Different vehicles for different ideas, by Elizabeth Kay

Is that idea you suddenly got in the supermarket a Ferrari, a Reliant Robin, or a penny-farthing? Knowing which form is the right one can make all the difference between staring at an empty screen until making a cup of coffee is the only constructive thing to do, or dashing downstairs first thing in the morning before anyone else is up to get onto your computer. Is it a doorstop trilogy, a standalone one off, a play, a short story, or a poem? And how do you decide?

Of course, the vehicle you first choose may not be the right one. If we take a poem as being the likeliest form for a single idea, there are still a lot of forms to choose from. A limerick about the death of your first pet may not be such a good idea, and an ode to an ingrowing toenail may prove tougher than expected. There are always exceptions, of course, and I think blank verse is actually the hardest. This came from a single idea: cakes.

                         VICTORIAN SANDWICH

 Ask me about my childhood, and my mind fills with cakes.

The mille feuilles of my schooldays, layered with flashbacks.

Bolts of lightning, long in shape, short in duration,

Brandysnaps, slow-black currents in the hot cross buns -

Oranges and lemons are played with a bitter candid peal here.

Petit fours mushroom from marzipan, seed cakes germinate;

Madeleine memories are japanned with jam, coated with coconut,

Fudged by a few melting moments – but not too many.

Fancies are iced, pastry tempers are short and flaky,

Brown is a verb, and gingerbread men have knife-edged smiles. 

Holidays are sliced away by lime drizzle.

My parents think they’re getting on – and they are,                  

Hair turned grey with powdered sugar and insufficient turnovers,

Victorian values. They don’t cook any books.

Brought up in a baker’s, stuffed with trifles.

When it comes to the crunch, peanuts are all that’s on offer.

 A play tends to be built around characters and dialogue, and although I remember a radio play called The Revenge which didn’t have a single word, it worked perfectly well. It was about an escaped prisoner. You hear all the sirens and the dogs barking and the frantic rush through brushwood and bog until the prisoner reaches a house. He breaks in, and goes upstairs. Someone is having a bath. The prisoner drowns him. I think that’s how it went, but it just goes to show there are always ways of breaking the rules.

 Short stories can be anything from flash fiction to many thousands of words. I think this is the most famous example: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." A six-word story, generally attributed to Ernest Hemingway. You can’t have too many characters in a short story, as there simply isn’t the space. But there are lots of short story competitions, and it’s a good way of getting started. The absolute all-time classic for structure is The Gift of the Magi, by O.Henry. It’s available online. The other one I recommend is Lamb to the Slaughter, by Roald Dahl, which is all about one clever idea.

 A book is another matter altogether. Ideally, you need more than one plot, and you need an idea that you can sustain for about eighty thousand words. Sometimes one idea leads to another, and lo and behold you have something that will work.


The best example I can give is how I came to write the most successful of my books, The Divide. I was going through a bad patch, and trying to write depressing kitchen sink narratives that reflected my situation. It suddenly occurred to me that I needed to write something to cheer myself up instead, and children’s fantasy was the way to go. I decided to target my book in between Harry Potter and Northern Lights (nothing quite like aiming high!) and to include all the things I really liked, such as mythical creatures and and magic.

Where to start? I asked myself a series of questions. Where was the most magical place I’d ever visited? Monteverde, up in the cloud forest in Costa Rica. What was special about it? It was situated on the continental divide, where all the water on one side flows in the Pacific Ocean, and all the water on the other side heads for the Atlantic –what a great gateway to another world. However, I didn’t want it to be another oh it was just magic, so I constructed a device whereby if someone stood exactly on the divide, with a foot on either side, with equally distributed molecules, the tug of the oceans on either side catapulted them into another dimension. However, as everyone who visits the demarcation line does exactly that, everyone would disappear. I had to have a time lag. A specific number of seconds seemed too contrived, so I settled on the length of a heartbeat. But – if someone’s heart is beating, their physiology isn’t stationary, so I had to have someone who died for a moment.

This gave me the idea of a boy with a terminal heart condition, on his last holiday with his parents. He runs away for a bit of peace, stands on the divide and passes out. The shock of being shot into another world brings him round, but the reprieve is only temporary. In this world, magic is a reality and science a myth. Our mythical creatures are their real ones, and our real ones are their myths. A human is therefore a mythical creature. Both boys and girls will read about boys, but boys prefer boys, so my hero is a boy called Felix. He does find an ally in this other dimension though, so enter Betony, an elf. Felix is immediately presented with two quests – how can he get back home, and is there a cure for his condition in this world? So I had my basic plot, and my setting. But I needed a theme, and as I started to write it occurred to me that I’d accidentally found a way to write about something I’d wanted to tackle for a long time – the historical abuses of the pharmaceutical industry in the third world. So I need a baddie, but there were far too many dark forces around to do that. Who are the real baddies? Unscrupulous big businessmen. So I invented a pixie who was trying to start the first multinational in this pristine place, by buying up spells and potions from little villages and selling them on at inflated prices without properly testing them first. And then the book wrote itself in three weeks flat!

Of course, a trilogy presents other problems, and sequels always take longer to write than the original book as everything has to be checked for accuracy. And the third book takes longer still. So a trilogy, or a series, is something that can work with a different idea each time, but still keep the basic set-up and characters. Not something to undertaken lightly, and probably best tackled after the first book has been published. You may find reactions alter the way you want to proceed, so be patient and make sure that everything is rock solid!



Ruth Leigh said…
I absolutely love your poem! It's as full of ideas and allusions as a Christmas pudding is full of fruit.

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