Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Gleam in Your Eye

A Gleam in Your Eye: How Stories Get Started

Once at a book event I was chatting with an author whose name, I suppose, I should keep secret, though it was Stuart Woods. We were talking about agents and agencies and the tangled problem of sequel rights to a novel and what pernicious contract items writers should be wary of.

A nice lady hovered near us. Finally, she burst, out, "Oh, y'all are just talking about money. I thought authors would talk about truth and beauty."

And Mr. Woods said with great dignity, "Ma'am, money is truth and beauty."

However, another thing we chatted about was story germs. Those are the flickers of images - not even proper ideas - that stir an author's interest and make him or her wonder about the context in which they belong. Often exploring the context is the way you get into a story.

William Faulkner said that one day, unbidden, he saw a picture in his imagination: a little girl for some reason had climbed up a tree. Two boys beneath her were looking up and laughing because she was revealing her drawers, which were muddy.

Brooding about who the girl was and why she climbed up there, Faulkner eventually hatched the plot of The Sound and the Fury.

J.R.R. Tolkien began The Hobbit (and later by extension The Lord of the Rings) by picturing a burrow with a perfectly round door and idly scribbling "In a hole in the ground there lived a . . . " he paused and then wrote "Hobbit."

He wrote his masterpieces because he wanted to explore that hole and find out what the hell a "hobbit" was.

It isn't the way every writer gets started, but it can be a productive one. Daydream. Conjure up images. Look for the intriguing ones, the puzzling ones, the ones that make you wonder. A critical moment for me was when I pictured - as in a still photo - a man falling backward out of a window in a burning house.

He was falling shoulders-down, and he was on fire. And he was staring up at a woman in the broken-out window who was in an almost Sphinx-like pose, but who was enveloped in flame.

That became a central image in Atlanta Bones and one of the defining moments of Jim Dallas's life. 

In fact it existed before there was a Jim Dallas. 

Part of the reason I wrote the book was to find out who the man was, who the woman was, and what terrible event was in process.

That has netted me three complete books so far (two published, one on the way), with ten more lined up and knocking at the mind's door.

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