"It's not that I'm so smart. It's that I stay with problems longer," Albert Einstein was reputed to have once said.
Likewise, there's the Richard Feynman method of problem solving, where you simply keep the same batch of problems in mind and test them constantly against whatever comes up. Eventually, you get a hit.
Artists benefit from practicing this sort of thing. My own case is similar to Feynman's, since at any one time I'll have ideas for a story, characters that don't yet have a home, settings that remain unpopulated, concepts that deserve a treatment, etc. all floating around in a kind of freeform bouillabaisse. Over time, and enough stewing, they link up with each other. Hirofumi Gō of Summerworld and Henré Sim of Flight Of The Vajra were like this — characters without a country, so to speak, until eventually they found a setting that welcomed them in and gave them something to do.
The whole way that people juggle these things around in their heads is hard for me to talk about, because I only have direct experience with one person's version of this: my own.
In all the years I've been playing with ideas like this and giving them the freedom of movement and speech they need to unite as they must, several things have become clear. First is that the more immutable any one of the elements is, the longer it'll take for them to combine with something else.
For some time now I have had in mind two characters and a setting, all highly complementary, but lacking a unifying principle that would amount to a proper story. The setting is the one element of those three I'd be most willing to fiddle with, but the characters are too fully alive to be short-changed. So they wait until I can give them a home that does justice to them as they are, and I wait knowing full well it might be a while before that happens, if ever.
The second thing that comes to mind is keeping the pool fresh. Always look for new things to add to the pool — new situations, new potential characters, new insights, new everything. Keep your pool wide and deep and lively. Dive into it from time to time. Refresh yourself with it. You might look at something you haven't thought of in years with eyes you didn't even know you had.
The third thing is to be patient. The pool is not a factory. It doesn't run on a timetable and it doesn't have a manufacturing quota. It's more akin to a garden that sprouts here and there, something you can stumble through and harvest cuttings from. Keep the garden wild and lush, and you'll get that much more out of it in a way that won't even seem like work. Once again, this is why you want to plant as much as you can, and as many different kinds of things as you can, in that garden; you never know where the flowers are going to come up. But don't get frustrated if you plant specific things in that garden and they bear nothing for years on end.
The fourth is to be willing to throw things back into the pool. At the end of 2015, I was originally going to start work on a story called The Palace Of The Red Desert. Everything seemed lined up and ready to go for that project, until I realized I didn't actually have a story. There was a void at the center of it that I needed to fill with an actual character, and I didn't have one. So I threw everything I had back into the pool and went fishing around in it for something else — and lo and behold, I pulled out Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned. At some point I'll reach back into the pool and yank Red Desert out again, once I have something (er, someone) that fits properly at the center of it. But it was best to leave it there for now.
Fifth, and in some ways toughest, is to recognize what it is about specific things that compels you to put them into the pool in the first place. I rank this hardest because many people seem to feel as if interrogating their curiosity about things will (and here's a phrase anyone who knows me knows I love) cut the drum open to see what makes it go bang. If you put something into the pool because you, say, want to write a character that has a specific name, that's fine. (I have a thing for this myself.) But you need to recognize that such an impulse by itself won't yield finished work, let alone anything of quality. Be honest with yourself about your motives, so that you can transcend them, and not remain constrained by them.
Sixth, have fun. One of the things pretty much everyone I know did as a kid, myself included, was to take out ever damn toy we owned and play with them all at the same time. After a certain point, we stop thinking about everything in the world as potential raw material, and it becomes harder to play. Earlier this year I was at a family gathering, and one of the kids there had a LEGO Minecraft set — a little thing of maybe a hundred pieces. We spent hours sticking those pieces together in ways not described in the documentation. Anyone who has messed with LEGOs knows this is the point: the instructions only tell you how to build the thing that the kit was explicitly designed to do, but you're really supposed to just use everything in there as raw material for whatever comes to mind.
So, do the same thing with what's in your pool. Play with it, be random, don't let the origins or the function or the form of any one thing dictate its use, and see what happens. And keep doing that.
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Other Lives Of The Mind