Too Much, Too Little, Too Late – On Spontaneity and Ideas

Today’s concept for a blog entry came to me as I was driving home; in fact, I dictated some of it as I was driving home. I’ve spoken at length about trying to capture moments and capture ideas and, frankly, sometimes I think the whole concept is overrated. An idea that has been honed can be more powerful than an idea that is captured in an off-the-cuff setting. Sure, one could argue that going with something purely impulsive gives an artist something that’s a little more…well, spontaneous, of course, but that it also reflects more of the creator’s subconscious. If you’re trying to tap into emotions, that’s great, and I know I do a lot of that.

But I also think it’s a good idea to sometimes take that initial idea and hone it, refine it. I can’t remember where the quote came from, and can’t find it, but I think it was a director who said that it was often necessary to kill his favorite children – i.e., his favorite scenes or characters – in the name of a better story. I think that applies to our ideas, too. Sometimes we have to explore them and refine them and figuratively beat the crap out of them in order to see what’s really there. Sometimes facets of those ideas or even whole ideas end up getting completely wiped out.

Take my novel Jazshael, for instance. I had a dream in 2000 about an angel who took care of a family, and in this dream the angel went berserk at the end, destroying the house and ultimately self-destructing. As I had this dream I thought “wow, this will make a great novel” (this happens to me quite often), and of course wrote it down immediately. In this particular instance, I wrote the book and finished the first draft.

Then I realize the emotion wasn’t there. I take that back. There was too much emotion there, it was a little too maudlin, a little too cloying. This was the first time I’d written with a formal process and while that process got me to the end with a story that was coherent and made sense, the final product was awful. Several rewrites failed to get my problems with the story nailed down, and I realized that it might not have been the best story idea in the first place. I could well have been chasing something that wasn’t really there. Or perhaps I had taken something that was spontaneous and overplanned it. I don’t know.

It took me five years to reach that conclusion, and I believe I went through four or five drafts during that period. Maybe one day I’ll go back to the well, but in the end it turned out that killing the novel at that time was the right choice because I was about to enter the “fallow period” of my career anyway.

I attempted a few novels between then and now anyway, the most prominent of which may still have a shot at publication some day if I get around to it – I’ll address it some other time. The other was based on an album that I really like, the Afghan Whigs’ Black Love. Upon first hearing the album, I had conceived a story that was lurking there in the lyrics, just waiting to be born. Who knows, maybe I’ll put that album on someday when I’m in a creative mood and it will spur me back to work.

But what I’m really focusing on here is the idea that we trade in ideas – we trade in, literally, dreams, like the ones I have. We must have a surplus of these because not all are going to be winners. How many times have you watched a bad movie or read a bad book and thought “there’s an idea that should have stayed away from the public”? We all have them, it doesn’t mean that we’re not creative or crappy, it’s just a matter of figuring out when it’s right to unleash the idea and when it’s not.

I think having readers to give input into your work is very important, but it’s also really important to be objective about your work. People tell me that’s not possible, but it’s not true. I know I’m capable of being objective about my work; hell, I’m one of those “own-worst-critic” people as long as I give myself some space from the work. Take a few weeks, maybe a month, away from the work and come back, I can usually determine whether something is a good idea or a bad idea, or decide whether I can take it and turn it into something more fully realized.

Right now I have the opening of Book 3 in mind and am right at the close of Book 2, and am having some trouble forming a bridge between the two. I have a handful of images and the question is how those images fit together. While I could surely just crap something out that doesn’t make a lot of sense and come back to it later, but for now I’m trying to be a little more comfortable with myself, being able to sit back and think “Okay, maybe this approach – maybe that approach. Maybe in this scene X character really wants to do Y. What if I let her do that? What does that look like?” Then I go through those iterations in as many different permutations as is needed.

The opening of Book 3 is particularly troublesome, as there are so many different possibilities. At the beginning, Matty gets into the Corridors of the Dead. The contents of the Corridors are pretty clear in my mind, where she’s going is clear in my mind, but what happens in between is a character-driven situation. I already have two characters to account for right away, and a third joining pretty quickly. It then becomes a question of what these characters really want to do, what is the optimal interaction, and how do I establish tension in the plot via those interactions?

I think I found the key. This is something I’ve been doing throughout the process of this novel rewrite – something I’ve never done before. It’s spurred me on; delivered the goods, so to speak.

I’ve gone on a bit here but what I’m really trying to say is that once we determine that an idea is indeed worth using, we have to then hone that idea into the optimal configuration to drive the story.

Finally, since it’s Friday, it’s song day. How about the source of today’s title, shall we? By the excellent band Jellyfish, here’s Too Much, Too Little, Too Late:

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  1. “There’s an idea that should have stayed away from the public”?

    True dat!

  2. Pingback: Fortune « The Wandering Mind

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