I was recently invited to a “storytelling night” at Riley’s Pour House in Carnegie, PA (near Pittsburgh). Hosted by the horror writer Lawrence C. Connolly, it was to be an evening of “Writers on Writing” telling stories about the writing life. Because the event occurred too soon after my back surgery I sadly was unable to participate. But the invitation got me thinking about what story I’d like to tell. And I thought of how so many of us believe we have the potential for stories inside of us (“I could write a novel!”) and yet we seldom reach the point of actual writing or finished work. What exactly is needed to make one finally able to write, even after a lot of conscious or unconscious preparation? What brings everything together to make one ultimately say, “Okay, I’m ready!” What’s the catalyst? And is there more than one?
Thinking back on my recent novel, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, I realized that the ideas for the book had percolated in my brain for quite a while, but I was never quite “there” yet to feel comfortable writing. And then, suddenly, it happened, and—boom!—I knew I was ready. I plunged into writing, and I didn’t stop till I got to about chapter 10 (where I had to regroup, but that’s another story). Could a close look at my own experience help in pinning down the factors which are necessary to move from pre-planning to true writing?
It didn’t happen until three unrelated factors came together. And since they were three different types of ideas, maybe they could be generalized into three categories for what’s needed. Of course, you can start writing a novel anytime, but the point here is to define that moment when you know—you know!—you’re ready to begin and that you can keep on going.
One of the ideas came from geology. I’ve always been interested in geology so I knew of plate tectonics, continents riding on huge tectonic plates that make up the earth’s crust like a huge puzzle. Where they run into each other, mountain chains form; where they move apart, oceans occur. These plates are moved by huge circular currents in the mantle which take several million years to rotate. And I was struck by the notion: what a great hiding place! You could drop something in a subduction zone (where one plate slides under another), and, if it survived (it would need to be nearly indestructible) it would pop up again millions of years later in a volcanic mid-ocean ridge in the center of a spreading ocean where plates pull apart. No one would find it in the intervening centuries. I imagined ancient alien races from way back in galactic history burying secrets, messages, new technologies. It was the old idea of buried treasure—but this was buried treasure extreme! Why would they do it? Why hide things for so long? And hide them—from whom?
I knew I could get mileage out of this notion, and I wrote a short story using it. But I wasn’t happy with the story and felt that the concept deserved a novel. So the idea sat there, waiting for a longer work to come along and contain it.
One day I was walking a beach in North Carolina and came across a piece of convoluted and very abused driftwood. It was a little over a foot in length and a bit more than half in size (my next blog post will have pictures of it). It was so wet and ugly that I at first thought it was a hunk of dried tar. I pulled it from the sand and it looked hideous, with knobs and holes and arches and spikes, crusted with tiny shells and inhabited (I found later) by spiders. But I immediately decided to clean it up and save it. It looked like a miniature alien landscape, like an emaciated asteroid that had been in a very bad war, blown inside out and abandoned. I quickly imagined it as an object in outer space—and that generated another thought. I have always loved the old needle-nosed spaceships from the 1950s as seen in Flash Gordon, Rocky Jones, Tom Corbett, and the comics of Wally Wood. They were an idealized form of rocket, streamlined, highly polished, fantasized. And the image of the two objects together struck me: two derelicts floating in space, one the perfect silver spaceship, the other my twisted horrible object: beauty and beast, sheer perfection and chaotic mess. Just hanging there together. No explanation. Empty. Mysterious.
I knew I had to use it!
And then came an incident, which turned out to be the inciting incident. I had been reading mystery/thriller/spy novels, and I noticed that a number of them started with the old idea of police (or other authority figures) coming to the home of the protagonist, with subtly threatening and suspicious questions, about a friend or relative of the main character who has gone missing, or is murdered, or who has become an object of police investigation. It’s the classic notion of the big dangerous outside world invading the safe and restricted private world (think Gandalf telling both Bilbo and Frodo, “Well, I’m sorry, but you have to do this”). And the protagonist is clearly holding something back, which makes the police even more suspicious. Then, right after the police leave, the protagonist knows—knows—he has to do something, to help his friend or to clarify what’s going on or to set things right. He or she is clearly reluctant, but it has to be done. The important point is that from this particular moment on, there’s no turning back—the decision’s made, the road is taken, and you can’t go home again. A perfect start to a novel. I had just read a particularly effective form of this beginning—in John LeCarre’s Our Game—and it brought back to me just how useful this opening is. And I knew immediately how to begin my novel. (Actually, this beginning became the second chapter of the book—but that’s another story.)
Once those three elements came together, I could begin.
How they connected up isn’t important; the story simply gelled when all three notions were made to depend on each other. The point I want to make, or what I feel can be generalized from all this, is the claim that at least three different things are needed before a book can be started: an idea, an image, and an inciting incident. The “idea” was of burying objects in the subduction zones of plate tectonics, a basically conceptual notion that struck me as clever and original enough that I could warm to it, make it mine and elaborate on it and follow its consequences. The other necessity is more tactile and sensual, an image, a picture, in this case of a perfect idealized spaceship floating beside a huge, ugly, inexplicable and threatening object, the one a near fantasy, the other a peculiar but hard reality—both of them derelicts, floating in space with pale starlight reflecting on their dead flanks. And the last thing needed is an incident that starts off the engine of the novel, that gets the plot rolling, that makes the protagonist decide and act (and not stop acting) to generate the motion and acceleration of the story.
Those are the three things I believe you need before you can start a novel. Many writers might add “a protagonist.” I had my protagonist from a long way back, so maybe I can’t judge, but I do know that he alone was not enough to get me writing, and that his contribution did not help the alignment of the three elements. In the end (or in the beginning) what got things started was the coming together of a good idea, a provocative image, and an inciting incident. So when you get all those I hope the same spark occurs to you—that you suddenly want to “get out of the way” and just let the words flow.
The novel discussed throughout this blog, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, will be released on June 27, at the In Your Write Mind book-signing at Seton Hill University, 7-9 p.m., Greensburg, PA. http://inyourwritemind.setonhill.edu/. A lot of books will be promoted there in all the popular genres, so if you’re in the area do stop in for a fun and book-filled event.