Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Tuesday 5 June 2012

When is an Idea not an Idea?

I’m as guilty as the next writer of latching onto ideas and declaring that I’m going to write a story about original sin, or the seven virtues, or whatever it might be. 

I’ve got an idea for a story that I’ve been sitting on for twenty years, because all I have is the title and a feeling, and those two things, on their own, are not enough. I couldn’t bring myself to sit down and begin to write it; I’d feel like I was jumping the gun
So, when is an idea not an idea?
... When it’s a premise.
Whenever I have what I think will be a good idea for a story, even a story as long as a novel, it invariably falls short, it is almost always only a premise, and I have to exhort myself not to stop there. I have to encourage myself to give the whole thing more consideration, to develop a proper idea, or, as often as not, give up on it altogether.
I’ve said before that I like to begin a new story with a clean slate, very little planned and no research done ahead of time, and that’s true. I like the stuff to come out of my gut, via my head, with only my instincts to rely on. If I can make the thing hang together with only the glue I can self-generate, I figure I’m on to something.
The one exception to this practice is that I must have a fully formed idea. I must know what that idea is, and I must know, roughly, the path that it will weave. 
A premise is simply that, a notion, a thought, something upon which to build. 
I often allow a premise to stew for some time. I leave it in a notebook, and, simultaneously in the back of my mind, and I manipulate it, add to it, alter it as time and the tide of my thoughts determine. There has to be logic; there can be no gaps; I want the thing to be seamless and elegant.
Often, what I end up with is the structure of the novel, how many chapters it will take and what the subjects of those chapters might be, what tense(s) I might employ, a timescale for the thing, and whether it’s linear or cyclical.
My ideas rarely lead me to full-fledged characters or situations, because, for me at least, it’s only in the writing that I get to know my characters, and, in the end, they tend to determine the details of the plot.
It’s like building a pantry. A big meat-eater who shops monthly might need a lot of cold storage, but a vegetarian who shops daily, but likes to make pickles and jams might want lots of shelf space for jars, and hooks for hanging large pans. 
Oh dear... that analogy was born of blogging before breakfast... Must find something good to eat.

In the meantime, take another look at that idea, and see if you can make it better.

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