Where stories come from

I came across a theory that Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love, shared with her writer friend, Anne Patchett, in an Amazon.com interview about Patchett’s new book, State of Wonder.  During the writing of State of Wonder, Gilbert and Patchett discovered that they had both been researching books on the Amazon.  They compared story lines and found them to be “eerily” similar.  While Gilbert decided not to go ahead with her book, Patchett did.  Gilbert told her that she thinks story ideas float around in the universe waiting for the right person to tell that story.

It is an enchanting idea.  And it lets the writer feel like they are chosen by the story rather than being the one doing the choosing.  The idea that you, uniquely, are the one to write this particular story, makes it seem that you are worthy to write it.  Writing is so hard.  If the story is actually wanting to come through my pen, then I am empowered to keep at it.  I have a mandate to develop the finest story I can.

But conversely, if you give up an idea, then maybe it isn’t you.  That is certainly a tenet of the de-cluttering line of thinking;  a clutter of ideas could include novel ideas that have outgrown their aliveness for that author.  Let it go, and it will find another place to be. Honestly though, I’d be super jealous if a storyline that I rejected was turned into something amazing by another writer.

If a story idea does choose me, it had better be prepared to go through some pretty hardcore shaping.  One vivid image might be enough to start with but a lot more must be developed.  I recall Stephanie Meyers saying that she had a dream of a sparkling vampire in a meadow that she didn’t want to let go.  Thankfully, she developed that vision into Twilight.

The little movie I keep playing in my head involves flowery English gardens, warm cozy libraries and Jane Austen-type manors.  I imagine sunshine.  But that can’t be a novel.  I have to take the components of my idea, the things I absolutely must have, and then stretch it and grow it into a story.  A story with real problems, with examined characters, clear locations, and still with sunshine.

(Sunshine isn’t what drives story ideas for Stephanie Meyer, Twilight series, and Diana Gabaldon, Outlander series; writers that hail from sunny Arizona.  They have both chosen to set their series in wet, green places, like Forks, Washington, and Scotland.  Living in Seattle however, makes me dream of long summer days in a romantic place.  I haven’t been to Arizona yet, and Hawaii doesn’t seem a place I want to imagine conflict so England it is.)

To grow the story currently capturing my imagination (and driving me crazy), I cracked open my copy of  The Breakout Novel Workbook, and went through the questions in the back of each chapter.  Donald Maass’ Workbook has many questions to sharpen up the details of my characters and their problems.  I also flirted with other plotting books to figure out the story’s backbone.

The problem is I came up with so many plot lines while trying to force my character on a trip to England, that I’ve decided to back off that strategy for the moment.  I’m giving my competing plot options some time (2 more weeks) to breathe while I read novels set in England and surf around on the internet to get more information about my theme.  Stella Cameron calls it “Selection”  in a wonderful article called 6 Steps to the Perfect Plot.  You  go at the idea from different approaches.  You can do a family tree, draw a map of the character’s home, and their city.  You can listen to music and do a drawing.  She says, “Select and expand, and immerse yourself in your wonderful idea and its trappings.”

Wherever my story idea has come from, I like to think I’m the only one that can write this story.  There really isn’t anyone else who can weave it together in the way that I see it.  This idea of mine has caught me, chosen me, and is waiting to emerge from a loose plot line to a tightly-knit novel.  I cannot wait to write the book I’m dreaming to read.


Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook

Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder  http://www.amazon.com/State-Wonder-Ann-Patchett/dp/0062049801

– Janis


About writeinseattle

Two Seattle writers examining the writer's life.
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