Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ideas and their execution

I am coming to see that there are two main skills a writer can and should have: the ability to generate exciting and plausible ideas, and the ability to execute them. This is hardly a world-shaking revelation on my part. In fact it's rather obvious. But it is a new way of looking at things for myself so I thought I would share it with you.

While reviewing books I have noticed that some writers can take a ripper of an idea and then run it into the ground with atrocious writing. Conversely, a startlingly obvious or unoriginal idea can be elevated to brilliance by its execution. I need hardly give examples--you'll undoubtedly be thinking of your own while reading this. (OK, I'll give one example: this is the second time this week I shall espouse Bill Bryson but I am currently listening to his biography of William Shakespeare in which he writes eloquently, brilliantly and humorously about how we know diddly-squat about the world's most famous poet. This would undoubtedly turn into a cold fish of a book in the hands of a lesser writer.)

For the last few years while working earnestly on becoming published I have spent much time on technique: the sound and structure of a good sentence, grammar, vocabulary and punctuation. I'm rather pleased with the result though I hope for greater improvement in the future. I fear this may mean I will have to start reading and appreciating poetry, as I have heard from several quarters how reading poetry can improve your writing. For some reason I dread the prospect. Poets are so miserly with words, and gosh, how they make you concentrate!

I have read books on setting and character and dialogue and taken much of this into consideration. But the one thing there seems to be a dearth of in the literature of how to be a good, or even great, writer is how to generate ideas. Perhaps this is because there is no way to instruct someone on how have one. So-called writing exercises provide ideas and then ask you to run with them: these are exercises in execution, not idea generation. Stephen King in his wonderful book On Writing instructs the reader how to go about uncovering a plot once the initial idea has been had, but not how to have the idea in the first place.

I have never had an idea for a story out of the blue. They have always arrived in my head after I have said to myself, "Right, for the next five minutes you are going to think of a story idea. Go." And I don't do this very often because gosh, it's hard. I'm not talking about the ideas for the second or third book in a series, mind you. Those are easier as the initial spark has been had and I am building on an existing world and characters etc. But an honest-to-god new story. And when I do think of an idea it's almost always the very beginning of a story and would only cover the first third of a book, or as much as you would read in a blurb. Having a whole idea, including the ending of the story, is elusive to the point of major frustration.

The only course of action, I have decided, is to practice having ideas. GOOD ideas. I am going to tell myself more often, perhaps even once a day, to think of an idea. It seems counter-intuitive, doesn't it, ordering yourself to be creative? But I have little to lose and much to gain, so it is worth a try. I shall inform you of my progress.

Which do you struggle with more, the creation of ideas, or their execution?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Recent Reads

The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow
Don't believe anyone who promises to explain string theory or M-theory. That's all I'm saying. Cos no one can. Because no one knows what's really going on! And if Stephen Hawking doesn't know what's going on with dark matter and ten or eleven or twelve dimensions and can't posit a cogent theory of everything, well, it just doesn't bear thinking about.*

Hawking and Mlodinow's premise is to address the question of whether the universe was designed or whether it popped spontaneously into existence and continued merrily on it's way to the point we're now at (assuming that time is linear, which we can't of course; that would be far too much to hope for, things being as simple as that), and it's true that this is what at least half this book is about. The other half is gibberish that only physicists would understand. Still, an interesting read. And I felt very brainy holding it up on the train.

*And even if he could, geniuses aren't very good at explaining things to laypeople. Hawking should have told this book to Bill Bryson, who could have then passed on the important bits to us. And the jokes would have been funnier.

Genesis: The Rosie Black Chronicles, Lara Morgan
Gotta love a YA sci-fi novel by an Australian author, set in Australia! Well, I do. Genesis is an adventure story set in Newperth 500 years in the future, a time when colonies exist on Mars and terrible diseases plague the earth. Though Morgan insists that Genesis, the first in a trilogy, is dystopian rather than sci-fi, I'm inclined to lean towards the latter. Genesis has a definite sci-fi grounding with a post-apocalyptic flavour. After the discovery of a mysterious box, Rosie and her friend set off a beacon and a series of events that will have great importance to the future of the human race as well as shed some light on the death of Rosie's mother. The adventure takes Rosie to Mars, and one of my favourite sequences was a hair-raising planet fall (look at me picking up the lingo) in a tiny pod down to Mars's surface.

The Princess Bride, William Goldman
This one is actually three quarters read and I don't know if I'm going to be able to finish it. It's DARK. Seriously dark. Torture and death and true love not seeming to conquer anything. It started off brightly enough--and I have to say Golding's forewords had me enthralled. Pretending not to be the author, I think that's just brilliant. And the things he said about his ex-wife and son! I saw the film many, many years ago and thought it utter rubbish. Someone made the mistake of saying, "If you love Labyrinth you'll love The Princess Bride." Um. NO. So of course I hated it because it does not hold a sputtering candle to my beloved Labyrinth, and also because it's so CORNY. All those silly asides. The stupid phrases. But the book is beautifully written and actually very just gets rather disturbing and I remember nothing past Wesley and Buttercup tumbling down into the ravine in the film so I can't remember if it has a happy ending or not.

Should I go on and just finish it?

The Last Question by Isaac Asimov
After reading several stories in I, Robot, I moaned to a friend that Asimov couldn't write a decent character to save his life. He agreed, and sent me a link to this story (which I have provided to you; click the title above), saying Asimov's stories are far better when they're pure ideas. How true. The Last Question is pure ideas, and it's a very engaging read.