The Human Condition:

Where Do Stories Originate? – August 3, 2014

Deep well

I don’t know how other fiction writers create their characters and plots. I’ve never taken a creative writing class or attended a workshop or writers conference.1 Maybe there you can learn how to assemble characters from bits of description and personal traits, like dressing a Barbie doll, or assemble plots like putting together Legos or an Erector set. Maybe the business of creating stories and people can be automated and streamlined like that. But it’s not the way I work.

For me, characters and their stories grow slowly. Something about an imaginary person captures my imagination, and then I begin collecting situations and story fragments around him or her, creating a virtual life. Most of the character’s traits, potential entanglements, and intended actions come out of my subconscious. And in order for that to work, I need to have filled my mind and my dreams over the years with bits and pieces of actual life experience and with notions and understandings borrowed from the books I’ve read. The story is then supported by the framework of a society, a world, or a universe built out of my work as a technical writer and corporate communicator in various industries, as well as from my reading selectively and voraciously in science and history.

I think of the subconscious as a deep well located in the darkened chambers at the bottom of my mind. The well is filled with dark liquid to hidden depths. Once I have that core character or ensemble and a hint of action in mind, I then begin assembling the story out of the bits and pieces that float up to the surface of that dark liquid, like answers in a Magic 8 Ball. This is not a fast process, and it is not under my conscious control.

Right now, as I wait for my beta readers respond to my book about cellular regeneration and extended life, tentatively titled Coming of Age, I’m using my time to begin preparing notes on the next novel I will write. At this point, it’s a horse race between a sequel to my earlier novel ME: A Novel of Self-Discovery, about a self-aware computer virus, and a sequel to the more recent time-travel book, The Children of Possibility. I can’t say which book will come next, but at the moment the weight of material favors the new ME story.

Before I can write, I need to collect notes as they occur to me through this subconscious process. Sometimes they come while I’m driving or in the shower, sometimes while doing chores. Almost never when I’m sitting at the computer, ready to write. That’s why I keep a pen and pocket notebook with me at all times, and stock notepads and pens around the apartment. I can scribble a few words to capture the random idea, and then at my leisure expand on it in the file that I use for collecting, correlating, and commenting on these thoughts. Only when that document reaches a stage of critical mass, am I ready to start a second document, which begins outlining the story.

I never have the whole plot structure in mind, complete and fulfilled, at the beginning of this outlining process. I might know where the story starts in space, time, and particulars, but have only a vague and general notion of how and where it will end. In between, all I’ll have is the 30,000-foot view of the terrain and the route between the opening and the ending. But neither I nor the characters will have walked the route at ground level and know exactly what to expect.2

Indeed, much of what comes later in the book depends on the exact nature of each character’s perceptions, insights, and motivations as he or she goes through the story and develops knowledge of it. Sometimes an intended ending just doesn’t work out as the story develops. Usually, this is because my first thoughts are generally less complete—less subtle, less developed, less real—than the thoughts that occur as I put my mind into envisioning mode and write the actual words on the page. Only at that point do I see the story clearly as it happens. And what comes from my fingers at this stage, which I call “production writing,” is almost a direct line from the subconscious, casting up the summation of the bits and pieces I’ve been ruminating over—or “noodling,” as I call it—for months and often for years.

Sometimes, in the middle of the story, I will stumble on a plot or character problem. It’s usually in the nature of “How did she know that?” or “What did he find when he went there?” Two parts of the story—one extending forward from the place where production writing has currently stopped, the other extending backward from the parts of the story I can imagine but not yet see clearly—have reached a disjunction. I need an idea, a bridge, a device, or a bit of action to connect the two. And the only thing I can do then is petition the dark gods who operate that inner well. I toss the problem into the pit and must wait for an answer to float up to the surface.

My great good fortune is that something always comes back. The subconscious, like the dark gods or the Magic 8 Ball, produces its bit of flotsam, usually in a day or two, and it always fits, fixes the problem, and advances the story.

I don’t know what “writer’s block” is for other writers, but for me it is the wait beside the well. Either I don’t have critical mass behind the characters and their stories to begin the processes of outlining and production writing, or I’ve reached a disjunction in the story or character and must wait for the subconscious to do it’s magic. This is not a matter of inspiration—which implies getting into the mood, feeling a spark, or gaining some kind spiritual energy—so much as it is a process of materialization. I cannot sit down and force the process by simply determining to write. I’ve tried that and what it produces is words but not story. Forced writing, sitting down and pounding the keys looking for the story, generally disgorges huge amounts of peripheral description, such as three thousand words describing the bricks in the path or the leaves on the tree growing beside it: stuff, not story. And that stuff just has to be revised, cut back, or ripped out when the actual story arrives in my brain.

Writer’s block for me is not laziness or stupidity or not feeling like writing. It is sitting down at the keyboard, ready in all other respects, with the time and energy and intention to write, but the well is empty. I drop in a stone, and nothing comes back but a dry rattle.

People who write nonfiction for a living, as I did for many years as a technical writer and corporate communicator, may not be familiar with this kind of writer’s block. They will have completed their interviews with contributors who have the knowledge and viewpoints they need. Or they will have watched the process to be described as it is performed out on the factory floor or in the laboratory. They have their notes before them, and they have a deadline. When I’ve been in that position, all I had to do was select a starting point—a question, a viewpoint, or an observation that would frame the issue at hand for the reader—and the writing process would begin. Words would come, the structure develop, and the article move forward at a speed of about 1,000 words an hour.3

Fiction writing is different. If I’m is stuck with a plot problem or a character issue, it’s like having incomplete notes. But I can’t just call up the contributor to clarify the point, or go back to the factory to watch the machine run again. I must petition the dark gods to put something in the well. Again, materialization rather than inspiration.

So why do I write in the first place? Heaven knows, it’s not to get rich or even to make money. If it were, I would find a way to trick the subconscious or discard it entirely. I would study the marketplace and current reader demand, then devise a character, a plot structure, and a “franchise” framework for serialization under which I could ring the changes and produce a string of popular heroes in bestsellers. But I don’t know how to do that. I can’t order the dark gods to produce like that.4

Instead, an idea or a character or a story fragment has come to mind that seems so compelling, so real, so vital, or so interesting that I can’t just let it sit there in an undefined state, as a bit of unformed probability. My mind plays with it, walks away and comes back, teased by the thought that it would be so cool to have this notion become a definite story, a string of words that starts in one place, travels to another, and ends up somewhere else. The urge to make it real and accessible—a formulation in words that will play like a movie inside the reader’s head and lead him or her to thoughts never before considered and emotions never before felt—is so strong that I will freely spend hours, days, months, and sometimes years to make that story and the book containing it come to life.

I write for the same reason that people paint pictures, carve statues, work physics problems, or build model railroads—because I can’t live with such an attractive idea left in a half-formed state, and the result would be so cool for someone else to come upon it and say, “Ah!”

1. But I did major in English literature at the university, and that used to count for a lot.

2. See On Outlining a Novel from May 13, 2012.

3. When I know what I want to say, I write fast.

4. I tried it once, to consciously create a thriller that would have potential as a bestseller. That produced the novel Trojan Horse. But the dark gods who guard the well are jealous and worked to create something strange and different—not a bad book in itself, but one with no more bestseller potential than any other that I might write.