Fossils, Idea Jenga, and Space Eels

Ideas are weird things.

First, there’s the question of where they come from. People ask artists all the time how they come up with the stuff they come up with, and by and large, the answer is just an eloquent version of “Darned if I know.” You can’t go to the idea store and pick something out. You just have to hope something comes to you and that you see it for what it is when it does.

Then there’s the question of what you do once you get an idea. It feels like you’re dealing with something so impossibly fragile. You have a fragment of a thing – a character, a setting, an opening line – and you’re worried that if you start to write it down, you’ll break it. You’re afraid you’ll find it was never that interesting to begin with, or that it makes no sense when you start to think about it. But eventually you start picking at the edges, maybe by asking yourself questions, or by jotting down things you’d like to try, or by talking it out with a trusted friend.

And, slowly, your fragment of an idea starts to grow. The dark corners get a little brighter.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King compares the process of coming up with a story to digging up a fossil. He’s not so much creating this thing as he’s discovering it. He’s chipping away at everything in his way until he can perfectly see this artifact and show it off to someone else. I’m not sure writing is quite that mystical. We physically type these things up, or we scratch them out by hand, or we dictate them, and that means we can do whatever the heck we want. JK Rowling could’ve had Harry Potter transform into a giant space eel and cast Voldemort into an alternate dimension where he’d be someone else’s problem. It’s her story, after all. Those are real words she could’ve typed and tried to get past her publisher.

And yet, the whole thing would’ve felt wrong.

To a smaller degree, I feel that in my own writing. Sometimes I want a character to say something or to make a decision, but I can’t bring myself to do it. It’s just text on a page (or pixels on a screen, in my case) but it feels wrong. The motivation is off, or the timing is rushed, or something just doesn’t fit right. Maybe that’s what Stephen King was getting after. The better your storytelling instincts get, the more you get a feel for what does and doesn’t work. You aren’t discovering a story that’s eternally existed in a weird collective consciousness. You’re discovering the story your instincts will allow you to tell.

I’m in the middle of developing an idea right now. As I get ready to put the finishing touches on the last book of The Marian Trilogy, I’m trying to get the plot laid out for my next project. It kind of feels like a game of Jenga. I’m swapping around characters and events, seeing what fits where, all the while hoping I haven’t distorted things so much it’s all going to fall apart once someone breathes on it.

But I guess that’s the fun of storytelling. You put all this work into fleshing out something that started so small (in this case, a two-word request from my wife), and then it grows until you’re staring at a book, or a short story, or a trilogy, or whatever…and then other people read it, and – hopefully – some of them like it.

Creatives – How do you develop your ideas once you’ve gotten them?

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5 thoughts on “Fossils, Idea Jenga, and Space Eels

  1. hey hope there treating you while up north man. Miss you over here in the South. im about to be getting back to my book writing. got an new shift at work that full time. that really time exhausting but as soon as i get this book written im going to be happy. right now im listening to some Ops and reading my bible.

    • Hey man! Good to hear from you. The north is treating me pretty well :p This is a great station to be a part of.

      I know how that goes, man. Any time my routine gets disrupted, my writing productivity goes way down. You just have to keep chipping away.

  2. Hey Taylor! I really loved The Marian and The Hunted when I read them last year and I need book 3 in my life like yesterday. Do you have an ETA on when it’ll be available? Also wondering when it will be up on Goodreads to I can add it to my TBR list. My apologies if you already covered this in a previous blog post or email. Whenever my friends come over and see the first two books on my bookshelf, they always comment on how cool the covers are and then I get excited to tell them how cool the stories are too 🙂

    • Hey Nicole! Book 3 is close. I’m hoping to have it out sometime this fall. It’s going through beta readers now, and then it’ll get one more pass of edits, and then I’ll be formatting and dealing with all the particulars. Glad to hear you’re looking forward to it – I definitely want to make sure I do the first two books justice!

      And I’ll have to tell my cover designer about your friends commenting on the cover. Every book I’ve done with her, she knocks it out of the park.

      • Awesome! Looking forward to it 🙂 I’ll have to re-read the first two now to refresh my memory!

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