This past summer, I attended a speculative fiction writer’s workshop in Lawrence, Kansas. The Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction was founded by James Gunn. Every June, the school hold workshops on novel writing, short stories, or could be used as a writer’s retreat to work on your own project. The attendees live in a dorm and are there for a two-week session of intensive writing and critique.
I was told by one of the instructors that the final story I submitted for review was “unique”, something that she had not seen before. A comment that I appreciated since this is one of the main goals of my writing process. This statement had piqued the curiosity of one of the workshop attendees, who was no slouch herself when it came to storytelling. She asked a question that most authors get at one point or another. “Where do you get your ideas?”
With humor, I thought to reach to her ear to pull out a coin, much as a carnival magician might, and reply, “I found the ideas in your ear.” That would be as good an answer to “where” ideas come from as any. The question is not a matter of where, but a question of how we as writers develop a method of gathering concepts and train our brains to make those unique story connections. For me, it is a three part process that utilizes my trained muse and study of story structure. Much of my process is ingrained. Because of this, I did not give an answer in the workshop, but I have been thinking about her question since I’ve returned home and will attempt to answer it here.
Gather Research into your File System
As a science fiction writer, raw material is needed to start the story process. I have created a computerized notebook system to gather articles from scientific journals and science blogs. I cut and paste the articles into Evernote and include whatever photos are relevant to the article since images are a powerful part of the intuitive process. Sometimes, I include notes that I write during panels at science fiction conventions. The panels are a great place to gather data on current day writing tropes or explain science concepts that are geared toward writers. Online science classes are another good source of raw material.
The key is to have a file system in place and to actively add new material to this file on a regular basis. You do not need to use EverNote as I do. Pocket or OneNote are great alternatives or even an old-fashioned handwritten notebook. Train your eye to observe what is going on in the world of science and have a basic understanding of scientific principals. As time goes on, you will be able to grasp what is as old as time and space and what is fresh as a supernova. Let this raw material accumulate and look over it to allow the information to seep into your mind.
You can use this same process to gather place locations, interesting characters, or plot ideas from newspapers and other types of journals. Many a thriller author has taken a stranger than fiction real life story and turned it into a tale “ripped from today’s headlines”. The key is recording these ideas into a file system and keeping the information in a manner that allows you to access it easily.
Activate Your MUSE to Create Connections
This is where the magic happens. Where the ideas for your stories develop and come to life. It is not a logical process, but one that happens under the surface of your conscious mind. Often times, the ideas seem to pop out of nowhere or come from a source outside yourself. The ancient poets called this experience “speaking to their muse”, hearing a goddess that whispered inspired ideas into their minds that they could not claim as their own.
All human beings have two parts to their mind. The Ego, or the conscious logical mind where thoughts, identity, and structure happens and the Id, a mysterious wordless place where images and information bump into each other until the moment when a solution is found and kicked upstairs to our Ego where we can make use of it. The Ego is the newer part of our brains and the Id that ancient part of the brain without the ability of language. Both are equally intelligent. Both are YOU.
Activating your muse can be difficult. For most people, waiting for that moment of inspiration to arrive is their only experience with using that ancient part of the brain. Do not wait for the muse, train it to work for you. Training your muse means that you have a closer connection to that part of your mind and can guide its process.
When I direct my muse, I pick out ideas from my research that appeal to me. I focus on those ideas I want the story to take place in. Then I literary walk away. I go on strolls with my dog. I ride my bicycle. I go to sleep. I put stress behind me. Occasionally, I might pull up the original article and reread it or look at images associated with it, but otherwise, I put it out of my mind. A few hours or a day later, an image will burst in my mind, or a new character will come forth and speak to me based on my researched material. I’ve noticed as the years have gone by, this process has become faster. My brain has been trained to work with this innate ability and control it. When you first attempt to train your muse to create new ideas, the process will be slower. It is like training skills or muscles, it takes time and repetition.
Apply Ideas into Story Structure
The final step is to gather these new connections and plug them into a story structure. I use Scrivener to create virtual index cards of all the random ideas associated with my intuitive sessions. I put the new characters, created locations, and other concepts into the program as individual files. Using a beat sheet, I organize the ideas to create a plotted structure of events as an outline. As I outline, more ideas and connections will flow in until I feel that the story is ready to draft.
This step is the one that most writing articles and classes cover. It is where the Ego takes over and applies the craft of writing to the story. As there are many different methods to create a story, I won’t go into too much detail here. Every author has their own methods that work for them. My craft process will certainly be different from others. You must find the methods of the craft that works best for you.
It was a pleasure to meet Mr. James Gunn this past summer in Kansas. He gave our workshop a ninety-minute presentation on the creativity behind writing science fiction. Most of the talk was on how to tap into your muse and to keep on writing one word at a time. I felt a deep connection to his words. Mr. Gunn is in his mid-eighties. He is still publishing in pro-magazines and creating top of the line novels, using his well-trained muse to fuel his stories. He too speaks of how to find ideas, not where they are. Ideas are in the wind, catching them is the key. I can’t imagine the high level of creativity that Mr. Gunn must enjoy at his age, but I hope one day to do so. I am inspired.