Last night I was talking shop with a friend about Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned, during which I spoiled for him some aspects of the ending. (I won't repeat them here. Keep reading, you're safe.)
We were discussing how I had gone from just having a high concept for the story to eventually realizing what it was about, and how the construction and contents of the story could do that justice. This wasn't something that happened all at once; it took a good deal of batting around, some arguing with myself on paper.
The way my friend put it is worth quoting: "It takes time to get the conversation."
For me, that nailed it. The point was to go from just an idea, to a conversation about the idea, as embodied in the story — who is in it, what they want, what they do to get it, where they end up, and what all that means. YACKETY YACK, YOU MUST TALK BACK.
Most of the time, when a story clicks for me enough to allow me to start working on it, it's not because I have all the details mapped out end-to-end. It's because I have some specific idea of what emotional resonances I want the story to produce — what feeling you're left with when you close the book and you're staring at the cover (and, I hope, thinking, I need to read that again).
Now. The bad news about this emotion-first approach is that it can be antithetical to the conversation. What you think about something, what's raised by having a discussion about it, needs to be informed by what you feel about it in a way that's not at utter cross purposes to it.
OK, I just confused everyone, so here's an example. An author provides us with a protagonist they're obviously invested in emotionally, but they haven't given us any reason to care about the guy. We're told he's all that and a bag of chips, but we're not shown it. What he feels about the character hasn't been translated into something that those of us without access to the author's feelings can also get behind. All we see is the author going "Damn, isn't this guy something? Aren't I something?" (This is reason 1 of 1,275 why I did not like The Name of the Wind.)
The other important word here is the F word, finding. At first you don't even know what the conversation is, really - it's just this nebulous idea that has about as much substance as your unfocused speculations about what lunch will be like tomorrow. Then you actually go and eat lunch. Likewise, you sit down and start writing, and get not only your feet wet in what the whole thing consists of but get your pant legs soaked. You've found what the conversation is really about, and often the only way to do that is to get the story's concrete details in front of you and then investigate them.
This is why every book, even the ones that are supposed to Just Be Fun And A Good Time, always turn out to be pretty difficult. I know that every story we tell means something, and I want to make sure the stories I I tell are humane in some way. They can be violent, they can be ugly, they can be depressing. But they can't be inhumane, and the only way to figure that part out is to get to the conversation behind the story.
(Note to self for future blog post: TELL PEOPLE HOW TO DO THAT. They'll love you forever.)
Other Lives Of The Mind