Wednesday, February 24, 2010


I find myself in the unusual position of being without pages to type before I sleep. Well, it's unusual for me anyway.  At any given moment, I have several novel ideas in various stages of completion.  There's two mostly-complete first drafts sitting on the footstool next to my slippers as I type this, in fact.  Either or neither of which could be my next project depending on whether I feel up to writing about the Library of Congress or Shakespeare next... or starting something completely new.

I tend to both savor and fear these moments.  The blank page is a terrible void to fill, casting word after word into the white nothingness in hopes that it will return with a story in tow.  So I thought I'd take a moment to reflect on how I get from that idea jotted on a napkin to something that I feel strong enough to devote a hundred thousand words to and eventually like enough that I feel it's ready to hand to an agent.
Bibliogenesis: n. 1. The act or process of creating books or literature. From Greek: βιβλίον, 'a book', + γένεσις, generation. (via Wordnik)
Every time I have an idea or a random thought that might make a good story, I jot it down.  In a notebook, on a napkin, on my hand, in the margins of a book, whatever happens to be handy becomes the keeper of that idea until I can get it home and type them into my computer.

Somewhere on the hard drive of every computer I own is a file folder titled "Seedlings".  It's into this folder that I toss all the random nonsense that appears in my head.  In these surroundings, those half-formed notions are given time to germinate and cross-pollinate with other ideas and eventually mature into stories.  Regardless of content or craziness, into the folder they go so that I don't forget them (even if I may want to).  Bizarre names like "Yenta Bill" stand cheek-by-jowl with "WWII Spy Story - Possible Novel". 

There is another file that all of my computers share titled "Character Cocktail Party".  This is the holding cell where I keep all of the characters that spring to life when I'm not looking.  It's quite literally a digital cocktail party where these fragments of my imagination can swap lies, tell stories, form alliances, and sometimes hook up.  A metaphorical melting pot from which only the strongest characters emerge.

As each character develops, they get his or her (or its in some cases) own file folder for the research notes specific to that character.  A folder currently on this hard drive is labeled "AJ MacLeod", a character from the novel I just put in the mail.  Inside can be found files related to gardening, education and Washington State history, all topics immediately relevant to that character.  Another file is more nebulously labeled "WWII Spy", an idea without a name, but full of random information ranging from snippets of stories my grandfather told me to details of OSS operations, along with any random tidbits about the period that I stumble across in books I've read.

As you can imagine, at some point the seedling file "WWII Spy Story" and the character "WWII Spy" will meet.  But my spy isn't ready to leave the cocktail party yet.  He has to mingle and make connections and decide what his name is going to be and who he will bring with him... or if it's even a him for that matter.

In the fullness of time, stories and characters meld and merge and get combined with other ideas and characters in sometimes unexpected ways.  The best of them reach a point where they deserve to get leave the party for a bit -- get out and stretch their legs.  (No character is ever completely freed from the cocktail party, of course.  When I'm done with them, back to the party they go to help the next generation along.)

When I feel that they're ready to break into the real world, the key tidbits of information are culled and printed and organized into a binder.  There are shelves of them in my studio, filled with notes and maps and ideas that are still ripening, waiting for a day like today when I'm at the end of one project and looking for the next one.

On days like today when I'm trying to find my fictional bearings, I get to take one of the binders down and read through it.  Poke it, read it, gnaw on the covers, see if it's ripe yet, ready to bear the scrutiny of a hard year's writing, strong enough to support 100,000 carefully-chosen words.  In short, decide if it's ready to be the genesis of my next novel.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).