Monday, August 15, 2011


I was presenting a poetry program last month and the seminar’s organizer asked me to read a list she provided of ways to more effectively promote conversation about poems.

So I read the list. And could go along with all the suggestions. But right in the middle of the list was, “Think about the poet’s big idea: why he or she might have written this poem.” And that’s where I disagreed.

I’ve written and published a good number of poems. But never once did I start out with a “big idea” to write a poem. I never sat down and said, “Today I’ll write about world peace.” Or true love. Or justice. Or any other big idea.

Instead, it was a very little thing that always got me started writing a poem. It may have been an arresting visual image. Or a phrase that got itself twisted into my hair and I couldn’t get it out. Or a word percolating up through my consciousness: a delicious, wonderful word.

Actually, the best image to describe how that happens to me – and I shared this with the teachers, who looked at me out of the sides of their eyes and nodded slowly – is to compare the process to looking at a stream. The stream is like my awareness of my surroundings. It flows around obstacles like rocks, with some considerable amount of spuming and spattering. Once in a while something large and floating bobs down and past me.

But – then—

Something small in the stream snags onto the bank, right in front of me. I look at it and it becomes the only thing in the world. It won’t let go, as if it has barbs, and those barbs reach up the bank and attach themselves to me and –even more wondrous – it begins to accumulate other things. Soon it has dammed the entire stream and even if everything starts piling up behind it, it won’t let go of me until I pull it and all its tendrils up and look at it.

And write it down.

Now, I realize that this is a blog about writing novels, but I wonder: Do you start a novel with a “big idea”? Or with something that snags on to you and won’t let go?


Wendy Paine Miller said...

Snags and won't let go. My novels often start with small things, a FB comment, a notice in the doctor's office.

It's when these ideas sprout...that's one of my favorite parts about being a writer.

~ Wendy

Footprints From the Bible by Cynthia Davis said...

I can so relate to your stream image and having some thought snag my attention until I have to write about it. Rarely do I have a set idea in mind when I start writing. Even when I do think I know where a work is 'supposed' to go-the characters take over and my idea is out the window.

Anonymous said...

Do I start with a big idea--yes AND no. And actually, obsessing about the big idea is one of the reasons it takes me so doggone long to produce any results in fiction.

There are two things in life that seem to occupy most of my time in terms of examining faith--why does God take so long to respond to my desperate pleas and, in a related vein, why does God orchestrate things the way He does, such that often times, it is years if not never, before we understand why He does what He does and the mystery of how He brings people into our lives and the ripple effect they have on one another (you can see why I'm a mess--too much wondering. LOL!).

So these tend to be recurring themes. Since I write mostly historical, my ideas often come from research. I'll read this little tidbit or that and something jumps out at me. But the reason it jumps out at me is because in my mind, I'm wondering what stories I can use to explore the questions that plague me.

BK Jackson

Lori Benton said...

Definitely the little snag that grows into a dam. It might not be until near the end of the first draft that I figure out what's the big idea.

Nicole said...

The snag is usually a character. I see their expressions, hear their words, know their thoughts. Sometimes it's more comfortable to be inside their skin than my own.

This newest attempt did begin with an idea, but it's in a different genre. Now it's moving like my others: the characters propel it.

Anonymous said...

I love snags (except in nylons...those make me furious. But, for that matter, nylons in general get me pretty annoyed).

I have one play published. It was born out of the fascination I found in my husband's uncle (think a real life, angry Yosemite Sam...I'm not kidding).

My novel started gestating during the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in 2000. I was in a workshop and we were to write tag lines. Mine was "My mother always told me I shouldn't eat paint chips". And that was all it took. Now, 11 years later, I'm editing a book "Paint Chips" (which has nothing to do with eating paint chips).

I could go on and on about the snags that pester me until I write about them...such a great post!

Cynthia Ruchti said...

Since I write radio drama, too, I'm wired to get caught up in the "Oh, there's so much more to this" snags--focusing laser attention on the sign's missing letter that changes everything, the "warm" smell of cottonwood, Emma Thompson's sharp intake of breath near the end of "Sense and Sensibility" that poured years of longing into one inhalation, one faded photo...and wait a minute. I think I have a plot!

Bonnie Grove said...

I always begin with theme. Then I poke around in the theme for a plot.

I live in the world of ideas (it's often difficult to get me to focus on concrete things). Theme is my imaginary friend I talk to everyday.

Benjamin T. Collier said...

The very first thing is usually an image, a very strong, solid image that comes out of nowhere, and usually carries a specific emotion or "idea." The story comes from looking at that image trying to imagine what events might have happened to lead to that scene, or what might happen after that scene. That one emotion becomes the core theme through the whole story.

Sometimes I'll have a "big idea" but all it will remain is a big idea with no story, until the characters develop. Without characters to relate to, the big idea usually doesn't hold interest.

Lynn Dean said...

Sometimes when something snags and I pull it out, I find that there was a very big idea lurking unseen just beneath the surface! It's as if God sometimes says, "Look closely..." and then He shows me connections I did not see at first brush.

For example, one of my stories is about a young woman devastated by the Civil War. She heads west to escape her grief and runs headlong into the man who caused it. On the surface, it is a story about forgiveness, but the thing that snagged my mind was the saying, "Wherever you go, there you are." We either solve our issues, or we carry them so that they crop up again in new places. I realized that my heroine was not, on her most basic level, angry with 'Yankees." She was angry with God! She prayed and trusted Him, and He allowed painful things to happen that changed her life forever. I saw that trusting the sovereignty of God is a huge part of learning to forgive what cannot be fixed or forgotten.

So the saying was the small thing that snagged me, but the concept of sovereignty in the midst of heartache was the big idea that surprised me.

Latayne C Scott said...

Wendy, I agree that the snagging-and-then-sprouting makes being a writer the most satisfying thing I can imagine.

Cynthia, you made a good point about how our characters --it seems they ride atop the logjams and won't get off until we acknowledge that they are in charge. Durn.

BK, you made a point that came up in our Sunday evening group Bible study. One of the most troubling things about being a Christian is the issue of unanswered prayer -- long-term unanswered prayer. I am glad you are wrestling with this. Last night as our group was blithely talking about trusting God with undesirable outcomes my dear friend was crying softly next to me as she mourned the loss of her husband. I pray you are able to give my friend and others something to help them.

Latayne C Scott said...

Lori, so you're a snagger too. :) I usually start seeing the big idea after I've begun writing and start describing my project to non-writers.

Nicole, that's interesting. I don't think I've ever begun anything with a character. For me they seem to emerge from other things.

Susie, isn't it funny how what we think is the selling point, emotionally speaking, of a book or concept turns out to be just ancillary? Or not so funny.
Oh, and thank you so much for posting on FB and Twitter about this post-- I appreciate it!

Latayne C Scott said...

Cynthia, don't leave me hanging. Give us an elevator speech about that plot!

Bonnie, your sterling writing shows you know what you're doing. I can't imagine starting with a big idea.

Lynn, I liked that insight about the big idea hiding behind the snag. Cool!

Latayne C Scott said...

Benjamin, what you said in the first paragraph of your comment is closest to describing what I was saying. Whatever snags me, or snags on me, carries a world with it.

sally apokedak said...

I love this picture of the stream. I most often start with a snapshot of a character. Mood and setting are the things I see first. And things start collecting to her, ideas about where she is, why it looks like that, why she's sad or happy or indifferent.

Latayne C Scott said...

Sally, so your character snags things. Interesting! When you say you start with a snapshot, are you talking about a literal snapshot?

Kathleen Popa said...

Good point, Latayne. Dance started with an image of a woman dancing in the desert. Bertie started with a fascination with people who cloister themselves for the love of God. And yes, other stuff accumulated, just as you said.

Bonnie Way aka the Koala Mom said...

Nope, I didn't start any of my novels with a "Big Idea." I start with a character, usually, or a scene that pops into my head and then keeps growing until I see what the story is. The "Big Idea" may come later, once I'm into the story and start to see a theme or general idea to my writing.

Latayne C Scott said...

Katy, did you see an actual woman dancing in the desert? Your verbal description of her is unforgettable!

Koala Bear Writer, we see it alike -- it emerges later. I have never started a book with a character -- but I have with an idea/scene. My book about Priscilla the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews began with the image of a lithopedia.