Monday, November 8, 2010

The Captivated Idiot

It’s the most common question a writer is asked, “Where do you get your story ideas?” If you haven’t thought of a response to this, now is the time tocome up with your sound byte answer.

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.


sally said...

I love that title--A Girl Named Fish.

Latayne C Scott said...

Great post, Bonnie -- stimulating, thoughtful, transparent (or at least translucent) and a little bit of wild-child. That's why we love you.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Absolutely explore the questions as I write. One of my favorite things about writing. And often instead of the questions getting answered, one gives birth to another...then another.

And I end up with dozens of questions branching off of the original.

Fun post.
~ Wendy

Nicole Amsler said...

Even if it doesn't have the substance for a novel, I often find short story fodder within the words. I have written many a practice novel that has resulting in a handful of short stories instead.

On the plus side, honing short stories can only help your novel writing skills. And I am hoping to build an audience with a steady output of stories. Someday (hopefully) they will have liked my style and writings enough to trust me for a whole book.

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

Well, if writing the book that scares you is the definition of being a Captivated Idiot, mine certainly qualifies. Shaking in my boots.


Bonnie Grove said...

Sally: Thanks. I love it too! A cozy title.

Latayne: Thanks so much. Wild-child, huh? Aw, I'm tame as a kitten, really.

Wendy: Yes, that seems to be the case - questions begetting questions. But we can't let that uncertainty effect our writing. I'm fairly certain this fearful sort of writing is why so many writers have huge self-doubt. We're never sure we've ever gotten to the bottom of anything.

Nicole: You bring up an excellent point about short story (which is a HUGE favorite of mine. I devour short story anthologies). They are a singular craft, a form of writing that takes as much complexity as a novel, but does so in a tight package. Many of the skills I employ in novel writing, I've lifted from my study of the short story.

Ariel: It's a difficult thing to face a story that frightens us. And there are so many reasons that may happen. But, as you well know, a mark of a true artist is her capacity to never back down from the impossible. :)

Lynn Dean said...

Not sure that I have to know the answer to write the story, but I have to know that GOD has the answer. Often in that sense I know His answer, and what I'm exploring is how it all works together--how His thoughts, that are higher than my thoughts, can be The Way that turns into a surprise ending--The Way that runs counter to all our human instincts but turns out to be the ONLY way that works.

MandyB said...

I am that capitvated idiot!!! My stories take over and the words channel through me. Once the words are on paper I begin to question, to try & understand what challenge I have been set.
This is a great post we can all relate to in one way or another.
Thanks for sharing.

Lori Benton said...


I love hearing how other authors go about this novel weaving process, and I find a lot in your process to admire, and wish I could incorporate into my own. My process is similar to yours in pacing, and the needful time away to be as sure as I can be that the story is novel-length and sustainable, but the steps in our process are different. I begin with character/s. Then a situation, or an opening conflict. Then I fix the setting and time period. Then a detailed back story starts flooding in, all the important incidents and choices that brought the main cast to this opening situation and why they are in conflict with each other. Then a rough shape of the plot emerges. After the breathing period there will be more plotting. Then I start to write. Theme or life issue questions come later, once I've begun writing. I depend on what the characters bring to the conversation, and don't come at a novel with a question to answer or an issue to explore decided ahead of time. They emerge, if all goes well, organically out of the characters' lives. This is the part I wish I could work out ahead of time. It can get messy, my way, but I've tried it in the plotting stages and my brain balked.

Marian said...

Thanks Bonnie, I was thinking I had to be the expert to write the story. I'd much rather write as the idiot. Now, to be captivated. When I read my synopsis, there is too much ho hum.

Bonnie Grove said...

Lynn: A lovely thought, thanks for sharing that. I agree, God has the answers.

Mandy: Hurray! We shall take a moment and do The Captivated Idiot happy dance together!

Lori: I too love to hear how different authors go about the detailed task of storytelling. And I love how each one has a different approach - and can quilt in ideas from other writers - yet the results can be equally spectacular.
I understand your frustration with trying to come up with theme after you've started writing. I've struggled with this too. I needed to reframe my understanding of theme and it's role in story. I now understand it as one of the cornerstones of novel building.
Hmm.... This could go long. Shoot me an email and lets talk about this. K?

Marian: I love your humor! And your honesty about how you feel when you read your synopsis. I think it's the sign of a true artist when you can look at your work and honestly assess the needed changes. You're an inspiration!

Ellen Staley said...

Such a great post, Bonnie. Think I'm stuck in the midst of 'captivated idiot' right now, in that I'm not sure which word is more my mental state, (both are such excellent descriptors), and waiting for thoughts to solidify so I can move on with the story.

Bonnie Grove said...

Ellen: I hear you! I'm more and more convinced that part of the job description of a novelist is to wait. To hold off running too far afield with an idea too soon. Or, at least to be able to cheerfully backtrack a long way in order to come at an idea from the proper perspective.

Time is a great creator.

Nikole Hahn said...

The title makes me want to read it. I want to know why her name is Fish.

I have a story that is aging. I wrote it but got stuck on Chapter 3. It's a good idea with lots of potential, but I find you are correct when you say to let sit for a while.

The novel I am working on I can't NOT think about. I'm always thinking about my main character, the villain, etc. They distract me on the drive home. They say texting is dangerous. A writer writing in her head is dangerous on the road. My husband said, "Did you see that Elk on the way home?"

I look blankly at him and he rolls his eyes.

Bonnie Grove said...

Nikole: Great that the title grabs your interest. It's the neatest reason, too! heh heh.
I'll brag a wee bit here and say that this book is the first time I've written something and thought, Hurry up, I can't wait to read this!" A nice feeling that encourages me.

Uh, but really, Nikole, eyes on the road! Scary! (and I relate!)

Steve G said...

I think it is great when Bonnie can get people to raise their hands voluntarily and say, "I'm an idiot" with much exuberance. Wait, I don't think that came out quite right...

I have been thinking about some of the differences between literary fiction and commercial fiction. Some people are in it for the money, just a job, like any other job. And that is not a bad thing. I get it, though, when people are grabbed by stuff, and it won't let them go. I may not quite be there in terms of writing, but there are some things about the Church and Discipleship that I gotta pursue because they won't leave me alone.

I like what you said about "rice paper novels". There is something to be said about recognizing those things that fall short. I think that is a stage of the journey to becoming a Master in the craft of writing novels. it is not just about learning who you are and how you work, but being able to recognize the defects - like an architectural engineer who can spot the weakness of blueprints before you even build, ensuring the bridge won't come down in a big blow. He has learned where and what some of the weak points are. Great post!