by Jon Thomson
“Write what you know,” say the books. “Ideas are everywhere,” they claim. Well, maybe they are, but putting those ideas down on paper in a form that others want to read, want to become engrossed in and be transported by, is supposed to be harder than it looks. The award winning sportswriter Red Smith once described it very well. “Writing is easy,” he said. “All you do is sit at the typewriter until drops of blood appear on your forehead”. Many writers see their craft as a struggle against the dreaded block, but I think there’s no such thing. Let me explain.
In the 1980s, I was a computer programmer in a small company, effectively working for the managing director himself. One day, he called the programming team into a meeting and told us about a wonderful new idea he’d had for a new program. After an hour or so, we said we needed a technical meeting to really think about the new product and how we’d program it. We needed to design the interface, the logic, the database structure, everything. “No,” he said. “You get programming and I’ll decide what goes into it later”. A task that should have lasted three months was still nowhere near completion when I left the company over a year later.
As I see it, you cannot hope to put words on paper without an angle, you can’t find an angle without doing research, and you won’t know what to look for without a subject. Let’s test my theory with a silly example. Supposing you want to write a surreal and imaginative story for kids, one about, say, a sausage in a fridge - purely because that’s what I’m having for lunch. That’s the subject. It’s a bit broad, but that’s okay because research will enable us to narrow it into an angle later.
What do sausages contain? Are some sausages “better” than others are? Are cheap, pork-and-sawdust sausages more “working class” than expensive beef and cranberry ones? What sort of sausage is our hero? What does he think about the prospect of frying in a pan? Does he want to escape his fate? How would he release himself from the chain of other sausages? Perhaps someone snipped one too many from the chain and put him back into the packet. Would that make him naturally next for the pan? What problems would a sausage face in trying to hide in a fridge? How would he move; like a snake, an inchworm, by rolling, or even standing up and hopping on one end? What unique problems would no arms or legs present to him? Where would be a good place to hide? Would the cheese, the eggs, or the butter help him? They are dairy products after all, so would they hide a fugitive meat product? The cow the butter and cheese came from probably died to make him, after all. Whom can he trust? What kind of fear is it he feels? Is it the fear of waiting for an injection at the dentist’s, the fear of the fugitive, of the death camp? Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera…keep going.
Go for a walk and end up in a nice pub with a head full of sausage-related ideas, thoughts about fridges seen from a sausage’s point of view, shopping lists of their contents, the accents and political views of cheeses from different nations. How would they react to a banger on the run? Does the light really go out when the door closes or can our hero see to escape? Beer is very good for letting the mind wander, as are walks, trips to supermarket, cleaning the bathroom, and just about any other activity where you can take your mind off the hook and simply think freely. This is what some call “right brain” thinking: Illogical, creative, and without boundaries. But you can’t do it constructively without a subject.
Once you know everything about the surreal world of runaway sausages, you can start asking questions of him and who he is. Perhaps he’s terrified out of his wits at the thought of sharing the fate of his brothers, of seeing them snipped from the chain, thrown screaming into the pan and then onto a sandwich by a late-night drunk. He must escape! Does he manage it? Does the yoghurt double cross him? Does the man sniff him at the final moment, and then spare his life by throwing him away instead of frying his brains out? Only you can decide, but now you can do it from a position of supreme knowledge. You’ve created a little world and you know its dynamics, politics, problems, hopes and dreams.
It’s a matter of letting ideas flow by pulling that mental hairball from your creative shower plughole, rather than forcing the words to come out of your fingers, sit up straight on the page and make sense. The latter feels like trying to spin plates on sticks while wading through treacle. It’s horrible. It doesn’t do you or your ideas justice.
As we’ve seen, the subject needn’t be that sharply defined. Just research it in as much detail as possible, as widely as you can. And you can apply the same technique to all aspects of the story too. How hot is a frying pan, for instance? How does Teflon know to only stick to the pan and not our hero? Research well enough, and you may find several good angles – enough for a whole series of books about the adventures of a little sausage. Then it’s just a matter of wiping the blood from your brow and typing.
Right, that’s enough from me. I’m off for a sausage sandwich.
© Jon Thomson
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