by Phil Geusz
©2004 Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved
The other day I was sitting in a conference room at Anthrocon, waiting for the start of a panel on critiquing stories -- a panel I was scheduled to host. Since I often do this at cons, and since I'd also spoken on critiquing enough times that the subject matter was growing boring to me, it was perhaps natural that my mind should wander onto the subject of what other sorts of writing panels I might host. "Let's see," I mumbled to myself, scrawling down sloppy notes on a tiny scrap of paper, as is my habit. "How do I go about writing anyway? What are the steps involved? There's the conception process; hardly anyone ever talks about that. Then there's the act of actual composition, followed by critiquing, then completion and commercialization..." Because I habitually use such tiny pieces of paper, it was hard not to notice that every single step began with the letter 'C'. How convenient!
And so there you have them. Ta-da! Phil's five 'C's, the five steps from story idea to story publication. Each one, in and of itself, is worthy of an entire article here -- or for that matter, an entire convention panel! And so shall each one have, beginning at... the beginning.
Where do ideas come from, anyway?
Frankly, human creativity has fascinated me all of my life. In one of my novels, I said that "if there is evidence of the existence of god, it is to found in the fact of human creativity". Of all of life's myriad forms, all its shapes and sizes and species, only humans are to any marked degree able to bring something truly new out of the chaos. Therefore, it has always been one of my prime assertions that when we engage in acts of creation, we are at our most human and, quite possibly, fulfilling our highest destinies.
That having been said, creating something truly new and original is also one hell of a lot of fun. Which is certainly excuse enough, in my book.
Ideas for stories come in as many shapes and sizes and flavors as there are stories themselves. It is my sincere belief that the ability to have and share new ideas is one of our most basic birthrights, and that anyone can do it if they put their mind to it. I tend to picture myself as having a sort of hyper-dimensional hole in my head where new ideas form out of nothing from time to time. Sometimes these ideas are suggested from life experiences; in Tinsel I describe a woman very much like a real-life aunt of mine who spent her last years needlessly decaying in mind and body, rarely moving from one specific chair. In Death Is Real, I built the entire story out of two incidents, one of them a murder scene that a bounty-hunter friend of mine stumbled once while doing his job, and the other having once watched an ex-cop slowly descend into insanity week by week after simply having been exposed to more ugliness than he could handle. Midnight, With Stars was based on an old New Year's ritual that I actually used to follow, though I don't do so any longer (the TSA's New Year Bashes have seen to that.) In point of fact, people who know me well have observed that a huge portion of my work is autobiographical to a stunningly large degree, and they are absolutely correct.
You can't just simply write about yourself and what's happened to you, however. You have to sort of run your experiences through a blender, puree them thoroughly, season to taste, and then serve the result over crushed ice with a twist of lime. When I am seeking out new ideas, I try to sit down and think back over my life, dwelling on those events that once roused strong emotions in me. If I can't come up with something that way, then I try to imagine circumstances that would have roused strong emotions if they had actually happened, and try to pretend that they are real. Once the feelings are flowing freely, then I look at the actual or pretended circumstances that brought about my emotions. If I can, I then tweak these circumstances a little, and then begin wondering what might have happened before or after the emotional scene.
Keep that up, and before you know it you have yourself a story.
It's not as easy as it sounds, mind you, especially as the years go by and you've gone back to your emotional well time and again. To be frank, my ideas are not always either all that powerful or all that original; I like to keep writing as much of the time as possible, and if I don't have a really great idea at hand then I'm perfectly prepared to make do with a second-rate one. After all, a second-rate story is better than no story at all, or so I've always thought. Besides, sometimes the seemingly weak ideas develop into fairly powerful stories after all. You just never know.
Once I've found an adequately emotion-laden core idea or core image for a tale, I try to think about it as often as I can for days, weeks, months, or even (in the case of Resisting Arrest) years before I begin typing. While sometimes a writer is lucky enough to have a whole story appear in his head at once in a flash -- I've experienced this, and there's no better feeling in the world -- it's far more common that long hours of reflection are called for. One of my favorite things to sit and think about is the root theme of a work; once I've defined it, this theme what gives all else structure. Indeed, one of my favorite ways to craft a story is to come up with one major and perhaps four minor subplots, all sharing the same theme, the same emotions, and to a degree the same plotline. Drama Class was written in exactly this manner, after Fish (an online friend of long-standing) expressed interest in writing a story about a troupe producing a Shakespeare play. A little light went off in my head, and I asked him if he minded if I took the idea, tweaked it a little, and ran with it. He said okay, and the rest is history.
Drama Class ended up as a story about a high-school play, rather than a professional production as Fish had originally conceived. I did this quite deliberately because of the fact that high school is such a pivotal and emotional time in our lives; just look at how many movies are set there. Since the story was to be about a play, I decided, it had to be about acting as well. So, I made the protagonist a young actor, who (as we all do) faced a number of confusing and deeply troubling problems as he grew up. Because he was an actor, I surrounded him with other actors, though none of them were performing in plays. Each and every minor character in Drama Class, with one solitary exception, was trying to act their way through life rather than being who they really were -- and thereby each became a subplot which independently supported the main theme, hopefully creating a sense of purpose and harmony in the work. One boy was joining the Marines to make his absentee (and uncaring) father proud, though his heart was clearly not in it. Another had become a juvenile delinquent rather than face up to a proud family heritage. A third was having difficulties sexually. All were acting, in one way or another, when true happiness could only be found in being themselves. The one sole exception, the only non-actor, was the protagonist's father, who serves as a role model and source of support through the hard times. In the end, the lessons about acting are learned all around, the play is a major success, and the protagonist takes a step towards manhood.
All of this was possible only because I sat and thought things through before writing, instead of just sitting down and settling for a much simpler (and less satisfying) story. It's the pondering that fills a tale with life, in my experience. Deep contemplation makes the difference between a so-so story and something the author will treasure for the rest of his days. It doesn't matter how or when you do your thinking; some, for example, work out detailed outlines on paper. Me, I walk around an auto plant muttering bits of prospective dialogue to myself, while my coworkers edge nervously away. It just doesn't matter, so long as you think.
I'll also note here in passing my favorite Stephen King quote: "Plot is for amateurs." I agree, frankly. The key is emotion, emotion, emotion. Create a whole that is emotionally both appealing and seamless, and the specifics of what happens to who will be of secondary importance at best. The 'creation' phase of writing should be all about emotional flow, with only the vaguest of plots to serve as a guidepost. Concentrate on emotional consistency and emotive strength, and the rest will take care of itself when the time is right.
I take pleasure in almost every stage of the writing process, but 'Creation' is my favorite 'C' of all. Take a little emotion, add in a dash of the mystic, then stir in a little commonsense knowledge of how the nuts and bolts of a story actually work.
And, if you are lucky, you just might experience a tiny little taste of godhood.