Since I decided to become a writer I have been reading authors talking about their craft. The question beyond all others that they are asked is, “where do you get your ideas?”. It is as though there is some mystical trunk of ideas somewhere which authors use to come up with themes for stories. I am afraid that’s not true. It only serves to show how people are quite happy to mythologize their heroes. In the question is the assumption that the asker’s ideas are somehow less than those of an author’s. It suggests that an author is somehow a different breed.
I published a short story here last the weekend called Gary and Fern (If you haven’t read it you may want to before reading the rest of this). I thought I would talk a little bit about the process. About the way that I got the idea and the way that the story developed.
I really like puns. I have to say that one of the most crucial story development methods I use is imagining a pun. A vague joke to hang an idea from. It’s often not obvious by the end what the pun was. But it’s important to point me in the right direction. So this weekend I was sorting out some rubbish in the utility room.* There was an almost empty wine holder there. It had come from my mum over christmas she’d brought it in the back of her car. For whatever reason the can of antifreeze had been placed into the wine holder. When it had come into the house by mistake it was always meant to go back but it had been forgotten.
So I was moving it out of the way. In my mind as I was doing this I thought, “Anti-freeze” kind of goes like “Antacid”. Is there a joke there? No… But “Ant Acid” that’s formic acid. That’s a joke. Or at least a pun. So instead of making a joke, I wrote a story. Who could possibly make a comment about that? An ant. But it’s not funny unless he’s explaining it to another species. A human? No too weird. How about a spider. Do spiders and ants get on? No I think spiders eat ants. Does this one? No he’s different – he likes him? Why? Because he tells jokes. That’s how I’ll get the ant acid thing in.
With a short story there are two problems – largely. How do you get in and how do you get out. People need to feel that there is a good reason to stop telling the story even if, or especially if, the narrative doesn’t end at the end of your telling of the story. It’s difficult to leave on “they all lived happily ever after” – so far I’ve never done it. But if you aren’t going to end with that, what are you going to do?
For me in this story I was torn between, and wrote, two version of the ending. The one you read where Fern survived and one where as Fern dropped but missed all the strands and died. I pretty much randomly decided to save Fern. I have no idea why except that when I enjoyed writing for the characters as much as I did there is a chance that they will be back in another story. The other version would have been quite sad and as the sun was shining when I wrote it, I decided to go for the happy version.
An important thing to remember when you’re writing is what your reader brings to the story. I knew that some readers wouldn’t get the ant acid joke. I didn’t mind that. I telegraphed it as much as I could while staying in character. If I went for the joke too much it wouldn’t have sounded right to those who would have got it anyway.
Names are another problem. As you might have seen from the comments Fourstar couldn’t help but imagine a Fern and Gary from memories of celebrities. That’s slightly annoying because I didn’t think of it when I wrote it. I was going to have Gary and Vern but I decided to make a soundalike in Fern and forgot to check with my own memory to see if Fern was a real name of anyone. I wanted to make it recognisable but unusual enough to make you assume that something odd was happening. Clearly this didn’t work this time with this reader. I am here to tell you however that this always happens every time. You can’t imagine all of the interpretations. The largest barrier to writing is focusing on what people will think of it later. You want to instead focus on enjoying writing it and removing confusion. Try and make everything you write as clear as you can and it will help no end. You have to serve the reader in this way, but you can’t ever totally second guess them. Worrying too much about that will stop you starting in the first place.
* Yes we have a utility room now!!! Incredible.