March 15, 2017
The most common question that readers ask is probably 'Where do you get those crazy ideas?' Harlan Ellison's classic response was 'Sheboygan.' It's a legitimate question and Harlan has it right: There is no single tried-and-true method. Ideas come from anywhere. I was seated in a Washington restaurant years ago with a friend I seldom saw when the place got suspiciously quiet and we learned that we were bombing Baghdad. The U.S. was at war with Iraq.
That night, on the way home on the plane, I wrote about two friends on lived on opposite sides of the country. Whenever they got together, a national disaster occurred. The title I settled on wasn't so good. "Auld Lang Boom." But the story worked fine. Ideas come from anywhere. A friend recently mentioned a device that would allow us to enter our address in a meteorological control system which would predict specifics of oncoming weather for that address. Interesting notion. And another storyline immediately blossoms: How about if we learn to control the weather that will arrive at our address? The inventors can't resist making it available. But imagine the results.
I think the most common question that shows up at writers' workshops is about the writing procedure itself. 'What's the best approach to the process? Should I write eight hours a day? Or twelve? How do I do this?' My experience has been that if I set aside a given number of hours, say eight, I spend most of that time staring out the window and watch birds flutter by.
Much better is to set a specific creative goal. Write the next scene, where Louie discovers that the starship he's riding has run out of fuel, or that Melinda has told him that their romance is over, or whatever. But write a specific scene or three. Get it done. When you've completed the task, take the balance of the day off and enjoy yourself. People are usually surprised, when they move to this method, how much more they get done.
In the end, conflict lies at the heart of fiction. It's what we care about. If we are living the experience with the protagonist, as we should be, it is the prime force behind the emotions. When I was a kid, watching the Saturday serials with The Shadow and Captain Marvel and Nyoka, there was always a standard thrill when the good guys came out on top. (It was standard because we knew it was coming.) But there's an aspect to conflict that can provide a deeper reaction. That shows up when the protagonist is not challenging simply another human being who, maybe, wants to take over the world, but rather when he is confronting himself.
For example, our hero is in an interstellar yacht pursuing an asteroid that is minutes away from crashing into a small village inhabited by friendly aliens with lots of children when she receives an alert from her ground team that they've been cut off by a monster and need immediate rescue. Which way does she go?