I've been thinking a lot about process lately. About story ideas, and where they come from, and how to make them work. About good ideas and bad ideas and good ideas that aren't bad but aren't good enough, either.
Anyway, this all led to me thinking about process, and so I decided to write a bit about the very first days of a story, the point where something rises from the ether.
This is basically the answer for anyone who asks, "Where do you get your ideas?"
Because I was thinking so much about how I think, I broke this down much more than I normally do--usually my brainstorming is a scattered collection of random notes and ideas, nothing so organized as this.
But first I start with a list. I thought of my favorite books, movies, and manga, and listed both them and a few of things I really liked about the stories. The list was varied--whatever I was thinking of the time, including classic faves such as Firefly and Harry Potter, but also a recent read--Clockwork Angel, which I've not even finished yet, but adore. I'd also like to point out that this is a reflection of book ideas I've already been thinking of--if you were to see my brainstorming list I made in my head before working on Across the Universe, it would reflect a very different list.
Then I went through and highlighted similarities. I noticed right off the bat that a lot of what I'd listed featured an ensemble cast and comedy in some way (usually through at least one sarcastic/funny character). I also underlined or circled some of the things that weren't similar with other things, but that I really like anyway (such as the different houses in Harry Potter).
As I was still brainstorming this one, I remembered another show that I'd forgotten to list, and I was quickly able to see the key about what features I, personally, enjoy in a story.
Something definitely clicked when I added Doctor Who (the Doctor would be proud). The thing that I love about DW is that it mixes the comedic with the tragic, usually though some sort of sacrifice. In the end, the Doctor is a sacrificial character who's incredibly funny, and I love that.
So, all this thinking helped put me in the mindset of my next step: transferring the things I love into a story of my own.
So, my brainstorming had led me to two key details that I like in stories and wanted to see in my own: sacrifice and comedy. And I tend to think in terms of plot and characters, so it was easy for me to separate these ideas--I wanted (at least one) funny characters and a plot that would center on some type of sacrifice.
Now I want to point out a few things. First, setting comes last for me. This is not true of everyone. Some people think of setting first, then populate the world. But I think of plot/characters, then make the setting fit it. For Across the Universe, I came up with Amy and Elder first, then the mystery, then the ship. The ship came last--and because (in genre fiction) setting does so much to dictate the genre, I feel compelled to point out that the genre came last for me, too. I didn't set out to write a sci fi. I set out to write Amy and Elder's story, and it became a sci fi.
And I'm pointing this out because this is very very individual. Writers don't all work the same way, and I don't want you to think this is the only way.
Which leads to my second addendum: What works for one author, doesn't work for all. If I had given another author the exact same list of books and movies, she would have come up with different things she liked about them and different inspirations. My favorite character in Firefly is Captain Mal--but if someone like River better, or Zoe or Kaylee or Jayne, the result would be a different idea, a different inspiration, a different book.
Someone on the NaNo board recently asked about whether or not she should worry about people stealing her plot idea. Here's why she shouldn't: no one will come up with the same book based on the same idea. I feel absolutely no fear in showing you any of this because I know even though I've posted my brainstorming, (a) you have no idea what I'm going to write based on it, and (b) even if you did, you couldn't write the same story as me. Every story is distinct and individual.
Okay, moving on. So at this point, I've come up with two puzzle pieces--I would like to have some humor, and I would like to have some sacrifice, and it's all a part of the plot and characters. I extrapolated from there:
This was basically just elaboration on the ideas. For plot, I like two things: the characters who, in the final battle, have to "give it all" in a self sacrifice. Basically, I want the fight to the death. And I also really want a sympathetic villain--that's important to me, and I didn't want to forego that in the work.
For the characters, I figured that I'd like the comedy to come from a flirty bad boy--think Captain Mal, Han Solo, Will Herondale. And to counteract that, I'd like to have a quiet girl heroine--but I want her to kick absolute ass. The boy is the bluff, the girl is the bomb.
But a key thing in a lot of the stories I brainstormed was an ensemble cast--I've long wanted to do something with a big cast of characters, each unique. And my fave character of an ensemble is the "weapons guy"--the guy who just wants to blow stuff up. This is Jayne in Firefly or even Sam in iCarly. I want the guy or girl who throws punches first and doesn't even bother to ask questions later.
This is basically where I'm at now. It's mostly just a wish-list for a book I want to write--I've gathered the ingredients, but I don't know if it'll make a cake or an omelet, and I'm not sure if it'll even be tasty. And just to clarify--this is all very nebulous right now, and not something I've written even one word of, so it might not happen. This is the very very early stages of an idea.
But at least it's a start!