Sunday, November 05, 2006

Before You Jump

Where do you find ideas for your stories?

Do you just jump into the water and swim off in search of an idea?

Or do you wait patiently for an idea to surface, much like a fisherman trolling the water and waiting for a fish to appear, suddenly, out of nowhere?

In Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life, Terry Brooks suggests that where we get our ideas is “at the heart of how we work and what we do.”

How does Brooks, the former lawyer turned best-selling fantasy and science fiction writer, find ideas for the many novels that have earned him praise and so many awards over the years?

“I start asking questions,” writes Brooks. “What if this? What if that? I ask these questions until I come to the central question of the whole exercise, and then either I find my story or I abandon the effort and start all over again. Sooner or later I find a set of questions that suggest a real story, and I am ready to put together a new book.”

For Brooks, the questions are like discovering a string of pearls, each question pointing the way to another question, which in turn leads him to a new idea, an unexpected way of viewing a potential character or situation.

“It works like that,” Brooks advises. “In your thinking, you build your story one brick at a time until you have a recognizable house in which to move about.”

It's this process of asking questions and thinking about the answers that gives Brooks his ideas.

He writes that he likes to consider possibilities and where those possibilities might lead him. Mostly, he lets his mind “run free and then takes a close look at whatever it happens to stumble across.”

“It isn’t thinking so much as it is dreaming,” Brooks explains. "All things begin with dreaming."

It was his long-time editor and friend, Lester del Rey, who told Brooks that the most important part of writing fiction is thinking about the story before committing words to paper.

“Don’t write anything down. Don’t try to pull anything together right away. Just dream for a while and see what happens” Brooks notes.

“There isn’t any timetable involved, no measuring stick for how long it ought to take. For each book, it is different. But that period of thinking, of reflection, is crucial to how successful your story will turn out to be.”

This pre-writing stage, suggests Brooks, can be the most pleasant part of a long and arduous process. “What’s hard, really hard," writes Brooks, "is making those ideas come together in a well-conceived, compelling story.”

But at least you’ll have found a place to start... and then you can begin building the solid frame for your story which will help you reach deeper water.

For more information about Terry Brooks and his work, check out his website:

For more thoughts on pre-writing, check out these resources:

Jenny Cruise on using collage to bring your stories into focus:

David Michael Wharton on how much you need to know before writing:

Meg Cabot on why she prefers not to use outlines:

1 comment:

jo'r said...

In musing about this topic I think most of my ideas for writing come out of my experiences, those people or events that made the deepest impressions on me in the past. Sometimes I wasn't even one of the main characters or players in the recalled scene but something about it will have touched on some strong issues for me. It takes a lot of energy to write a novel, even a short story, so it helps to start out with a few inches of fuel--prior thought about the significance and possibilities growing out of a recollection.

I've noticed when glossing over suggested writing exercises at the ends of writing craft book chapters--John Dufresne's "The Lie That Tells a Truth" has lots of great ones--the topics that jump out the most for consideration are usually triggered by recalled scenes from experience. I haven't had to resort to an exercise to get myself writing, though. There always seems to be waiting material I've yet to deal with, but like Brooks said, it usually requires me to " dream for awhile and see what happens. And hopefully, like your Meg Cabot link, I'll start writing without a laborious outline."