Zzzzzap! by Susan Price

"Where do your ideas come from?" is supposedly the question writers are asked most often, although the question I've probably been asked most is "How much do you earn?" or, possibly, "When are you going to write a proper book?" Maybe I should move in better circles.

 I heard a new question for writers recently, while chatting with some writer friends. One was struggling with several drafts of an idea she loved but wasn't finding easy and asked, plaintively, "How do you know when what you're noodling about with is going to be finished? At what point do you know you're not wasting your time and you're working on an actual book?"

We were floored for a moment. Then one of us offered the suggestion that if you could make it to, say, five thousand words on a project, that meant you were probably going to finish it. Some agreed, some disagreed. Some quibbled about the number.

House, wikipedia

Personally -- and this is only a personal view because I long ago learned that there are almost as many different ways of writing as there are writers and if a method works for someone, anyone, then it's good -- but personally, looking back at my own work, I don't think it has anything to do with word number. A book of mine has never stumbled to its knees and died on the page in front of me because I've written too many or too few words. And if it's dying, flogging myself on to write a few more hundred words -- or cutting some out, for that matter -- has never saved one. (Forgive the life and death metaphor. I think I've binge-watched too many episodes of House recently. ('He's seizing! Quick!')

So, how do you know when the idea you're working on is going to be strong enough, engaging enough, interesting enough to make it through months, maybe years of work to become a finished story or book? (And I include picture books and children's books in this, and non-fiction, which are no easier than any other kind of writing to do well, though, curiously, many people seem to think they are.)

Well, first, I find it can be very hard to tell whether or not my present project has legs. I have abandoned several books after working hard on them for as long as a year. Why? I couldn't handle the material, I couldn't find a conclusion that was 'big enough' or interesting enough to make it worth a reader's effort to plough through all the rest. Never a truer word was said than: Endings Are A Bitch. I'd produce a series of cushions, mugs and mouse-mats featuring that motto except I fear that a quick internet search would show I've been beaten to it.

The General

If you'll bear with me, it reminds me of something I read about Buster Keaton. The great actor/director loved devising screenplays around big technology, so what many think was his best film, The General, featured a young couple alone, on a fast moving steam train which they cannot stop (because their train is being chased by another train controlled by enemy forces.) Another, The Navigator, had a young couple as the only people on board a huge liner which is adrift on the ocean, due to similar hostile machinations. While inventing most of his visual gags himself (and they were often very dangerous), Keaton worked with screen-writers to come up with convincing plots -- that is, to put a framework that made some kind of sense around the stunts he was hell-bent on filming regardless. (Writing books is only different in that we work hard to contrive a plot that makes a sort of sense to frame the scenes we are hell-bent on writing, come what may.)

Buster Keaton
Keaton wanted to make a third film around technology, set in a giant skyscraper, which at the time, were still new and exciting engineering projects. He and his writing team came up with a story about a rich young man who lives at the very top of the highest skyscraper yet built in an apartment crammed with all the latest, exciting  electrical gew-gaws. (This was 1924, nearly a hundred years ago.) When the electricity short-circuits, he is trapped (with the requisite pretty young woman). How will they escape?

Keaton and the writers, no matter how they tried, couldn't invent a satisfying, convincing plot that gave the young couple lots of stunts and adventures but ended with them safely back at street level. After much effort, they eventually put the idea to one side. More time passed and the team split up to work on other projects. The skyscraper film was never made. Decades later, when Keaton had long lost touch with the writers, he was seated in a hotel lobby when, by chance, one of the writers hurried past. Without breaking stride, the writer called, "Don't worry, Buster! I'll get you down from that penthouse yet!"

Quite. You don't forget these ideas you have to give up on. They rankle.

But how do you know when a book is going to be completed instead of just petering out and hanging... for years? Well, for me, it's the zzzzap! I don't know how else to put it. The zzzzap is a jolt of electricity, a light-bulb moment and when you feel that jolt and that bulb lights up, you know you're going to finish this one, no matter how long it takes.

The Sterkarm Handshake
Forgive me for using my Sterkarm books as an example again, but I happen to remember rather clearly how the first book, The Sterkarm Handshake, progressed from a small idea that I sort of liked to something I was going to finish, though Hell itself should bar the way.

It began when I learned about the Border reivers on a walking holiday. I found them fascinating and felt strongly that I wanted to write about them -- but that wasn't enough. I could have invented no end of characters, or borrowed them from history, but I had no plot. And anyway, I realised that a historical novel, set entirely in the 16th century with no reference outside it (or no overt reference anyway) held no appeal for me at that time. I'd written historicals before, I just didn't feel any excitement about doing it again. So the problem became: How to write about the historical reivers without writing a historical novel.

I played around with the idea of having 21st Century characters visit the 16th Century. After all, if a historical novel is always about the writer's own time, no matter how hard they try to be 'historical', why not be open about it and make a novel set in 16th Century Scotland about the 21st Century? That appealed a lot more and warmed the idea up considerably, but still wasn't enough. I still had nothing but a notion and an interest wandering around in a fog.

I thought about ways to mix up the 21st and 16th centuries. I rather liked the idea of a time machine. (I always have liked the idea of time machines.) I considered who would fund a time machine and decided that it would be a multinational company that wanted to raid the past for fossil fuels -- and that heated up my interest a good deal more: the eco-angle, the 'advanced societry colonising a less technological one' angle. But still not enough. I didn't want to launch into writing it because I felt it would keel over and die after a couple  of chapters. (This fear always haunts me when I begin something new. Later on comes the fear that no one will buy it.)

I did start inventing characters and scenes, though I didn't write anything down. I would think about it while I walked or rode on buses or at other times when I had nothing much else to do. Who would the 21st Century characters be, who would the reivers be? I liked the whole idea, I was enthusiastic but still hesitated... Where could the story go? Y'know, 16th century characters meet 21st century characters, 21st century characters murder and exploit 16th century characters -- no surprises there. And there have to be some surprises in a novel.

While thinking about characters and possibilities, I wondered what each side of the time divide would think of the other. The 21st Century attitude was fairly obvious: they would think the reivers primitive, dirty, violent and rather stupid because they didn't have whatever was the must-have gadget back in 1996, when I was doing this thinking. (Lord, how time flies.)

What would the reivers think of the 21st Century people? I imagined a landrover appearing on a Scottish hillside and people in jeans and parkas climbing out. A magical cart that moved by itself. Would the reivers think it had come out of the hill? -- In Scots legend, the elves live under the hills and come out at Mayday, Midsummer, Hallowe'en and New Year, to 'ride.' The reivers would think the 21st Century time-travellers were elves from under the hill.

Zzzzap! That opened up a whole new line of plot development by bringing in the folklore of the Borders. The reivers thought elves powerful but not unbeatable. They believed elves to have magical powers but also very understandable jealousies, ambitions and sulks, which could be manipulated. If a reiver was taken on a trip into the 21st Century s/he would believe it was a trip into ElfLand -- where they must not eat or drink the smallest amount or they would never be able to return to their own world.

The light-bulb in my head lit up so bright, I think the light probably shone out of my ears.

I'm not sure why it was this idea about the 21st Century people being thought of as elves that made the difference when other ideas didn't. I think it's a fairly common SF trope that's been used by many writers before me, so I don't think its galvanising power lay in any originality but only in its personal appeal for me. With the arrival of the 'time-travellers as elves' idea, I had a setting, a situation and a relationship between the characters.With one swoop, the idea connected up my new interest in the reivers with my lifelong interest in social history and folklore: Zzzzap!

As C. S. Lewis put it: our writing develops from 'the permanent furniture of our minds.'

I know I'm going to finish a book when I get zapped. -- How do you know?

Some other books by Susan Price



Bill Kirton said…
I loved this 'explanation' of how disparate and seemingly mutually exclusive elements can fuse into a new (and totally credible) reality. But your question also reminded me of how I became a novelist. I'd written umpteen short stories, several children's stories (for my own kids and their kids),stage and radio plays (which were actually performed/broadcast) and several books about academic writing, so I obviously was relatively OK at writing, but there was a clear gap in the writing CV. Having also written various revues, I thought I could 'do' comedy, so I started what became The Sparrow Conundrum, with no real idea of a plot. Every day, I'd print out the day's output, which meant that, after maybe a week or two, there was a significant little pile of paper on the table beside the laptop. (Significant = maybe a half or three-quarter inch stack.) My thinking then was 'Well, I've done that much so I might as well finish it'. So I did. Thus, I became a novelist because, for the first time ever, I'd sustained a piece until the pages that constituted it made a recognisable pile.
Umberto Tosi said…
Thought-provoking indeed. I agree about the "zap." I just finished a short story during the writing of which I encountered the reverse of the problem you describe. I kept believing I was done prematurely. Granted it was a lengthy story - nearly a novella - with several main characters, narrative arcs and themes to weave together. But no sooner would I print out a "final" draft to proof than I would discover not only editing changes, but serious new ways to tell the story better. Then I would go back to my keyboard for another round. I nearly gave up several times, but I think I finally got something that made me happy enough for me to call it "done" and ready for including in a new anthology I'm building.
Susan Price said…
Interesting, Bill! So your experience was almost 'what number of words written ensures a finished book?' It's a bit like the sure-fire method of getting yourself to do something: set a timer for 10/20/30 minutes time and say 'I'm going to do whatever it is until that bell rings.' And you do. I've seen it explained by psychologists as setting up an expectation in the brain which then becomes compelling.

Umberto -- I've had that experience too. The wonder of rewriting. Isn't it great how each rewrite and each re-read nudges you a bit further, gets you thinking a little more. Good luck with the anthology!
Sandra Horn said…
Great post! I love the idea of a Zapp! moment - my trouble is, it lets me down - or rather, it's a false dawn and I've got over-excited and missed the faults. I love the glimpse into your writer's mind, how elves (or whatever) sometimes seem to drop from the sky and solve an issue! It's not the sky, of course, it's a coming-together of stuff swirling around in the depths of your head, but still it probably feels like a gift.

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