There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
Writing is an extreme privilege but it's also a gift. It's a gift to yourself and it's a gift of giving a story to someone.
I never feel lonely if I've got a book - they're like old friends. Even if you're not reading them over and over again, you know they are there. And they're part of your history. They sort of tell a story about your journey through life.
Once you allow yourself to identify with the people in a story, then you might begin to see yourself in that story even if on the surface it's far removed from your situation. This is what I try to tell my students: this is one great thing that literature can do - it can make us identify with situations and people far away.
People are notoriously bad at explaining what they do, and how they do it in any detail—particularly if they are experienced. They do what they do as a reflex. and just get on with it—as opposed to self-consciously planning their next move.
I’m no exception to such an inadequacy. As I wrote the other day, I can’t explain how I write. I know how I learned to write, and I have a few principles to guide me, but I certainly can’t explain the process itself.
For that reason, I’m somewhat ambivalent about writing about the significance of stories. I make them up, and I write them down—and how I do it seems to work—so why think about it too much? It will break the spell. On the other hand, that was the theme that popped into my head this morning—and it won’t go away—so now I have no choice in the matter.
So you think a writer controls what he writes? Hah! You underestimate the power of ideas. They pop up—as if from nowhere (like a bunch of demented frogs)—and then they bend you to their will. Best to go with the flow—bow to the frogs. Ideas don’t either go away or give up.
Being a writer—and an author at that--I am somewhat embarrassed to admit this, but I find that all too often I don’t know the precise meaning of words. To be fair, frequently that is because words are used somewhat loosely—or have several meanings—but you would think I would rattle off the meaning of ‘story’ without a second thought.
Not so. Then the marvelous Wiki let me down (a rare thing)—so I typed in ‘story definition’ and up came the following:
an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.
There are other definitions, but I think this nails it because of the inclusion of the phrase ‘told for entertainment.’ Here, you have to interpret the word ‘entertainment’ somewhat broadly—because not infrequently a story is told to make a serious point, but it still gets at the essence of the thing.
Still, just for the hell of it, I looked up ‘entertainment’ too.
the action of providing or being provided with amusement or enjoyment.
Stories are astonishingly powerful. Why is that?
- Stories are ideas—and ideas are the most powerful things in the world. Ideas drive the world.
- They are the best tools we have to help us understand the meaning of life.
- They give us context, history, and purpose.
- They promote empathy, and help us understand and connect with other people—and how they think—better than just about any other technique. They hide the frightening fact that we really don’t know how other people think—which means, in essence, that we really and truly are alone—despite what we pretend. All we really know is what they say and do—which is not the same thing at all.
- They please, puzzle, intrigue, stimulate, distract, deceive, surprise, demonstrate, fascinate, and explain.
- They come in seemingly endless varieties—and cover virtually every aspect of the human condition.
- They can be told through every medium. A story can be conveyed through pictures, orally, through mime, through the theater, through the written word, through film, through music, and by way of just about every communication methodology and technology yet devised. They sound pretty good on the radio.
- They evoke all our emotions. They make us laugh and cry and arouse us sexually. They make us angry and they make us afraid. They comfort us and make us feel less alone.
- They enable us to have adventures and other experiences—albeit second-hand—that we could rarely, if ever, have directly.
- They give us a feeling—albeit an illusory one—of control.
- We seem to have an innate and desperate need for stories. Life without them—without that escape from our daily cares—would be intolerable. As air is to the body, stories are to the spirit.
- Stories are magic.
I’m not sure how good I am at creating completely original stories—though it’s a moot point whether such things exist (though I guess at the beginning they had to). Who told the first one? Adam or Eve? Some say there only a handful of basic plots (I forget the actual number that is commonly quoted—seven is the number that comes to mind).
I tend not to think that way. I never cease to be impressed by the endless variations that my fellow authors come up with—and, if they are described as derivative—well, so be it. I don’t think any the less of the authors for it. Practically everything is derivative, if you think things through. Shakespeare was, arguably, the biggest idea thief of them all—and his reputation seems to have survived that discovery. Personally, I think it is only good sense “to stand on the shoulders of giants.”
According to Wiki, that metaphor probably originated with Bernard of Chartres though Isaac Newton—who used it in a 1676 letter –tends to get the credit.
My thrillers tend to be inspired by real events and to be character driven. Regarding real events, GAMES OF THE HANGMAN was inspired by my discovery of a freshly hanged body on my morning walk. Not a pleasant sight. This was a very messy hanging. Just the thing to set one up for the day.
As to being character driven, since my protagonist, Hugo Fitzduane, is intellectually curious, it is only natural that after he finds a hanging body, he wants to know why the victim hanged himself—if, indeed he did.
Did he? Go read the book! Regarding the body I found, the disturbing fact is that there was no real investigation. It was just assumed it was a suicide. That fact has haunted me ever since.
But storytelling isn’t just assembling ingredients. As with cooking, it is what you do with the ingredients that matters—and the permutations there are endless.
I tend to think about my stories a long time—for years—before I write them. Once the basic concept gets established, I will then revisit it frequently—often while walking or doing household chores—until the story becomes virtually real to me. Then, because I think visually, writing becomes a matter of turning the movie in my head into words.
Easy? You jest. Writing is never easy. The challenge—in many ways—is the whole point.
As matters stand, I have more books planned than—most likely—I will have time to write. However, if there isn’t an afterlife, I’m not sure I’ll be concerned about my unwritten books. If there is, I’ll just go on writing. I haven’t been quite wicked enough to be consigned to hell—and I’m quite sure Heaven features computers and high speed internet.
I would like to write a really good love story before meeting up with Saint Peter. I’m not sure whether it will be of the erotic variety or not—I’m tending towards the former if I can summon up the courage—but either way, all I have so far is the intent, a title, and some erotic e-mails I have been sent. I keep them in the freezer.
Somehow a story eludes me. Every now and then an idea flashes across my mind, but, overall, the frogs are still in the shadows.
Erotic love? More research would seem to be required. This writing business can be tough.