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Where do you get...?

During Charlie's globe-trotting, interruptions to his supply of liquid helium cause difficulties in maintaining the optimum operating temperature (4K) of the superconducting neurons in his prodigious precuneus. (This is not rude.) So here I am, Not Charlie, humbly filling in.

Faithful readers know there are two FAQs that one really shouldn't ask. There's "I've an idea, will you write the book for me and we'll split the money?", which generates a reflexive two-monosyllable reply in any writer's mind (modulated by varying degrees of politeness as subsequently uttered).

But "Where do you get your ideas from?" elicits a different reaction: a widening of the writer's eyes as they affect disdain, a shakiness in their laughter as they attempt to dismiss the words; for there are places where We Dare Not Look (lest Cthulhu suck out our brains).

Among the list of possible topics that Charlie suggested was world-building - which, like writing in general, is a cognitive process. As I talk about weird physics or visualizing the minutiae of daily life in an imagined culture, behind it all is a series of subjective experiences: vivid scenes - call them visual hallucinations - plus images representing the abstract concepts that make it hard SF.

So let's begin with the subjective aspect.

The more challenging an intellectual field, it seems to me, the less we care to think about process. For example, how does a theoretical physicist work? The late great Richard Feynman (who had little time for psychology) revealed something of his internal experience. So did Michio Kaku, writing in New Scientist some years back.

So let's try thinking of a situation in a Feynman/Kakuesque way. Imagine we're mulling over the motion of electrons. Here goes...

First, imagine a wire, and in it, flowing electrons. Pop that image up in your mind's eye (more like your subjective, internal cinema/movie theatre). If there's no motion in the picture yet, add it now.

Now, in your mind, push the movie away from you as you let it shift out of focus, growing blurred. Let it continue to hang in the background.

In front of it, pop up an image of this equation: I = dQ/dt. (Current = the rate of flow of charge.)

Sharpen the image of the equation (with the background movie unaltered), then assign a colour to the I, a different colour to the = sign, yet another colour to the Q, and a fourth colour to the d /dt.

Now make the equation glow strongly as it hangs there... and finally, contemplate the situation.

That seems to approximate their internal process of getting started. If they were here with us (rather tougher in Feynman's case) we could ask for their feedback, and tune the example more closely. Which generates a question...

When have you ever read a physics textbook that told you to do this?

If you think of this as a cognitive strategy, here's how to evaluate it. Try it on for size. It will not work for everybody. Many physicists are musical; perhaps they prefer more auditory strategies. Others might benefit from the above exercise, but alter it in whatever ways suit them best.

This differing balance among the senses accounts in part, I believe, for our taste (such a sensual word) in books. Composer Hans Zimmer apparently once asked his girlfriend: "What music plays in your head first thing?" When she said, "Huh?" he elaborated: "You know, the soundtrack that's inside your mind as soon as you wake up?"

We're all different, yet similar enough to communicate, with varying degrees of accuracy.

So for any unpublished writers: if my visual examples seem alien to you, then open your mind to the possibility that you might write like Isaac Asimov, Elmore Leonard or perhaps Stephen King. Panic ye not...

So here's a beginning to one of my books. I was driving along a deserted country road at an early hour, and up in the sky, to the left, I "saw" a blurred, ornate stone sphere, and on it (zooming in) a tiny figure climbing the exterior, heading for the apex.

For many writers, this is how it happens: flashes of scenes. (And the moral of the story is, never accept a lift from a writer who's looking distracted.) Early in the process, we just allow these things to pop into our awareness (from the subconscious void where we dare not look, because of Cthulhu lurking).

When I say "many writers", I mean a significant proportion of those I talk to at conventions and elsewhere, Charlie included. I'm trying to generalize this to other people's subjective experience.

There's also, for some of us, the necessity for an abstract idea (however that's represented in the mind) to pull the images together. (The notion of tension between ideas, an imagined somatic sensation, seems appropriate.) In this book, I was thinking of the arrow of time and the transactional interpretation of quantum physics, and feeling certain that somehow I could have oracles who could literally see the future.

(In fact I needed a third bit of weird physics, but that came later.)

It came to me that the stone sphere was a terraformer - and that first scene was atypical - and that the population lived below ground, that the society was centuries old and literally stratified, that portions at least were ruled by aristocrats... and so on, in a rush of heady "facts" about the world.

And that really is the beginning of building a world or a universe or a book.

Writing a first draft is an ongoing process of lucid dreaming (while your fingers record the experience), and it feels as if you're an observer (who can shift viewpoints and move in and out of the characters) recording the experience sent up to you from the deep by your Muse (or Cthulhu).

There are strategies to help move things on, like asking: what happened next? And if you don't like the first answer, then: no, what really happened next?

Stephen King (in his book On Writing) says that writing feels like uncovering memories, something that resonates with Charlie and me. (And I must ask more writers about that.) Tentatively, I suggest that visualizing appropriately might be marginally easier if you direct your eyes somewhere up and to the left.

(Tangential remarks... This is a conjecture based on neurolinguistic programming's "accessing cues" whose significance is overrated, sometimes by NLPers, sometimes by commentators. I can access a visual memory, for example, no matter where I'm looking, thanks very much. However, when accessing cues do occur, they are obvious. My opinions regarding NLP approximately match those of Derren Brown, well-known hypnotist, mentalist, sceptic and friend of Richard Dawkins. His negativity is directed at the community rather than the psychological techniques. For example, I view "anchoring" as no more than operant conditioning, albeit a form requiring some physical skill.)

For now I'll add only that writing, like reading, is a trance state. While I've never written with an EEG or fMRI scanner attached to my head, it's surely close to trances induced during medical hypnosis, in which the changes in brain activity are obvious: the anterior cingulate (think of it as the source of the nagging, critical, error-correcting internal voice which does serve a useful, protective purpose) decides to chill out, while the precuneus in the superior parietal lobule (powerhouse of the imagination, hence Charlie's superconducting neurons) goes into startling, blazing overdrive.

While dropping into that state every day - as a matter of habit - is very, very cool.

Next post: less of the bonkers psych, more of the weird physics!

P.S. For the physics example, if you want to push it a bit further... The current in a wire is the same everywhere, no matter how it twists or changes diameter. Do you feel in your guts, intuitively, how this must be so? If not, do the mental exercise again, and pop up the Coulomb inverse-square-law equation as well, and let rip. Let us know how you get on...

P.P.S. Disclaimer: I am not, nor have I ever been, an actual proper working physicist.

P.P.P.S. In case you missed it, while discussing cuts to science funding, David Cameron recently said, "By chance, I was talking to a particle physician last night." (Physics World) Oh, well.

P.P.P.P.S. The precuneus was originally called the quadrate lobule of Foville, after its discoverer. Quadrate lobules of the world unite!



The abilty of the writer, in (nice) magpie-fashion to pick up bits and pieces and INTEGRATE them. (also the mark of a really good scientist, incidentally) is surely worth a mention. Once, in the pub, with many of Charlie's friends, someone mentioned "horror" as a subject (re. Laundry-sf, I think). I said (because someone had been mentioning the vile disease-ridden London Pigeons): "The Bird is cruel" - and the discussion moved on. In the "Fuller Memorandum" Charlie had picked-up on that stray remark, and metamorphosed it into a reference to blood(?) under Mo's fingers ... "Jonathan Hoag territory". THAT is the sort of thing that can often make a writer, and make them readable and good.


But there's a difference between getting a flash idea, say, in the shower, or driving, and thinking through all of the implications and effects. What sorts of activities do you do when working those out? Are you mowing the lawn, sitting at your desk gazing out the window, meditating in the lotus position in the garden?


Ah - that's what makes you a writer. I'd have just said "M&S, but I do keep the receipt".


I found that some of the best result comes from actively not thinking, whether this is writing or running or playing the saxophone. I play the best when I only just feel the music rather than think about it. When in "the zone" my fingers magically translate exactly what I am hearing in my head. Whenever I try to think about it, I stumble. It's sort of like focusing into the distance when you're in deep thought or the slightly outer body feeling you get when you run and you feel like you could continue forever.


I still like Roger Zelazny's response to where he got his ideas. He said that he left a saucer of milk out for the fairies every night, and in return, they left him a sheaf of ideas for the day.

Personally, I think a good response for the "I've got this great idea" crowd is to explain the economics:

  • An idea took maybe an hour to come up.
  • A book takes minimum 30 days to write (NANOWRIMO) to 60 days, plus editing, and re-editing, and submitting, and re-submitting. Let's be parsimonious and say that it takes 1000 hours to get a book published.
  • If they're willing to share 0.1% of the advance for a book, sure, fine, that's doable. And this is the optimal case.

    The point is that a minimum of 99.9% of the book's value is in the writing, not in the initial idea. Proceeds should be shared on that basis.

    Given the speed I write at, I'd split it at 99.99% author/0.01% idea maker.


    I wish I could remember the quote - something about "by mail order from a small town in New Jersey" (?)

    We all get our ideas from many places. Serendipity and sweat. The trick, such as it is, seems to be the process of assimilation and transubstantiation in that there is rarely that "one idea" that crystallises. And from my own experience, few ideas survive contact with the pen. They mutate and diverge and take on a life of their own. The results can end up surprising the writer who claims to originate them and that, to me, is the true pleasure in writing.


    I like Terry Pratchett's 'inspiration particle' idea, actually (first trotted out in WYRD SISTERS, I believe). And no, Faraday-cage hats do not work to keep them out. Not to mention the Disgruntled Characters who keep showing up on my back step whining that "my author doesn't understand me" and take up residence in my hiring hall till they can get new passports and a new set of fingerprints ("Your name is Donald Sicario, and your Social Security number is..." from CONEHEADS). I also have fun setting more than one series worth of fantasy on the same planet--planets are big and this allows me to let some of the guys from different ones run into each other and play blood-curdling games of fan-tan. And then there's the people who run into the hiring hall that I've never seen before, and slowly take over its administration if I don't watch them.

    Ideas aren't the problem. The time and trouble needed to write the forty books about them is the hard part, for me.


    Sitting and gazing gives me scenes that are more than flash ideas. When I know a lot about characters and scenes but the story's not there yet, then I sometimes work things out by pacing up and down while interrogating my muse.

    Generating my first novel, I wasn't satisfied that the weird science and basic story were strong enough, so I paced up and down in a hotel room, adding layers of complexity. For example, the psychopath with electronic-telepathic-style vampire tendencies was interesting, but that wasn't good enough... So what if the secret police know what he's up to (sort of) but continue to observe him for their own purposes?

    This is sometimes what happens to get the twist in the tail of short fiction - the what-really-happened moment. I once got the final piece of the puzzle while running hard on a treadmill in a gym with pounding music... But only once.

    As for flash ideas, I don't write things in notebooks. My theory is, if the idea can't survive a day or fortnight until its counterpart crops up - some extra thing that generates a story - then the idea wasn't good enough. I'm assuming a Darwinian selection process in the subconscious mind.

    OTOH, this might mean that I once had the perfect idea for The Best Story Ever Written, one that would captivate the mind of every human being for as long as our species endures... and then forgot it.


    The abilty of the writer, in (nice) magpie-fashion to pick up bits and pieces and INTEGRATE them

    Totally agree, Greg. Picking things up from everywhere.

    And to heteromeles @5...

    I was delighted to read in one of Zelazny's later interviews that he used to have up to 14 non-fiction books on the go at one time. Delighted, because... me too. ( boast I have a signed copy of Nine Princes in Amber.)


    One thing that's not nice, and is shared with actors, is the part of the writer's mind that continues to observe people's reactions in the midst of tragedy, knowing that some day those observations will be useful...


    I doubt I'm fanatical enough to be a pro writer, but the last complete story I did was a fanfic-style attack on Where Eagles Dare with a bunch of characters from a loosely-organised shared world.

    There are some really dumb mistakes in that book/film, including stuff that could have been fixed by changing a placename, but I had also been looking up some of the occult-Nazi fantasies, and I realised that the film-location castle really was the sort of place where you might find a spear and magic helmet.


    BTDT. Having a family member get cancer is priceless. Just as long as it's a curable form of cancer -- otherwise it's priceless in the wrong kind of way.


    Curious. As a software engineer, I can't honestly say there's any spectacular mental gymnastics involved. I just subdivide the problem until it's obvious what the next line of code has to be.


    I just subdivide the problem until it's obvious what the next line of code has to be.

    So you have a repeat-until iteration with a well-formed test condition. Nice.

  • The word just suggests that a) you perform this subdivision process easily (with unconscious competence - good on ya), and b) that it's "atomic" in your self-awareness. In other words, how do you carry out a step of subdivision? Visually? Via self dialogue?

  • You know when to stop subdividing, which is always a good thing. Do you see the line of code in your mind?

  • Feel free to ignore the questions, because they're intrusive. (I've been on the receiving end of this kind of analysis.) I do wonder what level you start subdividing at. A UML Use Case, a GoF design pattern...? I'm sure the level varies.

    Here's my real point.

    I can't honestly say there's any spectacular mental gymnastics involved.

    ...Because you're so good at it! Seriously. Call it talent or unconscious mastery.

    I wish I could remember the quote - something about "by mail order from a small town in New Jersey ...

    "It Came from Schenectady".


    Thomas Jefferson said something about ideas raining down from God. But he was talking against patent laws. I think life trains people out of having ideas.


    What if you ask a writer "Will you give me one of your ideas, and if I manage to write a book we'll split the profits?" :-)


    U K le Guin once said her ideas came from a PO box in ... erm ... Minnesota (?) Actually got it on a vinyl record, somewhere. Before she read either "the DIrection of the ROad" or "those who walk away from Omelas" .....


    Life, no. A lot of modern education systems, yes. Why? Well, we could speculate about political organisations (including lobbying groups) who benefit from discouraging the general population from thinking for themselves....


    OTOH, this might mean that I once had the perfect idea for The Best Story Ever Written, one that would captivate the mind of every human being for as long as our species endures... and then forgot it.

    Well, if it wasn't captivating enough for you to remember it .... the rest of us might still have liked it, though :-)

    Thank you for sharing your approach. It sounds a lot like what I do in deep math mode, though I do keep notes since I have too many interrupts. But notes are a poor substitute for a saved idea-state and the continuity of the visualisation.


    Sometimes I make notes, and sometimes I don't (for exactly the reason John gives). And when I do make notes, sometimes they make no sense whatsoever to me even a week or so later ...


    Some of my best ideas come when someone asks a question I don't know the answer to.

    Sometimes they come from mashing two or more random things together and thinking about them for a bit: Romeo & Juliet in cyberspace; Scooby-Doo on a nuclear submarine; The Office as the Time Patrol.

    But it gets harder as I get older.


    Yep, that happens with photographers too. One of the reasons I'm very happy I didn't become a photojournalist (my aunt was one, and when I was drafted into the US Army they were originally going to make me a combat photographer, so there was some attraction to the idea). That photo of the South Vietnamese officer blowing the VIetCong prisoner's brains out put me right off the idea.


    I tend to solve software problems with a different algorithm: generate and test. Think of a candidate solution for the current problem and see if it really works; if it doesn't, mutate the solution somewhat and and try that. When I first start on a particular problem the solutions can be a bit odd, until I zero in on a part of the solution space that's close to a local optimum.

    I started writing an SF novel a couple of years ago, but only got a few thousand words written. But the characters continue to pop into my brain every now and again, and I may have to write something with them just to get them to stop bothering me. Does that happen to people who actually finish writing what they start?


    John @ 9: Zelazny's product definitely reflects his method of approach. I envy the signed Amber book. I met Roger twice, and neither time did I have a book or the coin to purchase one to have signed. He was awesome about signing my notebook, though. A great man, him.

    In my own writing, currently much neglected, I often run into the issue of transmission speeds. The brain moves at a pace that my best typing speed is hardly capable of equaling except in occasional riotous bursts when I happen to be at a good keyboard. Those images and the words to describe them are often moving with the current, and I fall behind.

    Tangent, on writing and writer's habits: I have a habit I never broke, but had broken for me. The bank in my town used paper for their ATM and transaction receipts. Being unable to get certain things out of my head until they'd been transmitted to paper and due to my line of work (chef) at the time lacking in understanding of the need to have a notebook constantly at hand, I took to writing things on the blank side of these bank transaction receipts. My wallet grew husky, then chubby, then bulged and tore its seams with paper I dared not remove for the risk of losing it. The edges of the papers slowly ratted inwards and ate words, here and there. Removing and stapling together these receipts into sheaves provided temporary relief, but no lasting succor. Only by the fortunate grace of the bank moving to thermal paper was I spared of this habit, since the thermal paper is both unacceptably poor as a writing surface and short lived. I finally moved to small pocket notebooks, and eventually to jobs which allowed such arcane things as a personal notebook on the desk, or the possession (at least for the duration of a shift) of a desk at all.

    I do admit to keeping fragments and pieces of various story ideas clattering around. I sometimes write a piece, inside of one story, and find I muse excise it - it's a great idea, but not a fit - and I am reluctant to delete it whole. Instead it gets thrown into a chain of consciousness file, which when I'm feeling ambitious, I randomly pull an entry or two or three from and see if anything resembling inspiration or fusion occurs. So far little result - but there's yet time.


    Something for people to think about: there's an annual challenge to write 50,000 words in a month out on the net, NaNoWriMo every November, and this year they have started a Summer Camp version: July and August.

    I shall probably wait until November. This isn't a good time for me, but I can do some research, get some idea of a structure and of what needs to happen. Don't bet on it coming out the way you planned.


    "writing feels like uncovering memories"

    A 1000 times yes. That's how I know when I'm going in the right direction with a scene, because it feels like I've accurately described one of these fictional memories. Likewise, I know when a scene isn't working because it feels false. "That's not what really happened" I say to myself, take a step back and then say, "What really happened?"


    Absolutely recommend NANOWRIMO. The only thing I'll add that they don't "like" is that you can include outlining as part of your 50,000 words. Background research too.

    It's a great way to see if there's anything in an idea.


    the characters continue to pop into my brain every now and again

    You'll never get any peace until you write them an ending. :-)

    Does that happen to people who actually finish writing what they start?

    Not if you provide everyone with, dare I say it, closure. The characters of my nicely completed books don't haunt me. Then there's the protagonist I left in a dire situation at the end of one book...

    I get emails about that one. And recurring visions.


    TechSlave @ 25:

    Re writing speed... A very long time ago, Anne McCaffrey told me I should learn to touch type. I saluted and obeyed. (She has that effect on me. Something to do with her father being a colonel and all.)

    At the time, writing code full-on for a living, my hands cramped up every day as I stuck with my 'new' method of working a keyboard. (No mouse involved.) Suddenly, after 6 or 8 weeks, everything freed up and I was even faster than before.

    But I'm intrigued that you're a chef. Here's what Barbara Kingsolver (who's written a sort-of cookbook in addition to her novels) says about writing:

    As a literary novelist I spend my days tasting the insides of words, breathing life into sentences that swim away under their own power, stringing together cables of poetry to hold up a narrative arc. I hope also to be a fearless writer: examining the unexamined life, asking the unasked questions.


    John @ 30: Anne McCaffrey is a wise woman then - touch typing has made many things in my life easier over the years. I learned it from online gaming in the old MUD/MOO/MUSH days, and have not regretted it. That same gaming background brought me around to eventually leave the restaurant industry and slide into IT.

    Typing almost achieves the needed speed when I run around 90-110wpm, but a day full of work at a keyboard means there is some level of finger fatigue by the end.

    Interestingly, writing things out longhand sometimes helps with the finger aches once I learned to buy good pens that don't require a death grip to make marks on the paper. However, it takes me back to running behind my mental sprints.

    I find that I miss being a chef, in that I had tangible results from every hour of my work day. The art of seasoning, experimenting, timing, and plating had much to recommend it. There was a pleasure to being a chef which my job in IT has rarely equaled. Unfortunately, the pay and stress were far from commensurate and I left for calmer shores where I occasionally get holidays off so long as servers manage not to catch fire. I wasn't aware of Barbara Kingsolver's cookbook-of-sorts, and may have to track it down now through the library. A good choice of quotes from her, I think, to blend the two worlds of food and writing!



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    This page contains a single entry by John Meaney published on July 22, 2011 10:58 AM.

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