I never have perfect ideas, but I often write good stories!

Posted on | June 3, 2017

Imposter syndrome is one of those things that haunts me as a writer (and probably a lot of other writers as well). Recently, there have been a few articles that have made my imposter syndrome ever sharper, and Jo Eberhardt, who I usually admire, wrote a piece on writing that made my anxiety flare ever hotter. In her piece Envy, Perfection, and the Work of Writing, she wrote, "I like to describe the process of writing a novel as follows:

The story in your head is perfect. It’s the most perfect thing that’s ever existed. Your job, as a writer, is to take that perfect story and translate it into imperfect words in such a way that when someone else reads them, your perfect story comes to life in their mind.

In my head, the story is never perfect.

My stories, especially the longer ones, start out as shattered jigsaw pieces, often from completely unrelated puzzles. I rarely start out with the idea of a story, even. Often it’s just something I want to say, and I believe that fiction is the right way to say it.

To give you two examples. Star Kingdom started out as a commentary on bad space opera where, to get the whole "rich vs poor" countries Innn Spaaaace effect writers have to do horrible things to economies. I was thinking of Weber and Bujold. Komarr’s "expensive" solettas shouldn’t be, and the typical impoverished ice-ball worlds of Weber are worse. He has cheap lift to space! The other thread was the idea of taking two characters whose professional obligation and sense of honor make it really hard to get them into the same room together, and how could I get them into bed?

Star Kingdom went through three re-writes. Each time, some of the commentary and plot ideas shifted, some getting weaker, some getting stronger. Eventually, an external plot ("Someone’s trying to kill us!") and an internal plot ("I don’t know if I can love you and do my duty to Queen and Country.") emerged, and by the third re-write I had them properly threaded together in a way that made sense and led to a lovely, if slightly melodramatic (I’m a sucker for melodrama) "Will you marry me?" ending.

The current WIP, Honest Impulses, is a sequel, so I had characters and setting already, but the story didn’t start to emerge until I had a theme of all things. I’m a thematic writer. I like themes. The theme that emerged in Honest Impulses is "What does it mean to be ‘a decent human being?’" There are other themes. I like intimacy, I like vulnerability, I like the way sex and affection expose these and turn them into pleasure and deepen characters’ (and real persons’) understandings of each other. Can you be a highly sexual person and still be a deeply decent one?

In either case, what I end up with is a string of scenes that may or may not add up to a story when I’ve thrown 100,000 words at the screen. It’s my task afterward to figure out if there is a story there, or more than one, or less than one, and eventually forge a whole, satisfying tale that respects the reader’s attention.

But there is never a perfect story in my head. Never. It’s a vague idea that might be a good story, but first I have to mine tons of mental ore out of my head, and then I have to extract the good stuff through revision after revision.

I know Eberhardt probably didn’t mean to demean writers who don’t have the idea in their heads right from the get-go, but I’ve never been so lucky as to know what I was writing before I got to the end. The second time.


2 Responses to “I never have perfect ideas, but I often write good stories!”

  1. Robb
    June 4th, 2017 @ 8:15 pm

    OMG! Let me just say it makes me so happy to hear that you have more Elsanna in the works. (Squee!)

    To be honest, from the name I was initially (for all of 2 words) imagining a more substantial Misuko & Linia arc, but a C&Q sequel is even better.

  2. Andy Wilson
    June 5th, 2017 @ 7:38 pm

    Your description of your process as well as the discrepancy between starting with a whole idea and starting with pieces reminds me a lot of how software gets designed and built.

    So, software design. Do you start with a pristine design that only needs realization — for example, the waterfall model, or certain systems perpetrated by one or two people working alone — or do you approach it as a constant work in progress where the design and goals are only revealed in pieces? That’s before we even get to the code. We both know entirely too well what that stage of the game can be like.

    Having said that, code is functional speech. Its entire purpose is to have a single, unambiguous interpretation as a set of instructions. Prose meant for human consumption has no such luxury. People will happily argue for millenia about different interpretations of the same words.

    From my entirely imperfect point of view, an author has done well if the reader comes away with a sense of a solid, satisfying story. It may or may not be the story the author had in mind originally. It will almost certainly not have all the same nuances. But the original idea? My opinion is to take your ideas however and wherever you find them.

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