I was talking to a friend the other day and he made a comment about how (un)inspiring country life was and how, as a writer, he needed vibrant stimulation! I suggested that vibrant stimulation was great for the generation of ideas but that constant stimulation was hell on the actual writing process. He reminded me that, without the ideas, there is no writing, which is true enough, but not the whole story, just as the supposed tedium of country life and the supposed vibrancy of city life isn’t an entirely accurate representation — my neighbourhood is pretty sedate, not to say sleepy.
Okay. So, some context would probably be useful at this point. At the beginning of the year I was working on a novel titled Oath-Bound. I’d gotten a complete draft knocked up in about six weeks and then gone back to do a continuity edit. The ‘continuity edit’ quickly turned into a major edit with rewrites, which then turned into a complete rewrite of the story that soon bore only tangental resemblance to the first draft. I finally pulled myself up short when I found that I had just thrown my complete first draft into Scrivener’s ‘off-cuts’ bin and was staring at an empty Draft folder. That’s not how you’re supposed to approach the editing process, at least, not this early in the game. So I found all those orphaned files and brought them back to the Draft Folder and left them there to sooth their ruffled feathers while I went off to scratch up some other ideas.
I’d been working on that manuscript for two and a half months though, every spare hour I could find. And when I walked away from it, I found that my inspiration-well was dry. I had to keep cranking out words though, because I had a nice long chain on the Magic Spreadsheet, and I didn’t want to break that. I went back to my files and notebooks and started pulling out story prompts and ideas and tried to turn one of those into a story. I failed every time. Oh, I could do a treatment of the idea, or develop the prompt into something more concrete than a one sentence character or location description; but it seemed that no matter how many questions I asked myself about the character or the setting or the conflict, my inspiration just wouldn’t latch onto any of those seeds and fertilise it.
I went through another period of self-doubt that lasted several weeks. Then I realised that, to extend the gardening metaphor, I’d been tossing seeds into sterile soil. What I needed to do was add some fork some fertiliser through it. Or, to return to my ‘well’ metaphor, I needed to prime the pump with some water first. I needed, to escape from the circling vultures of metaphor, to go out and live a little, or, failing the opportunity to do that, live vicariously through other people’s books and movies and podcasts. I needed to immerse myself in other people’s imaginary worlds, or even just in the real world as other people saw it, in order to prime that pump or fertilise that field because it’s not enough to have an idea seed, you have to provide it with well-fertilised soil and just the right amount of water and sunshine.
And that, really, might be the difference between a writer and a non-writer. It’s not that the non-writer never comes up with story ideas, it’s that they don’t know how to tend them, how much and what sort of fertiliser to supply, how much water to give them, or what sort of climate the young story-plant needs. Because a story, just like a young plant, is terribly susceptible to the wrong sort of soil and fertiliser or too much or too little water or too much or not enough sunlight. New stories, like young plants, are fragile things, and it takes a careful and skilful gardener to grow them.
But this raises a question. A gardener in London can grow plants that are native to the tropics as long as she or he has a good greenhouse. Is it possible for a writer to create an artificial environment for the growth and development of story seeds? I think it is. I think that this environment is different for each writer, and it will take a bit of trial and error for the writer to get it right. And not every story seed will respond to the same environment in the same way.
There’s another point to this as well, I think. There are natural gardeners, people who just seem to know instinctively what soil and sunlight a seed needs; people who are able to cultivate almost any sort of plant. Likewise, there are writers who can do the same thing. There are others, though, people who love writing, or gardening, and though they are not at first very skilled, because of their love of their craft, continue to work at it until they develop the skills necessary to become experts. This might seem a little pie-in-the-sky optimistic, but, dammit, I’ve got to believe it’s true! And, while I’m testing out my theory, I’m going to keep writing. I’m going to keep trying different ways to ideas into stories and I’m going to keep believing that one day I’m going to have a crop of story-plants that everyone is going to want to consume.
Posted by Derek Chamberlain. Posted In : Writing