2100 words about folding peacocks and an intergalactic zoo.
Sometimes people ask me, “Where do you get your ideas?” Every writer is different. I’m lucky in this respect–I find ideas exceptionally easy, almost like breathing. I always have ideas. Sometimes I don’t like any of my ideas or want to write them, but I have them anyway.
Let me track the genesis of today’s idea, since I remember very well how this one came about.
1. The spark. This can be anything that grabs my interest, from a news article to a writing prompt to random words. It’s something that “sparks a story.” As mentioned, this week I’m doing continents and senses. So the seed today was Australia and Sight, drawn randomly from a cup. Two seemingly-unrelated words often make a powerful story, because exploring the disconnect between the two words leads to some interesting and subtle connections. Sometimes, if I have a half-baked idea, I draw something random from my idea files. I keep an index card box full of odd phrases and weird ideas that don’t belong anywhere, and use them to supplement me as needed.
2. The playtime. This is where I bounce ideas around in my head, playing with them until I’ve got something I can work with. Some people call this brainstorming, but I think it’s a little different. In a true brainstorm, you write down every idea you can think of without judgment. In playtime, I don’t write anything down (that always feels like a commitment), and I’m allowed to scrap an idea if I want to (or bring it back from my brain’s recycling bin). If I didn’t allow that, I’d become too overwhelmed with possibilities.
This is my best approximation of the thought process involved as this story was born.
22:00 last night. I drew Australia and Sight. My first reaction: “Oh crap, I don’t know anything about Australia. Never been there. Well, maybe my protagonist (whoever he is) can have an Australian girlfriend.” My second reaction: “Sight? Man, that’s the one sense that writers overuse rather than underuse. Well, what’s a sight worth seeing? Something amazing that would be worth writing about?” Next I flipped back to, “Hmm, Australia used to be a prison. I could write about prisons, or being trapped.”
I listed some qualities of Australia in my head: island, backwards (meaning “upside down”), high cliffs, Aborigines, both country and continent. I started to build some parallel structures in my head: could I have a planet that was both country and homeworld? How about a land where everything happened backwards?
23:00 Lay in bed, still thinking about Sight, how much we need a new mattress, and how tired I would probably be the next morning. I tried to think of how Sight could be amazing, which got me thinking about eyes and the way we see. This reminded me of the artwork in D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths, which I was browsing on Saturday–specifically, the story of Argus the hundred-eyed watchman, who was set to guard the Golden Apples of Hera. When Hermes bored him to sleep (permanent sleep, thus killing him), Hera took her loyal servant’s eyes and put them on the peacock as decoration.
Hmm. Peacocks. They’re pretty. Okay, I’d gotten my Sight connection. Still no Australia.
10:00 this morning. I was thinking about peacocks, which I realized I hadn’t thought about in years. How could I make peacocks cool enough that I felt like writing them? Easy. Make them Mutant Peacocks with killer powers! I laughed, because one creative tendency of mine is to explore the forbidden: death, destruction, doom, and other awful things. It frees me from ordinary boundaries about what should or shouldn’t be. But once I thought about killer mutant peacocks, I considered the idea of aliens that looked like peacocks, but weren’t really. It was like taking my zany idea and toning it down a notch.
At this point, I felt like I was onto something. Still no luck with Australia, but I liked the idea of prisons still. I considered writing something about an alien peacock culture, but I’ve done a few alien stories like that recently and I wanted something new.
11:00 today. I thought about peacocks more deeply. Playing some video games, because sometimes that helps me think, and I wasn’t ready to write yet. I visualized peacocks in my head as closely as I could. I thought about how their tails fold and unfold like fans. I decided that my peacocks would be red-gold, because most peacocks are blue, and that already helped me think about them as Not Peacocks, whatever they actually were. I wondered whether the entire peacock might be able to fold up with its tail.
Folding peacocks. I had no idea how this worked, but I was excited.
12:00 today. I was at the stage where I needed to talk this out with someone. I happened to be corresponding with Ruth Nestvold, sf writer extraordinaire, and I typed the following missive. This was not premeditated–it was just me pondering at the speed of typing:
P.S. Today I think I’m writing about folding peacocks. Did you know that peacocks were foldable? Me neither. Such is the creative process, for me. I hope I figure out more about folded peacocks by the time I need to have a plot or something. Can one make peacock origami? Perhaps one could have feathery pillow-like things that are actually folded peacocks. Maybe these are genetically engineered peacocks with armored plating. I wonder if female peacocks are impressed by males with superior foldable qualities. Perhaps one cannot fold a peacock more than seven times in one direction, like newspaper. I imagine creased peacocks are a terrible source of shame at zoos.
I sent that off, then re-read it. Zoos. They’re like prisons. And so I had my connection. I seized the other ideas from this “brain drizzle” that really grabbed me (peacock origami, armor-plated), and I had my opening for the story: Armor-plated peacocks in a zoo, assembling into a defensive formation.
Now the third step:
3. Drafting and discovering. At about 15:00 today, I realized I would once again procrastinate all day if I let myself. Emergency procedures needed. I headed to the Italian cafe next door and ordered a chocolate torte. Normally such measures aren’t required, but today I was tired and burned out and really didn’t want to write anything.
I started the story, promising myself a bite of cake for every 100 words on paper. It worked wonders. I described the surreal alien behaviors of my “peacocks,” figuring I could fix it in a later draft. Then I realized there must be a protagonist watching this, so I described her reaction to the scene. Next she needed someone to talk to, so I gave her a husband. Also, I needed some tension about something–a source of discontent, to move the story forward–so I started asking myself, “How did humans get to this intergalactic zoo? Who built it? And man, I hate these stories that assume intergalactic travel is easy and cheap. Why am I writing one?”
So I figured there must be a more powerful race–something that built this zoo and brought the humans there. But if that race was so powerful, why wouldn’t humans be in its zoo? Then I thought: Maybe they are. Some humans who’ve chosen to live there. Maybe the human visitors can only see lower-level species. If so, there are probably more species, of higher levels than humans–a whole scale of them, in fact, on which humans rank relatively low.
This all took place on a parallel track while I was writing more words. Probably took 30 seconds. Sometimes called an “aha” moment, only findable through the drafting and discovery process. 700 words written at this point.
19:00. I made some dinner and I exercised. By now, I realized this story was about my protagonist’s struggle to accept humanity’s low rank in the galactic spectrum. I mean, we’re zoo animals to these aliens. Peacocks fell by the wayside as I explored the protagonist’s feelings about sentience and–ultimately–her reaction to caste system based on intelligence as determined by the more advanced species, and her decision when confronted with a surprise opportunity to change things. 2100 words written at this point.
Will I finish it? Maybe. Maybe not. But I’ll look at it, when I have 28 story-starts, and decide whether it’s promising or not. For today, my goal was simply to write.
So that’s how ideas usually come to me. Spark, playtime, draft & discover.