Writing Life: Cosmic Quarters and Bubble Gum Balls

This is a slightly edited reprint of an article I wrote way back in 2010, but I hope the information herein is timeless. 🙂

Okay, so now you’re ready to write. Your butt’s in the chair, your fingers are poised over the keys, or clutching pen or pencil, you’ve got a block of time. Your mind’s a complete blank. How do you generate a story? Preferably a publishable one?

Well, the short answer is, you come up with cool and original fictional ideas and join them with characters and a series of events in the lives of those characters and—poof!—you have a story.

But just where do those cool and original ideas come from?

Non-writers ask me that all the time. And I don’t have a single answer for them. I doubt any writer does. Detective fiction writer Lawrence Block wrote:

“At … times I see myself more as a channel than a source, conveying stories from some unknowable well… Perhaps everything we would write already exists in perfect form; it emerges on the page in one degree or another of imperfection, depending upon the extent to which we are open channels.”

I’ve heard other writers say this same thing—Pam Sargent, a marvelously gifted writer of science fiction leaps to mind.  And I’ve experienced it myself, too, the feeling that the story leapt, fully-formed, into my brain and all I need do is watch the wildly weird and wonderful ideas simply pouring out onto the page.

The Meri by Maya Kaathryn BohnhoffMy first novel, THE MERI (a Baen original, now out in trade paper from Sense of Wonder Press and available as an eBook from BVC), was a combination of things: a dream I had and wrote down, a phrase from a Robert Silverberg Gilgamesh story that stuck in my brain and would not let go, and a sudden conviction about the gender of the protagonist. My novella, Taco Del and the Fabled Tree of Destiny came through the the dreamed image of Del sitting with his tree in a window, followed some time later by the sudden flood of story the protagonist seemed to be spilling into my inner ear. My recent short story in Baen’s Universe—”The Resident”—was entirely dreamed (and very vividly too, I might add) except for the very, very end. I woke up, you see, before I discovered whether the dream was horror or dark comedy. That decision, I made consciously.

Okay, but everyone can’t program their dreams—or can they? My personal experience has been that if I preset myself to be aware of my dreams and expect them to be a source of ideas, they will more readily be that. I also know that if I want to remember them I’m more successful at doing that than I am if I just leave it to chance. And of course, I always try to commit them to paper or some other medium as quickly as possible.

Not all my story ideas are dreamed, but what the experiences above have taught me is that, at least in my case, a story requires several parts: 1) a seed idea, 2) a strong point-of-view character, 3) some catalyst that causes engines of creation to fire (or that makes the seed grow).

What I have also learned is that I don’t have to wait for the catalyst. Oh, I have to have one—if I try to write without it, the story will likely end up unfinished. But I can go looking for it. And I look for it everywhere. In fiction, non-fiction, overheard conversations, newspaper headlines, user manuals, billboards, magazine ads, greeting cards, the covers of other people’s novels . . . in a word, life.

MST3K___Tom_Servo_again_by_jaw500In the spirit of MST 3000, I like to think of my subconscious mind as a sort of cosmic bubble gum ball machine full of stories. These external inputs are like cosmic quarters. Pick one up, pop one into the machine and you never know what might pop out. You might even get lucky and jar loose more than one gum ball.

In future articles, I’ll share an exercise or two that I’ve used to get the bubble gum balls rolling.

Visit Maya’s Bookshelf.



Writing Life: Cosmic Quarters and Bubble Gum Balls — 1 Comment

  1. The other trick is the ability to noodle. If the idea is not very good, noodle it until it is — or until it is better, anyway. Mad and I were doing it down in her Dog at the Park blog posting.