Where Do Ideas Come From?
None of my ideas come fully formed. Inspiration is unusually sourced. For instance, way back in 2008, I was eagerly searching for e-zine publishers for my third and fourth short stories. One site looked promising but said no stories with cats in them would be accepted. I felt this was heavy-handed although the publisher had every right to set rules. Focusing on cats as a problem seemed misdirected instead of illuminating the problem underlying the cats (an avalanche of cloyingly cute story submissions perhaps?).
Anyway, my subconscious mind got hold of it and the very next idea that came to me involved a badass, hardboiled cat. Feeling faintly defeated from the get-go, I scribbled the idea down anyway, on the back of an envelope while in the car.
Outliners versus Pantsers
There’s a name for my type of writing process, and it’s addressed in an excellent how-to book on novel writing titled THE FIRE IN FICTION by Donald Maass. According to Maass’ interpretation, Anonymous-9 is an organic writer, an intuitive writer, a pantser, so-named for the seat-of-the-pants process. Pantsers like me have difficulty with outlines. Often, I know what my story’s about only after the first draft is down (imperfectly) on the page.
I can start a story in the middle, or envision a bang-up ending with no way of knowing how it’s supposed to start. When faced with this, I follow the same advice learned as a child riding horses. Instructors told me, “Throw your heart over the fence first and the rest of you will follow.” This can be applied to writing with the following translation: If you have a little something of anything that interests you and causes a spark, get it out of your head and down on paper or into the computer. Just apply the seat of the pants to the chair and keep building. A story will start to emerge. Ideas come when least expected—when the conscious mind is relaxed but otherwise engaged, like in the bathtub or shower or involved in some mundane task like washing the car. I make sure to write it down, because this stuff can come and go quickly.
Meanwhile, Back in the Car
Back in the car, scribbling on the envelope, a fight-scarred tomcat appeared, sitting under his favorite bar stool. Something had to happen next. Let’s see, doesn’t a femme fatale usually appear in a good noir tale? Sure. That would give the cat an opportunity to react to the temptress… It also seemed cool if the reader wouldn’t know right away that it was a cat doing the narration, they would assume he was human. I could conceal his real identity for a few paragraphs and then spring it as a surprise.
In his inhuman voice, devoid of judgment or caring, the cat relates how a love triangle among people in the bar develops and leads to murder. The fastest story I ever wrote (one week), CLAW MARKS was nominated for a Derringer award sponsored by The Short Mystery Fiction Society in 2009. At the time I remember some conversation in Comments sections about “Gee, I thought editors wouldn’t take cat stories. Look at this!” (Happily, the cat ban confined itself to one publisher and never caught on.)
Was the idea fully developed when I started? No, all I had was a cat under a barstool. Where did the inspiration come from? One explanation is that my subconscious mind latched onto the cat when it got paired with the feeling of upset I had about the no-cats policy of that short story site. My subconscious went to work on giving me a snippet for a story and it popped into my consciousness when I had nothing to do but sit in the car tapping my fingers. If I insisted on fully formed ideas before starting to write stuff down, I’d never get anything done. I just start with a snippet, no matter how small, and build from there.
To sum up, my ideas come from my subconscious. There’s a wealth of horror, crime and darkness at the bottom of the grey matter and it’s always sending signals. (Ask any psychiatrist what lurks in the hearts of upright citizens—it’s just that sane and healthy people don’t act on it.) I’m in touch with it through my writing and that can be disconcerting to friends and family—which takes me to the next topic.
What Will They Think?! Friends, Parents and Co-workers
If you’re writing hardboiled or horror, they will be aghast and rightfully so. (Double this reaction if you’re female.) Writing about murder and mayhem and hellish demons is fine for Stephen King—he makes a living and gets awards doing it. But if you do it, non-writers may conclude you’re coming unhinged and it makes people nervous.
I started using the pen-name Anonymous-9 back on 2007 because I didn’t know if my editorial clients who wrote memoir and chicklit would accept that I was going hardboiled. When I started getting nominated for awards, that was put to rest. But it still didn’t cover the friends-and-family aspect. I blithely told pals and acquaintances—non-writers—about my hardboiled/horror stories and sent them links. Big. Mistake.
I had a married pal that used to email me all the time with funny stuff. When I sent him a link to read KILLER ORGASM (pubbed by Yellow Mama) about a woman who kills the wives of men she wants for herself, he de-friended me, not before telling me how nuts he thought the story was. Then another pal came up to me at a lovely Sunday brunch and looked at me out of the corner of his eye and said “I read that short story HARD BITE. I never knew you had that inside you.” His eye-roll said I’d been tagged as a potential crackpot, and my place on his friend roster had just fallen several pegs.
The Doctor’s Family Doesn’t Visit Surgery
Long story short, I adopted a new rule: no mixing business with personal. In other words, I tell friends that I write, but actively discourage them from reading my fiction. My non-fiction or blogging is fine, but I draw the line at crime writing with comments like, “You might not like it, it’s hardboiled, it’s full of violence. If I were a doctor you wouldn’t come into the operating room with me. Well I’m a writer, don’t come to work with me either.” My non-writer girlfriends all buy this and accept it. Really. They know I’m being honest and feel relief at not having to pretend to like hardboiled fiction. They can still love me as a pal as long as they don’t have to love my stories. And they still cheer long and loud when anything good happens. Right now, they’re buying and downloading HARD BITE to support me knowing they’ll never read it. And that makes everybody happy, especially me.
Takeaway summary: a) if it’s difficult for you to outline stories, plumb your subconscious and learn to understand what it’s telling you. b) keep your writing life professional and your personal life separate. If you are surrounded by sensitive people unfamiliar with the crime genre, adopt a pen-name.
It works for me.