Questions for Writers #1
By Lazette Gifford
Copyright © 2009 by Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved
No two authors are alike in how they work, but it can be helpful see how
each experiences creativity and how they handle the actual work of
writing. With that in mind, I've started this new section for Vision.
Over the next several issues, I will send out a set of writing-related
questions to several professionally published writers and present their
answers in this and future issues. I hope you'll find them
This issues' questions are these:
1. Can you describe the point where you know an idea has become a viable story
2. Are there any additional 'tests' you do to make certain the material is
something you really want to write?
C. J. Cherryh
When it shoves other ideas out of my head and insists on perching right in
front of me. An idea isn't ready when you want it unless you reach that
point of being a pro when you can say, well, if I gave this idea a little
encouragement, dressed it up in an interesting way and sent it to charm
school---yep, I can meet that deadline with this one.
If it wants to be written very little can stop it except the writer. I
exercise a couple of hours daily most days of the week: I figure skate. I
took it up late in life, but I have gotten one little jump down mostly pat
and am go for the harder ones, just as soon as I get my outside back edges
totally reliable. I go places. I do not wall myself off from the world. A
healthy writer wants to write. And if a healthy writer can't get to the
keyboard, a healthy writer sits and stares into space, thinking, which is a
very basic form of writing. My characters 'talk' to me when they're
off-duty. Most people would think this is a sign of mental problems, but in
a writer, it's a very healthy sign. They have their own voice, their own
outlook on life, and they have comments. When characters never talk or stop
talking, go take up downhill skiing and hope for voices in your head.
Regenisis, the direct sequel to Hugo Award Winning Cyteen
For me this is pretty simple. The idea starts keeping me awake at night,
waking me up at one in the morning, dragging me out of conversations with
people I like because something just clicked, only to dump me back into the
conversation with a blank look on my face because I missed what people were
saying to me because I'd started writing.
If the idea can't do this to me, if I don't dream about it, if it doesn't
make my heart race when I suddenly start having elements click into place,
it isn't a viable story idea.
I have very hard, unyielding standards in this regard.
* The protagonists have to be people I would want to know, and spend time
with. If I don't like them, I can't write the book.
* They have to want something important---and it cannot just be important to
them. It has to be something that would be important to me if I were in
* The antagonists have to have real, clear-cut reasons for being who they
are and for wanting what they want. I have to believe their reasons---and
the reasons can't be "because they're evil." WHY are they evil? What do
they want that sets them in opposition to my heroes? How can they see the
choices they're making as right? Or if they don't, why do they choose what
they know is wrong?
* The world has to interest me. The physics of it---whether real- world
physics or the physics I designed---have to hold together and create
problems for me to solve.
* The story has to have a solid theme---something that matters to me at a
deep, compelling level.
* And finally, I have to care what happens. I have to want to know how it
all ends enough to sink months of my life and countless irretrievable hours
of my time into finding out.
Quality Writing Tools
Silver Door (Moon & Sun Series # 2)
My answer depends on what type of project we're talking about. For a short
story, I generally know it is viable after I receive feedback, though I can
tell it's not if I cannot come to a reasonable end point.
For novels, I have to see the whole story in my head. This sounds rather
vague, but I've learned if I don't have the sense of the story, then it's
either not viable, or more often, not viable yet. How I confirm an idea's
state is by writing an initial synopsis.
This is not a submission ready version, and the final novel may not include
everything in the initial synopsis, or may take a slightly different path,
but if I am able to write the synopsis, I know the story is going
somewhere. I know it's got the potential for a main plot, whether I use
that one or not.
I do not test my stories, at least not consciously. They come to me and I
write them. By the very virtue of their arrival, they are something I want
to write. However, there was a time when I would jot down notes on every
single idea fragment that came to me.
My ideas file was a jumble of phrases, ideas, and notes, most of which never
came to fruition. What I do now, which is a test of sorts, is that I don't
write down random ideas. I wait until they become solid enough to at least
hint at a story, whether novel length or shorter. If I don't want to write
it, the idea fades, though sometimes ideas warp so that one I wasn't as
interested in becomes something else and reintroduces itself as a winner.
Margaret McGaffey Fisk
Curve of Her Claw
From the Ashes
The Author's Grimoire
I have story ideas all the time, but usually there is a certain feeling
I get when a particular idea suddenly takes hold and I want to write it.
It's like something expanding inside me, and I want to start getting it out
right then. I start taking notes, sometimes I'll jot down the basics
of a scene that I've 'seen' or a bit of dialogue. This will eventually
grow into the basics for the story, from world building to outline.
Over the years, I've seen one
particular problem that many writers fall into again and again: They start
stories only to abandon them when something else comes along and draws their
attention. I had a bit of that problem now and then, then I had always
enjoyed the act of writing a complete story. I decided to make a rule
for myself -- that I would finish everything I started.
I've been doing this for about
two decades now, and I can say that I have learned more from the stories
that gave me problems than from the easy ones. The stories don't
always work out as well as I hoped, but I finish them anyway.
And that means I'm very careful
about which the the stories leap up and down in my head that I actually take
out to write. Usually, the story has to stay active in my brain for
quite a while before I even start doing any of the world building.
Once it gets to that stage, I will eventually write it. I might do all
the pre-work and let it sit for a while, but eventually I will get there.
Available at Amazon.com
Most projects, for me, come from a combination of inspiration (usually in image,
but sometimes in idea) and butt-in-chair, pencil-in-hand work. Very seldom any
more do I commence writing on something until itís ready, and for me, that means
not just an opening, but the conflict and the resolution. Or, put another way,
the opening, the middle, and the end. Or, a third way, plot arc, character arc,
idea arc. My particular ďitís ready to rollĒ signal seems to come with this
notion of tripod, a balance of three things.
I begin when I have a compelling enough scene, which may or may not be the
opening. If I keep liking the project, I keep going...if I lose interest, I
know a reader would lose interest even before I did, because we are always the
most invested in our own stuff. So I either set it aside to see if the
subconscious wants to work on it, or abandon it.
Usually my ideas come in two forms. The first one is self-explanatory, but the
second... okay, let me see if I can break it down.
The first, more common kind is a snippet of language that just sounds beautiful
or meaningful in my mind, but doesn't really justify a full story. So I set it
aside in a file, or jot it down into a notebook. It can be a pithy disembodied
quote spoken by some nebulous character, or a single-sentence thought, a burst
of emotion, or a descriptive sentence presenting a scene, like a mind
photo-still. This becomes building block fodder for some other larger work
The other kind is a fully formed
theme coupled with a metaphor
coupled with emotional resonance that I instantly know can be a story.
Let me explain these three elements: theme, metaphor, emotion. It's what I need
to build a story. Without one of these three elements, I cannot do it properly
-- or better to say, the story is sort of flat or does not feel right -- to me.
Here's an example of a story I might "build:"
Betrayal (specific: a person is betrayed by their best friend.)
a woman is enchanted to be a mermaid and live in a lake which she cannot ever
leave because once she had let her best friend drown (usually this is where the
speculative element manifests in the story).
Anger, pain, hopelessness, revenge, pity, coping, regret, love, redemption. Note
that all or some or just one of these emotions can be chosen to develop a story
(more than one story, in fact), and depending which the writer goes with, the
plot grows out of it. (Plot by itself is meaningless.) Plot is merely the
resolution of the emotional starting condition in the beginning of the story
that needs to be worked out in order to provide a satisfying "mental place" for
the character (and the reader, and the writer-creator!) to end up in. And
characters grow like clay creatures out of the emotional-thematic-metaphoric
situation. Everything works together, everything is organic, growing out of the
And if this method of writing stories sounds nuts to you, well then, think about
it. Why do we write and why do we read? To experience a progressive emotional
arc from which we deduct a rational conclusion, and obtain something altogether
new to our psyche. To claim any other reason is just self-deception.
I have just one solid test -- of memory and time. If the idea stays with me,
haunts, or irritates, or somehow bothers me days and months later, and if by not
acting upon it I continue to think about it, I know I have to write it. A good
idea is like a nag, following me until I deal with it. It's a to-do item in
your mental mailbox. A partially formed idea is a nag too, but I file it under
"building block" for something else. Also, there is no such thing as a truly
stupid or inane idea -- anything I can deconstruct as stupid in the process of
thinking about it simply never makes it into my mental in-box, or else,
dissipates like smoke the next day.
In the publishing industry
Vera Nazarian wears two hats -- writer and
publisher. She is arguably the only Armenian-Russian professional speculative
fiction writer working in English today. She is an award-winning artist and a
Nebula-nominated writer, active member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of
America (SFWA). Her work has been translated into eight languages. Best known
works are the novels
Dreams of the Compass Rose and
Lords of Rainbow, and the most recent is the novella The Duke In
She is also the publisher of Norilana Books.
I have an idea of a concept, I write it down in my file with my other ideas.
All these ideas eternally percolate in the coffee machine that is my head.
Sometimes, a scene emerges, fully formed, that relates to one of those
ideas. Even though I don't know the characters, the setting, the plot, or
ANYTHING, I have a scene (usually the climax). That's my project. I write
the scene, then I fill in the story around it.
Since I'm writing to sell and publish, I keep an eye on authors in my genre
and industry blogs - especially the short story markets (fiction). I can see
what's selling, what isn't, and whether an idea has been done better by
With non-fiction, I query before I write articles. If I can't find a home
for the article, I don't write it.
Steff Green, author of over 50 published short stories, articles and
poems, and two ebooks - Halloween Wedding Planner and 33 Mistakes
Writers Make About Blind Characters, which you can buy from her
Bruce Holland Rogers
Since I write mostly short-short stories these days, this is a relatively
easy question for me to answer. I recognize ideas in two steps. One is the
moment when I see that there's enough of an idea there for me to write it
down. I carry index cards around and write down anywhere from one to a
dozen ideas at this level most days.
The second step comes when I'm looking at those ideas and rehearsing the
story for each one. It could go this way or that way, could be combined
with another idea, told from one point of view or another. With most ideas,
I don't feel there's enough there yet. The story doesn't interest me after
thinking about it for a few minutes. But others cross this threshold when I
figure out things like the first line, the last line, the strategy from
getting from start to end.
So there are two thresholds that an idea has to cross. First, it has to be
worth writing down on an index card in a sentence or two. Then and
examination of that sentence has to result in my being able to see how the
story will work.
I may get 100 ideas a month to cross the first threshold, but only three end
up being the stories that I write and send to subscribers of
It has to please me. I have to want to write it. I have to look forward
to reading it back to myself when it's done.
Of course, I also write some ideas with nothing to go by but a sentence or a
word that I want to play with. I write a complete draft --- beginning,
middle and end --- in five or ten minutes. But these are ways of teasing an
idea out of thin air, and what I end up with is less than a real draft and
more like an improvised blueprint for a story. A few of those contain an
idea that is worth working into a finished draft. Most of them aren't.
Elizabeth K. Burton
As to #1, I think just about any idea can be a viable story project if you
can attach it to a theme. The theme of a work is a much neglected item these
days, I fear. Even space opera or the simplest sword-and-sorcery has one, if
you take the time to look deep enough.
As for when I know, I don't, usually. At least, not until I've written a few
chapters and/or scenes and gotten a sense of whether there's enough
complexity in character and plot thread to carry the theme to completion.
For #2, I find the tale will pretty much retire itself if it lacks
sufficient life energy. On the other hand, I've also dumped story lines that
didn't seem to have anywhere to go only to come back to them weeks or months
or years later and discover there's actually gold buried in there. So, I
never really throw anything away.
Elizabeth K. Burton, Executive Editor
Zumaya Publications LLC
Opening Doors to the Creative Mind
First of all, my main interest is children's fantasy. When I get an idea
that I KNOW is good I keep it in my head until I can get to paper and pen. I
begin with an exciting opening chapter- the most important chapter in the
story- the one that will hold my young reader-or my publisher's interest. I
then sleep on that chapter wondering where I can take the story, because
initially and quite through past the middle of the story I haven't a clue
where I'm going with it. I am on the young hero or heroine's adventure. I
always leave a hook at the end of each chapter. When I get to the end of a
chapter and begin to wonder, how on earth am I going to get out of this and
carry on, I sleep on it, thinking about the ending of that chapter last
thing at night before I drift into dreamland. I usually have the answer in
the morning and in some cases the following morning, then I carry on with
the story. I don't have a length decided at this stage so the story usually
finds its own length.
I rewrite several times until happy enough to put in into my computer. Tests
really are, I'm on the adventure. The adventure has to keep me interested.
If it doesn't, how on earth will I hold my young reader
The Meltin' Pot From Wreck to Rescue and Recovery, published by the
History Press is to be launched on March the sixth, and already
released by the Inishowen sub-aqua club who found the B 17 bomber.
Challenge of the Red Unicorn is out in March aswell. Published by
Jim C. Hines
These days I need to jot down an outline of whatever it is I'm thinking
about. Usually I can tell as I'm writing the outline whether there's enough
to the idea to sustain an entire story. The final story may or may not look
anything like the outline, but it's that initial outline that tells me
whether it's a story.
Nothing formal. With anything I write, there will be times I love it and
times I think it's the worst thing I've ever done. But if I find myself
lying awake at night thinking about the next scene, or turning off the radio
on the drive to work so I can concentrate on the next twist in the story,
then it's a pretty good bet I've got something fun and worth finishing.
THE STEPSISTER SCHEME, by Jim C. Hines
""These princesses will give Charlie's Angels a serious run for the
money and leave 'em in the dust."" -Esther Friesner
Read the first chapter at
Tamara Siler Jones
When someone buys it. :)
I often don't want to write any of it. You think I have a choice, here?? ;)
This isnít infallible, but if I can envision both the beginning and the end the
odds are good that the rest will come together.
I sleep on it. If Iíve forgotten the idea the next morning, it probably wasnít
substantial enough to work.
Melissa Mead, Author of Between Worlds from DDP
There's a point in my mind where things move from a collection of ""neat
scenes"" and ""character studies"" to being a ""whole"" story concept about
characters who seem real to me facing a beginning, middle, and end. If I can't
see the beginning or the middle or the end then it's not done baking in my
Basically, if I can't care about the characters and their motivations, why would
I write about them for other people not to care about? That's my test. I
have to care enough about what's going on with these people in my head that I
want other people to see and experience what they're facing as well.
All writers are beset with more story ideas than they can possibly write about.
One of the hard parts of the writing life is finding a way to keep those ideas
from being so distracting that they take away from productive work. Separating
the few nuggets of wheat from the mounds of chaff has to become part of a
writer's process in order to avoid being overwhelmed.
My particular method for dealing with this situation is based on patience --
with a touch of ruthlessness thrown in. When an idea arises, no matter how
compelling it seems at first, I don't start making notes on it immediately. I
wait. My theory is that the good ideas will last, and the ones that can't really
carry a story will fade.
Basically, I let my subconscious take care of the weeding process. The good
ideas will keep floating to the top of my mind and will be more developed as
time goes by. When a particular idea has stuck around long enough to present
itself to me with at least a beginning and an end for a story and an underlying
theme, I will start note-taking and further development.
A positive side effect of this process is that those ideas that don't make the
cut often cross-pollinate and come back as something somewhat different but much
The only other tests I have are:
Does this idea say something that is important to me? Is it important enough for
me to spend the time and effort to write this story?
The idea has to show me that it has a beating heart to it before I start serious
work. This is where the ruthlessness comes in. Sometimes, an idea will get to
the note-taking stage only to fail this test and be discarded. I have too many
ideas and only so much time to devote to them.
If you are a published author -- not self-published
(though you can be both) -- and would like to take
part, email me at Vision@lazette.net and I will add you onto the list!