Phase 1: Let There Be Light
The writer stares at a blank screen.
How do novels begin?
Not talking about the finished story here, ready for the reader. Talking about the genesis of the novel.
In the beginning … what?
There is darkness. Emptiness. A void we avoid until we can stand it no longer and have to face the deep, tormenting nothingness of the blank page.
Where do big ideas come from?
Did it start as something that really happened? To you or someone you know?
Did you mis-hear or misunderstand someone, triggering your imagination?
Did you dream a dramatic event? A brush with death that made you feel alive?
Some writers write blindly, letting their fingers type up an idea. That's cool.
Others - like me - ponder and scribble and doodle and play the "what if" game in search of a viable kernel.
Many of my screenwriter cohorts play the "what if" game to generate their catalogues of potential storylines.
What if … every human everywhere suddenly shifted ten feet to their left?
Well, more than a few business people might find themselves outside their 41st floor offices. And I mean "outside."
What if … while walking through a forest you find a locked briefcase handcuffed to the wrist of a severed arm?
Well, whatever is in there may be of considerable value - worth separating a man from his limb for.
What if … you could see three seconds into the future, and change the outcome as you see fit?
Well, you might make a fortune as a hockey goalie.
Whatever it is that first gave you the inspiration - call it the seed, the germ, the flash - as you pursue it, catch it, examine it, work to give it shape, one thing is vital to understand and accept: an early casualty in that process is the seed, the germ, the flash.
The initial idea often does not survive.
Writers need to be okay with this if they want their stories to graduate beyond the infancy of the "what if" stage.
The natural process requires the story to evolve beyond its initial conception, growing into a living, breathing entity that seeks to blossom into the fullest version of itself.
When I attended the Canadian Film Centre, an agent gave us a pep talk that opened my eyes. He challenged us to whip up 5 ideas a day. Five what-if's. Every day.
After one month we'd have 150 ideas, 140 of which will be garbage, 8 or 9 of which have some semblance of potential and 1 or 2 real possibilities.
I loved hearing that. I loved the challenge. Dreaming up new worlds is our work, our calling. To be successful, we need to roll up our sleeves and build our storyline catalogues one idea at a time.
I have generated a plethora of truly awful original ideas, and in the sifting compiled a small collection of potential storylines and a fistful of rare gems.
Long before the actual writing starts - writing that leads to re-writing and, ultimately, publication - the author must explore deep into space to make first contact with an idea.
And what is an idea? What is a seed, a germ, a flash?
It's the collision of previously-unintroduced, otherwise-innocuous elements. We slam them together, and our imagination is the catalyst.
Suddenly, there is a reaction.
There is fusion.
Let there be light.