But in truth – well, it’s complicated. At least it has been for me. I have all sorts of ideas swimming in my head. I have weekly story epiphanies. I know you do too. Ideas everywhere.
Inspiration may be everywhere, but how do I know which of the hundreds of bright sparks in my head will turn out to be the long burning kind – a star, rather than a super nova.
There are lots of stories out there. Good ones. But not every story is ‘novel worthy’ – meaning simply because I can take an idea, stretch it across a plot, populate it with characters, and give it a title doesn’t mean it’s truly able to sustain a novel length treatment.
As I said, I’ve learned this the hard way. Hundreds of thousands of words written that will never see the light of day. Stories I thought were terrific, but, when I stretched them over the length of a novel turned threadbare. The wonderful ideas I had spun turned out to be more theme than story, more back story than novel, and I ended up with the kiss of death: Thin narrative. A rice paper novel.
Do I regret writing all those words that will never be read? I’m philosophical about them. Those long mistakes have helped me understand myself and my process better. They have been lessons for me. Still, it’s a path I don’t care to walk again.
Over time I’ve come to understand what needs to happen to those ideas I have so that I know which one is worth writing – which idea is novel worthy. I must become The Captivated Idiot. It goes like this:
The idea – comes out of nowhere. Often when I am in conversation with someone – this happens often, creative conversations blossom the imagination. And I’m captured by the notion of ‘what if’. The “hey wait a second” moment when everything slows down and I stare the idea in the eye, ask, “Who are you?” And wait for an answer. Does it talk back? Do other ideas bunch at its back?
The deepening – I’m staring at the idea. It’s staring back at me. Not the plot, but themes – moral arguments about living well (this is my understanding of theme). I poke at the idea and find it has substance. Now I’m getting excited. I start listing questions, not the who what when where questions of story and plot. Rather, questions like, what’s behind this? What hidden thing might be controlling the actions of others.
The waiting – I’ve learned over time that the next thing I must do is also the hardest thing for me. After I’ve spent time with an idea, made notes, gotten very excited, maybe even researched a few points, I have to walk away. I have to leave the idea alone and let it sit in a dark corner. I have to wait. Only time will tell me if my idea will burn steady like the sun, or if it will implode on itself like a supernova into a black hole. There is no substitute for this step.
The return – After some time has gone by (I know, you want to ask, how much time? The answer is I don’t know. Sometimes it is weeks. There are ideas I have on hold that I have had in mind for more than a year. All I can tell you is when the time is right, you’ll know. You simply know.) But after that right amount of time has gone by, I return to my idea. I read through my notes, I get my head thinking about the themes again. And then the acid test – after the waiting, does this story idea turn me into The Captivated Idiot?
The Captivated Idiot – This is a story that grabs hold of me and won’t let me go. I find myself ruminating about the story the way I daydreamed about boys when I was fourteen, on a nearly unconscious level. I can’t NOT think about this story. I can’t help but plot the novel. The characters show up on their own, shake my hand and take a seat. I’m utterly captivated. There’s no getting away.
But captivation must partner with the second component to be considered novel worthy. Which life question is this story focused on, and do I think I know the answers to this life question? If the answer is yes, then I pass on the story. For me, I need to write stories that explore questions I don’t have the answers to. My approach to fiction is that my story is part of an ongoing discussion about what it means to be human, and therefore I must come to that discussion in all transparency.
I must come to the story as the idiot, not the expert. I write novels about the very things I don’t understand. The things that scare me. At the moment, I’m writing a novel with the theme of community formation. I’m writing it because I am at a place in my life where I admit I don’t have a clue how to begin to build a community. That there is much about love and loneliness for me to explore. I’m not writing A Girl Named Fish because I think I have answers. I’m writing it because the story has turned me into The Captivated Idiot. I can’t NOT write this story, and I have so many questions about the theme in this book that I’m convinced other people have questions about it too. That other people struggle to reach out, wonder if they should, fear they cannot.
What do you think? Do you want to become a captivated idiot? Do you explore your questions in your writing? What is that like for you? We’d love to hear all about it.