“I recommend [writers] pay attention to their dreams. For me, it’s like an idea garden. You can weed it later, but not if you don’t remember what you’ve been dreaming.” — Ann Aguirre
Trust me when I say this: It’s hard putting a manuscript in the drawer. It’s a huge blow to the ego, it’s utterly painful to think back on all the time you spent writing that novel and dreaming about what would happen when you’re finished and admitting to yourself that you came up short. But it’s not time wasted, and you didn’t come up short. The next novel you write is bound to be better. — Nathan Bransford
In Art as Technique (PDF), the literary theorist, Victor Shklovsky, writes:
If we start to examine the general laws of perception, we see that as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic…We apprehend objects only as shapes with imprecise extensions; we do not see them in their entirety but rather recognize them by their main characteristics. We see the object as though it were enveloped in a sack. We know what it is by its configuration, but we see only its silhouette. The object…fades and does not even leave a first impression; ultimately, even the essence of what it was is forgotten… And so life is reckoned as nothing. Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war… And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony… The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception, [removing] from objects the automatism of perception.
In other words, art involves the technique of rendering the familiar as unfamiliar, defamiliarizing the objects of perception in order to engender in your reader the experience of seeing something again for the first time.
While providing a “clear” description of a given object allows your readers to assimilate it into their conception of your fictional world, providing a defamiliarized description forces them to engage with the text, to wrestle with its strange and wonderful language before “getting on with it.”
Defamiliarization is the not the technique of turning your text into a riddle, however, and it should not be used for the sake of obfuscation. It should be used, instead, to draw your reader deeper into the world of your story.
In his novel, The Sunlight Dialogues, John Gardner uses defamiliarization to describe the driveway of his main character, Police Chief Clumly:
He went up the gravel driveway to where his garage sat half-hidden under burnt-out lilacs and surrounded by high weeds. In the glow of the headlights, the weeds looked chalky white and vaguely reminded him of something. It was as if he expected something terrible to come out from their scratchy, bone-dry-looking obscurity—a leopard, say, or a lion, of the mastiff bitch that belonged to the Caldwells next door. But nothing came, and only the deepest, most barbaric and philosophical part of Chief Clumly’s mind had for a moment slipped into expectancy. He put the car away…
We all know what high weeds around a garage might look like, but had Gardner left his description at that, his readers would have hardly perceived them. The image is familiar, and our perception of the weeds would have been habitual, which means, nonexistent. By presenting the weeds as a potential source of danger, the hiding place of a dangerous animal, Gardner forces us to consider the weeds anew.
What’s more, Gardner not only defamiliarizes the weeds, he defamiliarizes his character’s perception of them as well. Chief Clumly’s perception of the weeds as a potential source of danger did not occur in his upper consciousness — “only the deepest, most barbaric and philosophical part of Chief Clumly’s mind” experienced the foreboding. Gardner does not throw the defamiliarized weeds away as a one-off perception; he uses it to defamiliarize the sensations experienced by his character. Gardner forces his reader to wrestle with the philosophical assertion that an individual’s mind contains a myriad of parts, two of which might be described as barbaric and philosophical. In order to even conceive of the author’s intent, the readers must engage with their own notions of the human mind, which forces them see these notions as if for the first time.
A couple of weeks back, I wrote that fiction writers need to eschew ambiguity when it comes to their sentence-by-sentence descriptions of a fictional world. Defamiliarization is a technique for doing that. If you don’t give your readers a new perception of the already familiar, you run the risk of giving them nothing at all.
“When Dante published The Divine Comedy in 1321, barely 10% of the Italian population could read. In 2008, by contrast,…83% of adults worldwide were described as literate by Unesco. In a world of 7 billion, of whom about one-third use ‘some kind of English,’ that’s a huge potential audience for books.” — Robert McCrum
“Every conversation you have contains something to write about. If it’s interesting enough to have a conversation about, it’s interesting enough to write about, and if it’s not, you should not waste your time talking or writing. I’m not talking about idle chit-chat here (though that could be great too). I’m talking about conversations where real value and information is exchanged. Casual or not. The post is right there, waiting for you to capture it, share it.” — Patrick Rhone
The one question most writers seem to hate is also the one question I often want answered by my peers: “Where do you get your ideas?”
I’m interested in the answer not because I want to learn some magic formula for coming up with story ideas, but because I want to marvel at some bit of inspiration that hadn’t occurred to me. In short, I am a devoted fan of inspiration, and I like to hear how it happened.
But here’s the thing. The ideas don’t really matter.
As Neil Gaiman explains:
The Ideas aren’t the hard bit. They’re a small component of the whole. Creating believable people who do more or less what you tell them to is much harder. And hardest by far is the process of simply sitting down and putting one word after another to construct whatever it is you’re trying to build: making it interesting, making it new.
Of course, most stories don’t happen until you get the idea for it, until you get the concept. Neil goes on to say:
You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.
And that’s the important part, the part that matters. Writers “notice when we’re doing it.”
Writers are driven by our need to produce. This need is visceral. If we’re not putting down the words, then we feel…bereft, lost, useless…which makes our ability to “notice when we’re doing it” a survival skill.
Writers need to notice our daydreams and ideas because we need fodder for our next story. We’re constantly seeking out (or waiting for) the next idea, and so when it appears (usually out of nowhere), it’s crucial that we get it down. That’s why some writers are never without their little notepad and why others carry around a mini voice-recorder.
But even still, what does a concept feel like, look like, sound like? In the cacophony of the writer’s mind, what makes one idea more distinctive than another?
The truthful answer to that question is “nothing,” because it’s absolutely true that the ideas don’t really matter. What matters is sitting down and putting one word after another.
Think about it: how is a writer supposed to judge the inherent worth between “A boy goes to a magic school” and “A girl steps through the looking glass”? You can’t. Without pursuing the story that comes out of those concepts, you can’t judge one concept against another. After all, is there something inherently wrong about “A terminally wounded cop returns to the force as a powerful cyborg with submerged memories that haunt him,” or “A vengeful father escapes from hell to get the men who killed his daughter“? Of course not! Taken in the right direction, those ideas are just as creatively rich as “Two people go about their separate business, crossing paths with a gallery of indelible Dubliners.“
A concept doesn’t make your writing great. The execution does.
As a writer, it’s your job to turn concepts into stories and ideas into characters. Because you’re not “an idea man.” You’re a writer. And writers write.