Reason #3 : “My mind’s a blank.”
“You can’t wait for inspiration.
You have to go after it with a club.”
— Jack London
Perhaps the most common question writers get asked is, “Where do you get your ideas from?” The answer’s simple: we invoke the Idea Pixie, say the words, “A new plot, please,” accompany the request with a secret incantation, and abracadabra, a new plot appears, neat, complete and ready to go.
Actually, it’s not like that at all.
There’s no such thing as the Idea Pixie.
She’s really a fairy …
No writer I know (or have read about) has ever said their plots come to them perfectly formed, complete with characters, locations, a whodunnit and an ending – happy or sad. It doesn’t work that way, and I’m delighted it doesn’t because half the fun of writing is exploring and discovering what you’re writing about. When characters come alive in your mind and hit you with a memory or an experience that’s shaped them, or when they don’t do what you were expecting and head off in another direction entirely, that’s the wow of writing. It can be disconcerting, but it’s also tremendous fun. And just think, if the characters come alive so vividly in your mind – and you’re the writer – how do you think your readers are going to feel about them?
Plotters vs pantsers
It’s often said that writers come in two forms, plotters or pantsers. They either sit down beforehand and work out every detail of the story, planning it out like an army march then heading out and never deviating from the pre-planned route, or they sit at a blank screen and simply write whatever comes into their heads – in essence, writing by the seat of their pants.
In truth, most of us are a mix of the two. I’ve written several novels with no more preparation than the thought, “Tomorrow, I’m going to start a new novel”, but there often comes a point where I need to scribble down some ideas, thoughts for future expansion or development. I rarely use all of them, but the writing itself generates ideas. (Read the last part of that last sentence again. If there’s any real secret to this game, it’s the bit I put in italics.)
Ian Rankin apparently sits at his keyboard, says, “I wonder what Inspector Rebus is up to today?” and starts writing. But he’s a tremendously experienced author with more than forty novels under his belt. Lee Child too begins without any prior planning and writes only one draft, but if you read Andy Martin’s book about the writing of Make Me, (Martin sat behind Child and watched him work), you’ll see a constant backward and forward process of revisions, tweaks and changes. (Right near the end, Child even changes the name of one of the book’s main characters.) It takes him around six months to write a new Jack Reacher, starting, by habit, on 1 September and finishing in March, but what seems clear is that at least part of the rest of his time is spent filtering through possible ideas in a near-subconscious process.
A practical example
What do I mean by the writing itself generates ideas? Let me take you through an idea I had over lunch one day, and how it became a series of five novels.
I was microwaving a snack and thinking about how the book I was revising still wasn’t working, despite many rewrites. “I need a break,” I decided. “Something light-hearted, fun and exciting.” Distracted, I punched in one too many zeros on the microwave’s timer, not realising I’d done so till my snack was happily revolving. Rather than reset it, I just waited it out and hit the door release after two minutes. I didn’t time it exactly, the microwave’s clock showed 17:56, and a thought occurred to me: wouldn’t it be neat if I could save up that extra time? Imagine, having lunch with a friend. You’re deep in an amazing conversation, then she glances at her watch and says, “Oh no, I’ve got to get back to work.” “Hold on,” you tell her, “I have an extra 17 minutes and 56 seconds here …”
Silly idea, right? But kind of fun.
I started to think more about it. We don’t have this technology (yet), but aliens might. How would they use it? How would human beings get involved?
That afternoon I started writing, tentatively at first, the story of a boy who does exactly what I’d done at lunchtime. Tim Townsend mistypes the time into an old microwave and ruins the after-school snack his aunt left out for him and his sister, Coral. He stabs at the door release, unleashing a cloud of smoke and leaving time on the microwave’s clock. As he coughs and waves it aside, he spots a couple of mice on a high shelf in the kitchen studying the reading on what looks like a tiny calculator. They look up, high-five each other, then do a little victory dance, like they’ve just found exactly what they were looking for. “What the heck …?” Tim thinks.
And so it began. Just that snippet threw up more questions and a lot more ideas. Who are Tim and Coral and what are they doing at their aunt and uncle’s remote farm? Who are the mice? (Aliens, obviously, taking mouse forms, but why?) And what’s with that old microwave? At one point the mice need to communicate with Tim, and do so, but how could they? Mice, even super-intelligent ones, can’t form words, and this ain’t Disney …
The more I wrote and worked out solutions, the more ideas and questions popped into my mind. I started a parallel document – part synopsis, part idea dump, part aide mémoire. (”Remember to explain why X did Y.”). Characters popped up too. They’d throw up obstacles and I’d have to find a way for my heroes to get around them. It was tremendous fun. Even partway through the book I knew I’d have no room to fit it all in so I started thinking about a sequel. (The first book in that series is called Too Many Zeros and was originally published by Penguin.)
When I was done, one of my early readers – who loved it from start to finish – said, “How on earth did you think of all that?” The truth is, I didn’t. Not all at once. But one idea led to another. It’s an evolutionary process, not a single moment of inspiration.
“I don’t make plots in advance. I … try to throw people into a messy life and see how they’ll sort it out while I’m writing. So the whole adventure is one I share with the reader.”
— John le Carré
The seven basic plots
There are supposed to be just seven basic plots, at least according to Christopher Booker, who reckons he studied the subject for 34 years. He detailed them all in his 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, but here they are in brief.
Overcoming the Monster: The lead character learns of a threat or a great evil and sets out to destroy it. Example: The War of the Worlds, by H G Wells.
Rags to Riches: The poor, downtrodden lead character battles adversity and ridicule, finally overcoming it all, finding success, wealth and the perfect mate. Eg: Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë.
The Quest: The lead character, often accompanied by companions, desperately needs to get somewhere or acquire a particular object. Difficulties and dangers ensue. Example: The Lord of the Rings, by J R R Tolkien.
Voyage and Return: The lead character goes to a strange place, overcomes whatever’s thrown at them and returns, richer for the experience. Example: Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll.
Comedy: A poorly chosen category title, this doesn’t just refer to humour, more a certain lightness of tone and a happy ending. The key theme is triumph over adversity. Most romances, therefore, fall into this category. Example: Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding.
Tragedy: The lead character has a flaw, a weakness, or makes a terrible mistake that ultimately leads to their downfall, and possibly those around them. Example: Macbeth, by William Shakespeare.
Rebirth: During the course of the story, something happens to the lead character, forcing them to change their ways and become a better person. Example: A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.
The reason I mention them is that they’re often quoted in writing classes and how-to books, but personally I don’t find the breakdown helpful. The categories are interesting at an analytical level, and it’s fun to work out where a favourite book or film fits in the list, but from a writing perspective they’re useless. I may be wrong, but I really don’t think Charlotte Brontë took up her pen one day saying, “I think I’ll try a Rags to Riches story.” Nor did Charles Dickens go, “Hmm, perhaps a Rebirth tale this time …” So where did they start?
“However many characters may appear in a story, its real concern is with just one:
its hero or heroine. It is he with whose fate we identify …”
That was Booker, and that pretty much nails it – at least from a writer’s perspective.
Even if Brontë and Dickens did start out as coldly and deliberately as I’ve suggested, Jane Eyre and A Christmas Carol are way more than simple plot lines. They’re about characters, real people, “with whose fate we identify”.
Characters and situations
There’s an old saying that “character is action”, and it’s true to a degree, but there’s a little more to it than just character, which is why I’ve headed this section characters and situations.
Ebenezer Scrooge is a mean old man who hates Christmas, but his situation is one in which he can do real harm (or good). Harry Potter is a boy wizard, but his situation is that he’s a rather exceptional one. It’s the combination of these elements – and many others – that make them engaging stories.
Most people’s favourite subject is themselves. Their second favourite subject is other people. They love watching them, talking about them, and reading about them and the situations in which they find themselves. Whether it’s “[FAMOUS ACTOR’S] TUG-OF-LOVE BABY” or Jane Eyre’s loveless childhood, a character and their situation is immediately interesting.
Typical advice to beginner writers is to (1) decide on a plot and (2) add characters, as if it’s some sort of recipe. Many even advise using cookbook-type character sheets. I have one in front of me. Take a look:
Name: Character Type: Connection to Lead: Story Goal: Gender: Age: Appearance: - Height: - Body Type: - Hair Colour: - Eye Colour: Mannerisms: Distinctive Speech Patterns: Personality: Background: Personal Life: Private Life: Work Life: Strengths: Weaknesses
In reality, I don’t know of anyone who works like that – except for the people giving writing advice – but if this sort of breakdown helps get your creative juices flowing, embrace it. There are no right ways and wrong ways in this. Use whatever works for you. And by the same token, discard whatever doesn’t. Don’t force yourself into a straitjacket methodology because someone tells you, “This is the way it’s done.” There are no “correct” ways of writing a book, just what works for you.
Weaving a story
To my mind, there are two ways of working. There’s what I call the “editor-writer” – the analytical me that keeps an eye on spelling and punctuation, logical flow, character consistency, plot points and all the mechanical aspects of the plot – and the “instinctive-writer” – the creative me who loses himself in the story. The eternal battle is to shove that first guy aside and let the second guy have a turn at the keyboard because that’s where the magic really starts.
There’s an old expression that talks of weaving a story. It’s a delightful metaphor because that’s exactly what it’s like; taking a thread of character, a thread of plot, a thread of situation, a thread of action and working them into a tapestry. The danger of breakdowns like Booker’s seven plots or character sheets like the one above is that they lead neophyte writers into thinking that’s the way the pros work, when it’s actually the opposite. It’s not a mechanical process, it’s a more holistic one.
Easy for me to say, right? But how do you actually go about it? Simple. By asking the age-old questions: who, what, when, where, why and how.
Remember the idea that triggered Too Many Zeros: storing time so you could use it later? It was just that, a silly idea, until I started asking questions. Who would do such a thing? Why? Where is this taking place? Who finds out? Why do they need help? What happens next? Many answers triggered more questions that led me deeper and deeper into the story.
Award-winning English novelist John Fowles lived in Lyme Regis, a town on the Dorset coast famed for fossils and a harbour wall known as The Cobb. In a half-dreaming state one morning, Fowles had a vision of a woman standing on that sea wall during a violent storm. Her back was to him, but her clothes appeared to be Victorian. Who was she? he wondered. What was she doing there?
That vision and those questions provided the seed for his novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman, (and the Academy Award-winning film that was based on it). Just that glimpse. And those questions. The story, and the meta-story within it, emerged as he wrote it.
Which brings me back to where I began this chapter. You don’t need One Big Idea before you can start writing a book. You just need to start. And ask questions. The plot and the characters will begin to emerge of their own accord, guided, now and then, by your own judgement and experience. Sometimes this happens quickly, sometimes it takes a while, but the only way to make it happen is to keep working away at it.
KEY POINTS FROM THIS CHAPTER
♦ Are you a plotter or a pantser? Try mixing both!
♦ It’s reckoned there are really only seven basic plots.
♦ What makes each story unique are the characters, how they interact, and situations in which they find themselves.
♦ Some writers use character checklists to get their ideas flowing. Have you tried them?
♦ The act of writing actually generates ideas. So just start writing!
 Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me, by Andy Martin, available here.
 You’ll find Too Many Zeros here.
 The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, by Christopher Booker, available here.
 You’ll find a description of this process in Notes on an Unfinished Novel by John Fowles, found in The Novel Today, edited by Malcolm Bradbury, available here.