Sep 6, 2010

Mummy...where do stories come from?

by Nikki Logan


Well... When your left-brain and your right-brain love each other very, very much… 

Ideas are like love.

A new idea is exciting and seductive and those early weeks of exploring the concept and the characters are like the best of obsessional, chemical, infatuation. An engaging, exhilarating, thrilling, exploration. It takes discipline and commitment not to be seduced away from your rock-solid, dependable work-in-progress to dally with the shiny, fresh, eyelash-batting idea. If it all goes wrong you’ll be gutted, but if it all goes right you feel invincible. Like you’ve finally struck a future New York Times bestseller.

But if you do manage to resist, then you move your idea into the grounding phase, where you get to grow your idea into a premise. Give it structure. Go deeper. Root out the foibles and examine them. This is where you make a practical assessment as to the sense in continuing forward. Are there challenges in the premise? Are they worth enduring? Is the concept strong enough? Or is it too big a commitment given the scope of the narrative flaws you’ve identified?

Some idea-relationships end here. Sometimes there’s just too much going against a good idea. Sometimes bad things happen to good premises.

But...others move forwards to formalise their writer/idea partnership. The idea decides the foibles of the writer are acceptable and the writer is confident they can work through the challenges of the idea. They engage in a sensuous, serpentine dance deep in the writer’s psyche and the tiny genesis of a story is spawned. Story gestates in the writer’s sub-conscious and grows into scenes, then chapters. Like multiplying cells it takes form on the page, the author never quite knowing what it’s going to look like when it fully emerges.

At birth, the story is the purest it will ever be. Before the realities of commercial life and structural milestones start shaping it (is its beginning engaging enough? Do its characters interact sufficiently? Has its voice come in?). Your little story grows into a complex being—running, playing, falling, winning, learning—until it’s ready for school. Ready to enter the big, bad world of competitive assessment and rigid curricula. Ready for its own peg in the fictional hallway.

Over the next phase it gets shaped and tweaked and revised and polished until it is as homogenous but as unique as it can possibly be. Different but the same. Fresh but within convention. Story adolescence is every bit as confusing and overwhelming as the human one where the story has no clear idea why it’s not fitting, just a fatalistic belief that it is not.

Until one day it graduates. On full scholarship. Plucked from class early in its senior year and advanced unexpectedly to the hallowed halls and stunning old architecture of Publication College. And everything it has learned counts for nothing. It’s back to being a babe on the steepest learning curve there is. Just when it thought it had a handle on the world. And its author parent frets and frowns and works with the story as best it can to help it remain competitive but, ultimately, recognizes that the story now belongs to a group of strangers who set the rules and determine the grades.

This severing is an important phase for the author because it prepares them for story’s final transition. Into a public entity. This is where the story that they remember as a glinting, unformed idea goes out and meets the world. Meets a reader. The reader who is destined for them. The reader who has been waiting their whole life for this story to come along.

The end.

And the parent author lets go, looks to the staggered brood of ideas, premises and stories coming up through the ranks behind Story and helps them be the best they can. As good as their older sibling, Story, if not better.

So… in case anyone ever asks you. That’s where stories come from.
I'm always battle off exciting new ideas and having to force myself to stay focussed. Right now I'm supposed to be doing revisions on my last submitted book but all I can think about is my new characters who I had to abandon two chapters in when the revisions came through. Motivation to go faster or just plain torture... you tell me.
Is it the same when you're reading? Is a new book the hardest to put down in the first third? When you're falling in love with the characters and learning about their world? Or is it later once you've committed to your relationship with them?


  1. Nikki, what a fabulous post! The story of a story - I love it.

    When I'm reading, I have the easiest time putting a book down near the beginning. By the last quarter, when everything is coming together, I hate putting it down - I stay up late, I think about it during the day, I want to sneak away to read a bit more. Now I know why - I'm committed to my book-relationship. =)

  2. Yay for committment!! :) It's so exciting, isn't it!

    I think I'm a little bit the opposite, I hate being interrupted when I'm just getting to know the story, when I'm discovering characters for the first time. It can kill the rhytym of a fresh new book for me.

    Later, I have more confidence in our reader/story relationship and I can walk away to feed the cat or sleep or eat or other fiddly in-the-way things safe in the knowledge that the story understands and will wait for me.

    Even worse is when you meet a wonderful story and you've invested all that time connecting with it and then it *ends* - gah!! Maybe that's also why I like a good beginning... because I know deep down that I'm the furtherest from the ending.

    Aren't books magical!

  3. Great post, Nikki!! I don't think I can pick a point in a book I prefer - depends on the book I guess.

  4. Hey, that's a very good point about being furtherest from the ending, Nikki. I s'pose I'm happy like that about 1/3 of the way in - I'm involved in the story, I know what's going on, and I have heaps left to sink into. ;)

  5. Hi Anita! Thanks for swinging by and you are so right, it does depend on the book. Some grip you from the get-go and others grow on you slowly. Steadily.

  6. Great insight from a great writer. Loved the post, Nikki. I love a great start, a scintillating opening hook that dares you to invest your time and energy and keeps you going right to the end.

  7. Thank you Rosie! Ooh, I love the idea of the story daring the reader. That can be so true. Especially when you have mounting commitments.

    Which, I think, is why tucking yourself away on the sofa with the phone off the hook and choosing to read instead is *so* worth it. Not only is it a pleasurable luxury but a little bit naughty too. And all reader/story relationships should have a little bit of excitement in them!! To keep them healthy.

    Thank you for popping in.

  8. Great post, Nikki, and so poetically put!

    I'm not sure when I find it hardest to put a book down (I'm tempted to say before I've opened the first page). I will say that I love to read the first third slowly, to savour it and establish the relationship... but as the ending draws near I find my reading speed picks up. It just gets too hard and I HAVE to know how it ends .

  9. I loved that: the reader who has been waiting their whole life for this story to come along! How cool is that idea!!!?
    Nikki, loved how you managed to show just how much effort actually does go into a book =)

  10. Michelle - See I picked you as a savourer, but look at that... behind closed doors you end up galloping to the finish line. It's too good when the book drags you along with it against your better judgement. Now *that's* a story!

    Mel - You know I started out by just wanting to draw the similarities between the honeymoon period and those first new pages of a story (or the early exploration if you're writing it) but the more I wrote the more I realised how many parallels there are. And yes, right through to the perfect reader for the perfect book. :)

  11. Loved your post Nikki. It's true that when you have a new idea its so exciting as you begin to fill in more details and it starts to shape. I really enjoy that part and then when the words start to flow and your characters take you along for the journey. Who was I to think that as the author I would have control. Thanks for your insights and of course for your stories.
    Tracey T

  12. Nikki, loved your description of a story growing up! When I'm reading, it usually takes me a while to fall in love with the characters -- sometimes half the book or more. When it happens, though, I think about them for days after I've finished the book! Those books become keepers.

  13. Tracey said "Who was I to think that as the author I would have control."

    OMG that is so very true! It just...takes you!

    Emily - 'I think about them for days' - lovely. Such a romantic!

  14. Lovely post, Nikki! How true about the seductiveness of the next wicked little idea when you're trying to write!

    I never have trouble being faithful when I'm reading a book from my TBR pile though - once the characters have captured my imagination, I'd happily sit and finish it in one sitting if I can. I think I must be a *binge* reader!