Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Writing Process I: The Idea

So about a month ago I promised a series on my writing process. I figure I've procrastinated enough (which is actually step one, by the way) so let's get going!

I start with a flicker of an idea. My stories do not come fully formed. My characters do not pop into my head and refuse to shut up (that comes later). At first, all I have is an idea.

A character. (A boy with a lame superpower)

An outlook on life. (A bizarrely moral intergalactic bounty hunter)

A basic conflict. (A grim reaper falls in love with the man she was sent to kill)

A world. (Half blood mages and humans are being hunted and killed before they can further pollute the magic blood lines)

I take this idea and I start asking questions. (Imagine me taking Idea and strapping it to a chair in an interrogation room.) I ask: What makes this idea go from shaky concept to outline-able story.

A grim reaper falls in love with the man she was sent to kill.

How did the girl become a grim reaper?
Why does she fall in love with this boy?
Why was she sent to kill this boy?
Does the boy return her feelings?
What happens if the girl refuses to take his life?

But of course, with every answer, more questions arise.

How did the girl become a grim reaper?

She was dying and was offered a rare opportunity: act as a grim reaper and after X amount of lives, she will be granted life again.

Okay, so...
How was she dying?
Why was she offered this opportunity?
How many lives must she take?
How does being a grim reaper work?

Etc, etc.

To demonstrate how I really flush out an idea, I'm going to repost something I wrote up about a year ago. I was actually brainstorming and making this up as I went along, so you guys can see how my ideas connect.

* * * * * * *

I recently thought of a young female who was an empath. She feels other people's emotions so strongly she can barely live a normal life. So, how does she live?

She would have to live in solitude, or at least a very secluded life. But she would probably need a roommate to go shopping, buy groceries, etc.

What kind of roommate could she have? Somebody happy and perky- a cheerleader type maybe. Or maybe the roommate takes Prozac, and is always numbly happy so the MC isn't tormented by her emotions. Maybe she's a cheerleader on Prozac.

Now, what do these girls do to support themselves? The Prozac cheerleader comes from a rich family- she only has a job at a fashion boutique for the employee discounts. Her parents pay her way because she's going to college.

But what does the MC do? Well, she's turned the basement into her room/office. Sometimes when she goes upstairs she can feel the neighbors' emotions and it's not always numb or happy. Jealously, envy, hatred, sadness; she feels the pain of the world and at times it's utterly unbearable. So she stays underground where she feels nothing but loneliness, for that feeling is unavoidable. She takes college classes, online of course, and she manages web sites for an income.

Now, what could occur that would be a story worth telling?

She starts feeling murders. They're happening all around town, but somehow they effect her as strongly as they would if it happened in the same room as her. She can't escape the emotions- the terror and fear of the victims, the fury and blood lust of the killer. In fact, the emotions are so strong they pull her out of the comfort of her house.

She feels the killer's drive to murder as though it were her own, and she inadvertently ends up at the scene of a crime, where she meets a detective who's drive to capture the murderer is so intense it feels like her own. She's torn between the motivation to kill and the desire to capture the killer. While she would prefer to hide in her room and continue her detached existence, she knows she can't while the killer is still roaming free. As long as he is killing, her emotions will not be left alone.

She has no choice but to try to track him down. She feels as though she wants to kill the victims as much as the murderer does, and because of that, she knows where to find them. And she just might be able to catch the murderer- if she can control her foreign rage long enough to not go on a killing spree of her own.

* * * * *

So there's my basic brainstorm of the main character, a couple secondary characters, and the basic plot. It's enough information so I can outline, which I'll tackle next.

Until then, I'll leave you with a snippet of this (still untitled, still un-outlined) empath story. I wrote this not long after I did the live blog brainstorm. This is all I ever wrote on the story, though I do like the idea, so maybe I'll flesh it out someday and actually do something with it.

* * * * *

Slowly and quietly, I walked up the steps from the basement to the kitchen. It was nearly eleven o'clock at night, and with any luck none of my neighbors would be feeling... well, anything, really.

The florescent lights in the kitchen were dim compared to the bright lights of my room-slash-office. I may live in a basement, but that didn't mean I loathed the light and the sun. Quite the opposite. It's just hard to keep my mind straight and my emotions in check when there are too many people around.

I started rummaging through the fridge, searching for the perfect pre-midnight snack. But the refrigerator was almost barren; my roommate hadn't gone shopping for a week or so. Eventually, I found a container of lasagna hidden behind a case of diet energy drinks. Score.

I popped off the lid and flipped the container upside down onto a plate. I was walking to the microwave when I stumbled to a stop, my breath caught in the back of my throat. I looked out the window and saw the neighbors there, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, enjoying a late dinner together.

Oh. God. No.

Immediately I felt the wave of emotion crash over me. Suspicion, anger, jealousy- and on the opposite side of the spectrum guilt, nervousness... and excitement.

As if Mrs. Johnson knew I was there, she lifted her head and turned toward my house. With a barely audible squeal I ducked behind the window and felt my face flush. But this wasn't my shame I was feeling.

Looks like Mr. Johnson actually felt a shred of guilt over what he was doing behind his wife's back. In the bed they shared. With their daughter's teenage babysitter. And now Mrs. Johnson's wrath over the suspicion of her husband's infidelity was echoing through my body. My knuckles were turning white as I gripped the edge of the plate and tried to think calming thoughts.

I managed to breathe, and fight away the rage that was not my own. Fortunately, the guilt was fleeting as well. Mr. Johnson was already planning an afternoon tryst for the very next day. I could feel his anticipation as he imagined sneaking away from the office on his lunch break, the excitement of driving home and throwing open the door, the desire when he thought about ripping off the mistress' shirt and...

I dropped the plate. It shattered and the cold heap of lasagna splattered across the white linoleum. I turned away, ignoring the mess I had made. I couldn't sprint back to my basement fast enough.

I didn't breathe until my feet touched the cool cement floor. I took in several deep breaths, concentrating on my thoughts and my emotions. All I felt was relief, which was my own, and loneliness, which was also my own. The relief would pass, but the loneliness was inescapable.

I looked around the basement, surveying the windowless room that I spent at least twenty-three hours in on any given twenty-four hour day.

I was always lonely.

* * * * *

All right! There's my brainstorming demonstration.

Up next is Writing Process II: The Outline



  1. This is a great post. I never thought consciously about the process you describe, but it might be really good for me to work through. I really like the storyline and excerpt you put up here too. Very interesting. I can imagine all the difficulties such a MC would have making her way through the story. The only thing I'm wondering is this. If she has such a harsh reaction to emotions of neighbors, how is she going to be able to function enough to make it to a crime scene? You may not have intended it to be so extreme, but it felt to me like the rush of emotions was almost paralyzing in it's intensity. Still, I'd read more just to find out how you manage it. Great post.

  2. Awesome post! I (heart) your ideas. How's BT coming? (I'm dying here! Ha.)

  3. This was a great post! I agree with everyone. It's always helpful to hear others' processes. : )

  4. As usual your post was genius. I am always in awe with how well you can describe your writing process.

    Keep up the good work!