We all know the feeling. You are sitting at your desk, compelled to write but not driven by any of your current ideas. Sure, you could write that mystery, but all you have is one cool scene in your head and a generic villain to drive the plot. Don’t get me wrong, the scene is probably awesome, but one scene is not the makings of a novel. It’s one singular idea.
The purpose of this post is not to bash anyone who starts with an idea and expands the writing from there. I used to do it all the time when I was first starting out and trying not to blatantly knock off better executed stories and movies I had encountered. Problem was, after I finished writing out the scene in my head, I had nowhere to go. If I forced myself to keep fleshing out the story that didn’t yet exist, I went like a sailing ship with no wind. There was potential in each failed novel I produced (and there were many, believe me), but they lacked the spark.
Every once in a while, however, I stumbled on a gem. Something that got my creative forces working in unison. I could see the first scene of the book, and the next, and the next. Almost always, the story involves something I already love: the ocean, seabirds, Loch Ness, history (WWII in particular), the paranormal. These also happened to be things I already knew a good deal about, and the inspiration combined to make something not just exciting in my head (as the first writing expeditions were), but real. Tangible. Concrete.
As with most wisdom, “Write What You Know” is nothing new nor omnipotent. There are many who will loudly object to such an imperative and claim you can write about anything well, even if you haven’t directly experienced it. Most science fiction writers would support that counter-argument, I’m sure. But it’s a strategy that works well for me, and like a lot of things in life, it bears repeating.
However, that’s not the only method you have to finding that first impetus to create the larger work. I encountered another quite recently in my Writing About Nature course last semester. We were tasked with emulating a nature writer we had a decent amount of familiarity with. Setting the bar high, I chose Jack London.
With a name like that, it’s almost like the man was destined to be an author from the start. Stephen A. Roddewig just doesn’t have the same ring, but I’m getting away from the point again. I channeled the themes of Jack London: the power of nature, the frailty of man, and so on, and attempted to match his elaborate and heavy style as best a technical writer that has learned concision like religion could. As an experiment, and to keep my interest, I combined the style with a subject I also enjoyed: the sea. Because showing is always better than telling (the fiction writer’s bible in a sentence), I’ll let you read the result below.
The Great London and the Sea
Wind, the unbreakable herald of the spring maelstroms, sheared against the scared face of the old beacon. Abrasive, sand-laden, taunting, it sought to pierce the age-old enemy and smother the life within. But the lighthouse bricks held, tired and wary as the waves thundered down upon the unfortunate rocks who still held the thousand year line against the sea’s ire.
Only a light keeper could know the true fury that such simple acts to an intellectual’s eye harbored way amid the black clouds that slid down the horizon toward Dash Point. Such an edifice of brick and mortar, of man’s thought and his sweat, could not be allowed to blaspheme the eternal order of the sea. Since time immemorial, she had whittled away at the land, from the quietest lap of the tide that sequestered the tiniest grain of the beach to the great hurricanes that slashed apart dunes and flooded islands. She had held her dominion over the land, whose only power to circumvent her will lay in the boiling cauldrons deep within its bosom, and these molten bastions of resistance so seldom clawed their way to the surface.
But man emerged one day, and finally the land had found its champion. He did not view the sea as a foe worthy of respect, but a beast that needed taming. The sea rebelled, and destroyed his docks, sank his ships, broke his rods, and flooded his fields. Over time, his knowledge grew greater and his tools stronger, until she found that bricks did not yield as wood splintered, iron did not breach as timber leaked, cement didn’t collapse as sand and mud scattered, and the lighthouse didn’t extinguish as fire smothered.
That’s as far as I got by hand. But, hey, for a first draft, I think the mission was accomplished. Playing around with a different style than I usually use made the juices flow and gave me a new perspective on writing. Plus, I think it’s some decent prose in its own right, even if the piece is unfinished.
Of course, the line between inspiration and plagiarism is a fine one, and since I am not a copy-right lawyer, I cannot give you concrete criteria to avoid any infringements. But as I have said before, plenty of authors take inspiration from other works. It’s only natural to want to produce things you enjoy, and if you like someone’s writing, you’ll gravitate toward it. Just be sure to give them a nod in the foreword.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t select another Soundtrack of the Revolution. This time, I call on the blues and rock legends to give you an extra burst of inspiration.
So join me, and break on through to the other side of the success wall, comrades. Until next time, the struggle continues.