A good amount of what goes into writing is discipline and focus; the actual act of pulling an idea out into reality and getting it onto a page. In a lot of ways, that’s the hardest part. Lots of people have great ideas, wild imaginations, and can have elaborate worlds just swirling around inside their skulls. The real difficulty, the hardest part, is managing to get that content to appear on a page, hammering it into an acceptable shape, and making it something that others can see as clearly within their own heads. That’s the work part. The daydream part is, usually, easier.
But it isn’t always the case. You see, anyone can daydream free-form. It’s no task at all to let your mind wander and follow where it leads. A lot of authors do this. They just daydream and go from there, following their own heads. If that gets them a story, excellent. A random story appears. It may well be fantastic.
That’s not how I work. Thing is, there’s a failing in that method. It’s tremendously difficult to write to a target. If I, as a creator, want to write a story about dealing with loss in the wrong ways, or the triumph of intellect over irrationality, or the human capacity to empathize beyond our species, or any number of concepts, then straight up free-form daydreaming is going to be less than helpful. It will actually hinder my process. When you write to a target idea you need a sort of intentional daydreaming. You have to break your creativity, just like you would a wild horse, and it’s equally difficult. Too much, and it won’t take you to the new ideas you need. Too little, and you can’t stay on target. It is a difficult balance, but one, I find, is the hallmark difference between professional and amateur authors. The ability to write something specific, on command, is vastly more marketable than trying to sell your own ideas.
I practice this. I write for Griot. Not my characters, not my world, but I treat them with the same care. I am translating Jiba Molei Anderson’s dreams when I write the Horsemen, not mine. Sure, I taint them, infuse them, and expand on them, but at their core, I’m an interpreter. When I write my image inspired stories I’m practicing writing within the boundaries set by the illustration. Even when I write stories of my own, I’m adhering to a goal I set before starting and I measure the success or failings of any given work by my original intention. How close to the mark did I come?
I have been working on writing a story set in the Satanic Panic of the Eighties for the past month. I’m several thousand words in and, as I was simply ‘following my nose’ in daydream style to see how that turned out for me. I discovered that while I was writing a very interesting story, it was significantly off goal for what I’d been hoping to accomplish and the spirit I’d intended to convey. I grew up in a church during the panic. I was an avid Dungeons and Dragons player while simultaneously being an active member in a church that declared such activity as communion with demons. Literal demons. I spent years, and thousands of hours of effort, trying to reconcile these two things on account of what I was taught by my church group. It was a harrowing part of my life that I’m tremendously glad is over.
In my current story, I’d decided I wanted to use my past as a setting, but not to make it the theme. I didn’t want to talk specifically or provide direct commentary about how churches all across the country railed against an imaginary foe for nearly a decade and their effort and devotion had all been a paranoid response to some very talented con men. I just wanted to dip my toe in. To tell an engaging horror story within that setting and to expand on the false mythology into something interesting.
As I approached the ending of the story I kept having trouble with coming up with something that would work to make the point I wanted. I had a theme, a tone, a setting, a character arc, and the first third of my word count. Now was not the time for idle daydreams. This horse was on a narrow trail and I had a specific destination to get to. I refuse to let the story dictate my direction. For two and a half weeks it’s been bucking me. Just do this. Just change that. Just add another character. Just drop that element. It said. Two and a half weeks of ideas, over and over, in my head. Many of them excellent. Just not what I want. I was starting to think the story might be broken.
And then, Saturday night, at three in the morning, it stopped bucking. My creativity surrendered to my will and offered up the exact thing I needed to make the plot work, to jibe with the character arc, to compliment the tone, and to make this story work exactly how I want, without cutting any corners.
I’m aware that, as a reader, it’s not possible to ever know if a story is what the author intended or not. Readers just know if they like it or not. But that hardly matters to me at this point. It’s about training, and discipline, and making my mind do exactly what I want, when I want it.
The daydream phase isn’t always easy. I’ve caught this one, after a very specific hunt, and am holding it tight. Now comes the next hard part; dragging it onto a page.
I’ll keep you posted.