, your work is out there inspiring someone else in a similar fashion. Fire catches.

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    1. The artist herself! I'm so delighted you stopped by, Sparrow. As you can see from the other comments I'm not your only admirer. :) I've regularly relied on other artists to inspire me; even when our passions are completely different I still feel as if we're all part of one huge creative family. Your art was one of the most direct, immediate influences on me as a writer that I've ever encountered, so thank you from my heart.

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