The Last Word
Fingers poised over the keyboard, she waits for a story to strike
After spending the last four years working on the same novel, it's hard to think about beginning again. My work-in-progress is currently unattached, but looking for a meaningful relationship in New York City. Best left to its own devices (with the able oversight of my matchmaker agent) the W-I-P will manage on its own - or not. My job is to move on to the next thing; put what's done away and come up with some new story.
How hard is that?
Actually, fairly difficult.
Scraps of ideas bounce around inside my head, caroming against each other. Bits of wispy dialogue between barely imagined characters, genderless, faceless, mere chalk outlines on the pavement of my mind. I'm stimulated by people-watching on the VTA bus or the boat, and find myself running life stories out for perfect strangers based on nothing more than hair color and a bit of jewelry. But none of these flights of fancy have the gravitas to become full-blown novels.
A thought. An idea. I sit at the word processor to see if it has legs. Draw up a character sketch or two, spin out a few pages. Wait and see if I think about the story while I'm in the shower. If it doesn't capture my own imagination, how will it capture anyone else's? First and foremost, I must be interested in the story. It must grab me or it won't go anywhere. Can you imagine anything so painful as writing a story you wouldn't enjoy reading?
Writers famously claim to be at the mercy of their characters, that the imaginary become as real to them as the corporeal. This is true. I have dreamed of my characters on occasion, the fully formed three-dimensional people of my mind. However, it's well nigh impossible to have that ease or familiarity with half-imagined people. Especially if the story isn't working for me. There are a lot of scribbles abandoned in my laptop. I never resort to complete trashing, because even in the worst dreck there are bits that can be reclaimed.
So I continue to hunt for the story idea that will compel me to tell it, the story that clamors for my attention.
The trouble is that there isn't any well to go to any time a new story is needed, some dependable source in which to dip my bucket. Creative ideas are triggered by many things and are rarely from the same source. One of my novels, Hawke's Cove, came out of a long-forgotten incident brought to the fore with the resurrection of a Hellcat plane from our waters. Another came from the question: what if? There are authors who get their stories from the news, e.g. the "ripped from the headlines" style of Jodi Picoult. Others have tried and true formulas, or recurring characters. I've had plenty of ideas recommended to me, but if you're telling me about it, that story belongs to you. I'm more of the divine inspiration type, the breath of an imagined whisper against my neck as I look out over East Chop. Ah, an idea, get the butterfly net.
Maybe story ideas come from microwaves floating in the air. That's about as close to figuring it out as I can get. I can't explain how it happens but at some magical moment there is an idea, then the suggestion of a plot, a glimpse of a character - the seeds of a story. The novels that grow from these scattered seeds bear very little resemblance to the original concepts once they begin to grow on their own, any more than a sunflower seed looks like a sunflower.
But, I'm out of practice. The W-I-P had encompassed so much of my writing life that it's incredibly hard to think about any other characters, any other story. I need a little sorbet to clear my palate before I can turn my attention to something new. If only I knew what that something new might be.
My cousin gave me a muse. A kitschy ornament with a quote from James Michener. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I had a moment when I hoped that it would help.
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist who lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at susanwilsonwrites.com.