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A Word Spoken By Chance

Today is the first day of National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo for complicated). My readers have kindly pitched in to help me get through this with a modicum of grace, and have furnished me with a topic per day for the next 30 days.

First on the scene responding to my call for help was the ever inspirational Pezmama. You'll be seeing her name here frequently in the next few days, as she came up with several great post topics for me. Before I address her question for the day, though, let me tell you a bit about her.

Pezmama's Rattling Around was the second blog I read with any regularity (Jane Brocket's Yarnstorm being the first). I first encountered it at a Five Minutes for Mom blog carnival last March; I spent spare minutes for the next few days reading through all her archives. She's fantastic: funny, honest, thoughtful, and generous. Pezmama is no longer an active blogger, but she had a tremendous influence on me when I was finding my own voice in this strange new medium. She has a great mind and a huge heart; because of these sterling characteristics, I have not let the fact that she doesn't like to read fiction tarnish my great admiration for her.

Pezmama's question of the day is as follows: "What kinds of writing exercises do you do (or prompts, maybe) that help you get your ideas on paper?"

For me, different kinds of writing demand different approaches. Here are the kinds of writing I do in ascending order of regularity: lyric writing, personal essays, blogging, and fiction (almost exclusively fantasy; my realistic YA novel Shannon's Mirror was an anomaly).

When I write lyrics, I usually start with a single image that grabs my imagination; with "New Birth," I used that of a candle burning in the darkness as my jumping-off point. I like parallelism in lyrics, so once I had the initial trope worked out for that song, the others followed quickly: a lily blooming in the snow; a fountain flowing in the desert.

Out of all the kinds of writing I do, the personal essay challenges me the most. When I read the work of a great essayist--E.B. White, Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, Anne Lamott, or Adam Gopnik, among others--I'm in awe. It's like reading a well-plotted mystery: I enjoy reading it immensely, but it is difficult for me to puzzle out how it's actually done. As far as I can tell, a successful personal essay is constructed in sonata form: Introduction; Exposition; Development; Recapitulation; and Coda. This is the structure I used for my very first "book": a Mother's Day gift booklet called Legacy of Self: A Celebration of Motherhood; it's also the form I tried to follow in the two essays published in the collection Silent Notes Taken.

So with a personal essay, I'll take a powerful memory and see if I can explore its meaning in my life through sonata form. Arduous? Yes. Satisfying when done to the best of my abilities? Yes. Essays are the Crossfit workouts of writing for me.

I use no prompts when it comes to blogging--until now. NaBloPoMo will certainly be a boot camp of sorts, because in the past, if I haven't awakened with an idea for a post, I simply haven't bothered. Looking back at my archives, I see that I write between 12 and 22 posts per month; putting out 30 this November, even with all your help, will be a stretch.

Fiction: speculative fiction: fantasy. This is pretty much where my inner writer lives, plays, and takes joy. I have so many ideas for books that I doubt I'll ever get them all written, and I get new ideas all the time. Many of my favorite ideas come from dreams: often just a single, vivid image, the mystery and sheer coolness of which captures my attention and compels my imagination. I keep an Idea Journal on my computer; when I have a great dream, I try to write it down as quickly as possible while it's still fresh in my mind.

When I'm ready to start writing a new story, I pull out the Idea Journal and read through it. Often two or three images or ideas will attract themselves to one another in some sort of sympathetic harmony. I'll illustrate how this happens by using the example of a partially written novel of mine called Septentrion. For this story, three different components came together.

First was the discovery of the word 'septentrion' itself. I found it by chance in a French-English dictionary when I was looking up something else entirely. It has several related meanings in the OED: "1. The constellation of the Great Bear...; 2. The north; the northern region(s) of the earth or the heavens...; 3. A northerner...." The word instantly sparked my imagination, speaking to me of unexplored regions, mysterious and remote.

Around the time I discovered this intriguing word, I read the following verse in the book of Zechariah in the Old Testament (KJV): "Ho, ho, come forth, and flee from the land of the north, saith the Lord."

This scripture is unusual in its metrical symmetry and rhyme structure, giving it the flavor of an incantation. It triggered for me an extensive topical search on the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel. This theme has been a matter of great speculation among both Jews and Gentiles (and later, Mormons) almost from the time of the tribes' disappearance. After reading many opinions on the subject--all very pragmatic--I began to toy with my own more fanciful theories regarding their dispersal and eventual regathering.

The third component of the beginning of Septentrion was an anonymous Inuit poem called "Magic Words":

In the very earliest time,
when both people and animals lived on the earth,
a person could become an animal if he wanted to
and an animal could become a human being.
Sometimes they were people
and sometimes animals
and there was no difference.
All spoke the same language.
That was the time when words were like magic.
The human mind had mysterious powers.
A word spoken by chance
might have strange consequences.
It would suddenly come alive
and what people wanted to happen could happen--
all you had to do was say it.
Nobody could explain this:
That's the way it was.

These three things combined in my mind into the seed of the book: a post-apocalyptic urban fantasy set in Manhattan, upstate New York, and the Canadian territory of Nunavut. I started playing with the idea, using the only prompt I ever use when writing fiction: "What if?"

What if the Lost Ten Tribes became somehow absorbed into Inuit culture? What if a shape-changing polar bear came to Manhattan in search of a girl who could save his people? From there, the story grew almost effortlessly, until I killed the joy of discovering the story by synopsizing it. But for me, it is such a compelling idea that I know I will eventually return to it and finish it.

A bit of Luisa trivia: as I first envisioned it, Septentrion would have had two sequels: Noctober and Novembrance. When I was searching for a domain name for my email address years ago, the first two titles in the trilogy were taken. Thus the genesis of Novembrance-the-Blog.

ZF-360 started with other "what if" questions: "What if the story of Mozart's opera The Magic Flute could be told so that it made sense? What if Irish Travellers kept themselves out of mainstream American culture to hide their magic from the world?

The Holly Place came from applying "what if" to several different arresting nightmares I am very grateful to have had: What if a person taught himself astral projection, but came home one night and couldn't get back into his body? What if there were a haven, mostly lost to the world, where a person could find healing if certain conditions were right?

I envision my answers to "what if" in the form of scenes. Characters seem to present themselves to me, inviting me to get to know them. As I learn who they are, I find out what they'll do in certain situations. Then I write what I see and hear and feel, with as much precision and clarity as I can muster.

If I'm ever blocked, it's as if the movie in my head is paused. Sometimes it takes some fiddling to get it going again; often it's a random sentence I write that gives me the next turn of the screw. "Cathy heard Mae crying in her bedroom." Oh, but Mae's sound asleep; who is really crying? Or did Cathy imagine it? A whole new plot point then unfolds and take shape.

Going back to the Inuit poem, "a word spoken by chance": that's all it takes to spark imagination when you're really listening. For me, ideas are all around, like a garden full of perfect, ripe fruit that needs only to be picked and eaten. And turning the ideas into stories is a matter of focusing energy and setting aside time for them, nothing more.

Which I need to go do right now, seeing as how National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) also starts today! 50,000 words in 30 days: I'd better get started.

Reader Comments (18)

Wow. You are seriously the best of all possible worlds. Outrageously creative, but perfectly organized. Smart and logical, but also fun and whimsical. I'm completely in awe of this post, and being able to glimpse inside your magical brain.

Good luck with NaBloPoMo and NaNoWriMo. I'm joining you in the first one, admiring you from afar with the second one. :-D

November 1, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBrillig

Very cool. I'm just wondering how you'll get through November with .75 hours of sleep each night.

On the plus side, it should make for increasingly "interesting" dreams.

November 1, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRadioactive Jam

Well, thank you for your lovely words, first of all.

Second, I should tell you that just last week, I added my SECOND work of fiction to the list of books I have completed this year.

And third, the creativity that is lodged in your brain is beyond me. If I asked myself (which I never would because - well, I just wouldn't - but if I DID ask)"What if a shape-changing polar bear came to Manhattan in search of a girl who could save his people?" It would go like this:

I'd sort of squint my eyes and roll my eyeballs up to one side of my head. Then would ponder the question only a few moments before resolutely deciding: "That would never happen."

And the whole thing would be all over.

And that probably explains why I don't read a lot of fiction.

November 1, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterPEZmama

I love reading about how other writers think and get ideas and write things out.

And this goes to show how woefully culturally illiterate I am about opera--I had no idea that ZF was a retelling of The Magic Flute. Very cool.

Good luck with both of your challenges this month!

November 1, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnnette Lyon

I loved the way you described your "what if" process. That was wonderful and inspiring. I often start with a character or a dream, but I usually don't think to ask "what if." I'm going to do that more often.

November 1, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKarlene

Wow. I am in awe! That was an awesome post. Where might I find ZF-360? I'm a Magic Flute fan!

November 1, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDedee

Brillig, you rock my world.

RaJ, when you sign up for both festivals, 'they' send you one of those Hermione Granger time-turner things. Though it will still be a trick to get it all done.

Pez, what was the second one? I hope it was better than the first....

Annette, not to worry. Even opera fans who have read as much as you have haven't gotten it.

Karlene, deepest thanks. That means a lot coming from you.

Dedee, unfortunately, ZF has not yet found a publishing home. I'm hoping it will happen soon; when it does, you'll be among the first to know.

November 1, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterLuisa Perkins

Fascinating insights. And much needed too.

November 1, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKimberly

Very interesting. What you said about your ideas for fiction, is the same for me in my ideas for blogging; I am limited mostly by time.

Just to clarify, Nunuvut is one of our Territories. Our country has 10 provinces and now (since 2000), 3 territories.

This was an interesting post. I have never considered being a writer, and now I know why; my head now spins ;-). I admire your understanding and enthusiasm for the written word in all it's forms.

November 1, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterdawn

Very educational dear. You are an amazing writer.

November 1, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterrjlight

Ooops! Thanks, Dawn. Fixing my error now....

November 1, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterLuisa Perkins

Well, I've known you for a long time, but Brillig sure pegged you! This was fascinating to read, though I already knew bits of the workings of your genius. I can't wait to read something new from you every day.

Does your blog count towards your 50,000?

November 1, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJenna

Jenna, sadly (or maybe not) it does not count. But that's okay.

November 1, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterLuisa Perkins

What a GREAT read.

You really worked hard on this.

Such Talent!

I would wish you good luck, but....You are going to ACE NaBloPoMo with ease!

November 2, 2007 | Unregistered Commentermeleah rebeccah

this was so interesting, thanks!

(and wow! you'll be doing lots of writing this month! good luck!)

November 2, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterpainted maypole

greetings from the dead sea!!

November 2, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterdeb

Now I want to read Septentrion! See... fantasy for thinkers. Amazing essay on writing practices, Luisa.

November 2, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJen of A2eatwrite

oh, you wanted serious post ideas--sorry
but I love your writing about writing--you are ever so clever1

November 3, 2007 | Unregistered Commenteranjmae

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