Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Sparks and Sticks and Who the Heck Knows Where Ideas Come From or How to Write a Book Anyway

A teacher friend asked me to speak to her creative writing class on how to begin a story.

Which got me thinking about how, exactly, I begin a story.

I can talk about craft, the writer's "toolbox" as Stephen King calls it. Throw out words like Hook and Inciting Incident. Stress the importance of the opening paragraphs, the creation of characters and conflict and setting. Dialogue and sensory details. Oh, I guess we should talk about Theme. Bluh.

But I suspect the students in the creative writing class have heard all of that before. They've read stories and deconstructed stories. Written book reports and analyzed symbols. Taken tests on What's the Main Idea? and List the supporting details.

All of this stuff is helpful to know -- when it comes to understanding how a story works (or doesn't), but I'm not sure how helpful it is for the writer facing a blank computer screen or gripping a pen against a notebook page.

How do you begin a story?

Where does an idea for a story come from? And once you have that idea, how do you go about developing it?

The answer, I am reluctant to admit to the creative writing students, is: I don't know.

The author Sid Fleischman has what he calls the Two Sticks Theory. Just as it takes two sticks to make a fire, it takes two ideas to spark a story.

The theory rings true to me. I can go back through stories and books I've written and trace the genesis of them back to two ideas-- or more. But that's clearer when I've already written in the story.

Before I begin, I just have vague strands and snippets floating around in my head. A barefoot boy. A Celtic belief in thin places. A girl moving to a new town. A ghost hovering over a bed. The crappy gray weather that is November in Columbus Ohio.

How do those strands and snippets wind themselves into a coherent story?

I'm back to I don't know.

There's the BIC philosophy of writing a book...

Where you, um, put your Butt In the Chair and write the book. For more info on how to manage this feat, check out the reams of manuals written on discipline and motivation, how to break through writer's block, how to beat back resistance and bang out your novel.

If those books sound too militant and hard core to you, check out the woo-woo-y books on inspiring your inner artist and nurturing your creative self and finding joy in your process and meditating (or walking or showering) your way through plot holes.

Ask any writer for a word of advice and you'll hear stuff like:

Write every day
Don't write every day
Write a shitty first draft and worry about revision later
What? Are you nuts? Outline that sucker first and then write!
Wake up early
Stay up late
Hand write

And I am back to I Don't Know.

Maybe in the end it comes down to finding the thing that works for you and doing it until it doesn't work anymore and then trying something else. You write because you have a story to tell and it gets rejected and you quit

or you keep writing and you get better. Your stories are published and they do well or they sink like stones and disappear, but you keep writing because what else are you going to do

and in a few weeks you'll start a new story and you have your vague strands and snippets bobbing around in your head and you're not sure what to do with them yet, but whatever, you'll figure it out.

First, though, you've got to change out of your pajamas! You're visiting a creative writing classroom in like, an hour, and you need to plan what you are going to say.


  1. Really true - we do't know where these ideas come from. I like the Big magic theory that they've been out there and are floating waiting for the writer, but like the chocolate pudding in my fridge, grab it fast, before it disappears. Student sneed to hear the truth from writers, bravo, Jody.

  2. Yes. Yes. and Yes! Not only do I not know where they come from, I can't force them. Ideas come and go. Luckily, if I'm paying attention, more come than don't.

    1. It's such a strange process--every step of the way!