Recently, a dragon of my acquaintance was ruminating on fanfic and said something that really hit home with me:
I’ve got characters by the score. A lot of you know a few of them: I’ve roleplayed them, online and on the tabletop. Some of you have heard me kick around ideas and concepts for others. There’s a passel of them that even I’ve forgotten about, or recycled into other characters.
What I don’t have is stories, and that, arguably, is a lot more important if you actually want to write.
The reason that particular bit shot out of the monitor and pinned me to my chair like a javelin through the gut is because it echoes so precisely my own hardest struggle as a writer. At the risk of tooting my own horn, I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on crafting prose, and I’ve been told I have a knack with making interesting characters. But my problem is always, “Okay, I’ve got these characters, but what do they do? Or alternatively, what does the universe do to them?”
Whenever I have a neat idea for my writing, I write it down in a file so I don’t lose it. Unfortunately, most of these ideas are just fragments. For instance, one that somebody recently beat me to the punch with was the phrase, “Cowboys and Aliens.” Obviously, this was a viable concept, as somebody made a graphic novel out of it, and said graphic novel is being made into a movie with Harrison-friggin’-Ford. But I didn’t have a story to go with the phrase, all I had was the phrase.
Here’s another one (and if you see this idea later, you’ll know it was here first!):
“Glass Island” – Island made of glass out at sea – super-slick and almost impossible to see unless you’re right on top of it. Pirates or some such have their loot down in caves. Torchlight flickering in the caves makes weird kaleidoscope lights.
Pretty neat image, I thought, worthy of a tale starring Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Only problem? No plot. Pirate loot in the caves suggests possibilities, but it would take some pretty serious developing to come up with more than just a rehash of Treasure Island. If and when I ever use this image, it’s entirely possible that it won’t involve pirates at all.
With years of practice, I have become more adept at actually forcing myself to come up with a plot instead of just writing until I run out of steam — the story I’ve been working on for the past month was built up from nothing but the phrase “Blackbird singing in the dead of night.” So I can do it, but it’s always the hardest part. Writing in synopsis form helps sometimes: the entire last year of The Suburban Jungle was written out in a page-and-a-half summary before I started writing any actual scripts. But the danger I always run there is that once I’ve come up with the story from start to finish, my brain will flagged it as ‘done’ and I’ll lose interest.
Of course, one of the things that makes a pro writer is that he keeps on writing anyway, and that’s the other skill I’ve been teaching myself over the past few years. There were times when I wanted to drop SJ right where it was and say “To heck with it!” But I didn’t let myself, and I’m glad I didn’t, because that’s helped give me the discipline I’ll need to carry forward.