Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Write What You Love

Editing has made my creativity run into overdrive.

Apparently editing doesn’t count as writing as far as my brain is concerned, so I am currently suffering the symptoms I experience when I haven’t written something in a while: unable to fall asleep, and tossing and turning when I do, I feel out of sorts and listless, everything seems neither really exciting or really boring—just a gray in between.

As a creative outlet I am tinkering around with ideas (in between editing. I logged thirty more pages today, and thirty yesterday, so I am not slacking off). I have three book ideas that feel very similar on the surface, so yesterday I opened a new MS Word document, wrote out a working title for each book, put it into bold and underlined them, and then listed some basic elements for each book as a way to differentiate between them.

Something wonderful happened. I started to be able to clearly see each book as it’s separate entity, and not the murky brown color they all seemed to be. Part of the problem is one of the ideas was split up into two separate books, so it still felt like characters didn’t quite fit their new home.

Listing each book out clearly allowed me to see each book idea in it’s entirety, and I could compare each one to the other. After that, I went through my “My Themes” document to further mine for ideas.

Let me explain “My Themes”. I think every writer needs a document, whether it’s paper or electronic, where they keep track of all the stuff that excites them. I am not talking about book ideas—that’s another file entirely. I am talking about a list of stuff that makes your muse go into hyperdrive (I fired my last muse, and am now working with his brother, Ira. It seems to be working well so far).

Here is a small sample of my list:

survival in a dystopia
survival after an apocalypse
Orpheus going back to get his love
death is not the end
serial killers
1940’s gangsters
Mental illness
Hostage situations
Forgotten cities, and ancient lore.
Autumn in New York, when the leaves are on fire.
Rocky coast lines
Ghost tours
Complicated relationships between people
Childhood accidents
New kid learning the ropes
Characters forced to be together
Making difficult, no-win moral choices
Heaven and hell battling, angels versus demons
Deals with the devil
Being thrown into a new situation
Constructed people—golems, homunculi, etc
A likable villain
The one person that interests a misanthrope
The bad guys are really the good guys

My list is about twice this long, but you get the point. Notice how I have all kinds of stuff on there? Some are concepts like constructed people, some are conflicts like new kid learning the ropes, and some are settings like rocky coast lines.

Because really, doesn’t this picture give you a thousand story ideas?

But all of this stuff fascinates me. You can even analyze the list and then figure out why I like the TV shows and movies that I do. Let’s see, my favorite TV shows are: Firefly (space western), Criminal Minds (thriller about profilers), Bones (forensic crime solving), House (medical mystery about a misanthropic doctor), and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (crime solving with emotional situations for the cops/victims).

Some of my favorite movies are: Equilibrium (science fiction dystopia), The Prestige (rivalry between former friends who are magicians), The Day After Tomorrow (disaster movie), Legion (heaven versus hell).

Do we see a pattern here? These shows/movies interest me because there’s one or more (usually several) elements in them that I find fascinating.

You’re probably thinking, “No duh, Elizabeth. Of course you like those shows and movies because they have elements you find fascinating.” But it’s really helpful to know exactly what about something interests you.

Because then you can repeat it.

They say write what you know, but I think we should change that to write what you love. If you are not in love with your story, you’re just not going to have the strength to get through all the work it’s going to take to make the story salable. It’s not enough to start with one good idea. You need several good ideas within one book. You might start off with one good idea, and write out the first draft without planning more. That’s fine; whatever your writing process is.

But eventually you’re going to have to analyze the plot elements, and I feel it would behoove you to make sure your plot has several things going for it. When I say “idea” I am not just talking about plot points and characters, but everything. You could set the book in somewhere you find beautiful, have a character in a situation you love, with a cool villain idea, and a new twist on the conflict. It could be something as simple as what the character does for a living. You could make a new book based of off this list, or you could just add the elements you find appropriate for each book.

For example, let’s say I have a new book idea. Let’s say you only have the character idea, like I frequently do. No plot in sight, but the main character shows up as a real person. Let’s say the character is an anti-hero who is a misanthrope. So we have:

Misanthrope who (does something)(not medical related, so no one says it’s just a House ripoff).

To start with. We could leave it at that, and start writing if you are a pantser, or we could just develop the character more if you’re a planner. The obvious direction to go would be Why is this guy such a misanthrope?

Because I hate the “anti-hero with a heart of gold” trope, we’re going to just say that he’s always been kind of a jerk, and bucks society’s rules because he thinks they are pointless. To further avoid the “anti-hero with a heart of gold” trope, let’s say he made a mistake that got someone killed he was supposed to protect (instead of saying mommy didn’t love him enough, and that’s why he’s a jerk. People in real life are more complicated, so let’s make sure our characters are more complicated too, okay?).

You could write a perfectly good book all this jerk, but let’s not stop there. Let’s add more awesome stuff to this already fun idea.

I already have the concept of the one person that the misanthrope doesn’t hate, so let’s add that:

The one person that interests a misanthrope

So now we have character number two. This could be a woman, and they fall in love. This could be a younger girl and he has to raise her (for some reason). It could be a guy, whatever. It all depends on the type of story you want to tell.

Since he’s an anti-hero and a misanthrope, he’s already going to be complicated. So let’s add:

Complicated relationships between people.

Since I don’t see the jerk going out of his way to get to know someone, let’s also add:

Characters forced to be together

Since he’s already a jerk, we could play with:

The bad guys are really the good guys
A likable villain

We could add setting about here:

Rocky coast lines
survival in a dystopia

I picked dystopia because it fits the misanthrope vibe, but you could also go for contrast, and say it’s set on a lush tropical landscape to further show how miserable the guy is.

So to recap we have:

Misanthrope who (does something)(not medical related, so no one says it’s just a House ripoff).
The one person that interests a misanthrope
Complicated relationships between people
Characters forced to be together
The bad guys are really the good guys
A likable villain
Rocky coast lines
survival in a dystopia

And the cherry on the top, a theme of:


Now this books has several ideas going for it that excites me. Some of them might not make it into the story, they might have to be teased out, but it gives you some ideas to brainstorm with at least.

Some of you might be wondering if doing this might not make your books all sound familiar.

I don’t think so. That list is long, and many times I have more developed ideas arrive, without needing to build a book from scratch off of it. And that point I might add one or two ideas to it, but not too much more.

Also, see how vague all of that is? “Characters forced to be together”. There are so many ways character can be forced together. If we were to boil most books down to this bare bones, they would start to look similar.

So the next time you need something extra to a book idea, why not look through your interests list?

Any thoughts on the matter? What are some ideas that you just love thinking and writing about?


  1. I know you like your process, but perhaps a hybrid process would help you sleep better. If you wrote more as part of your current revision process, perhaps that would scratch the itch.

    Or maybe not. I don't know.

    I don't have a list of interests. Well, I have interests, and I could certainly list them, but I can't make stories out of that. I've tried and they always suck. I need a thesis question. I need the speculative "What if?" to push me down the story path so I try to answer the question. I guess I could take an interest and ask a what if question about it, but I've been fortunate enough not to have to do that yet (and my queue of stories to be written is long enough hopefully I never will).

    I don't fixate on themes, but if you were to look at the stuff I write, there's one more prevalent than all the others. It amuses me because it's the opposite of one on your list. Rather than "death is not the end," I do "death is the end." Or, more likely, I do "we all die in the end."

    I always feel hackneyed when my hero and everyone cares about is still alive at the end. It seems cliche. At the same time, if I always kill someone, that is my cliche. Catch, meet 22. Still, if you're reading something I've written there's a strong chance that a character you care about will be dead before the books is over.

  2. There's the rub--I don't know exactly what revisions are going to take place, so I can't yet start writing as part of revision. I tried to write about the book a little bit the other day but became frustrated because I fell into the same problems. And I need to look at the entire picture before I can make decisions on what the changes need to be.

    But, it's a good suggestion, so I will see if there's a way I could write more as part of revision.

    I actually have a list of "What if" "What would happen" above my interests, but I thought I would mention that in another post, since it's a separate but similiar topic.

  3. I do not have a list like this, but I should. Great idea.

    ps. Seattle would be on my list too, I love it here.