Ask Yourself This

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2022-02-15 12:00:00 No comments

Out of one frying pan and into another fire I go. I spent the past week, and the weekend, working on the outline and details for the next book, Shunga-Satori, and one thing that leaped out at me was the way my desire to work on the project had tightened and focused. And on looking back across previous works, I see a pattern worth unpacking in detail.

A common thing for me with a story is to start with what I call an I'd Like To Do Something Like This moment. I'd had kicking around in my head for a long time the impulse to do some big, gonzo space opera. We could even verbalize that with the formula: "I'd like to do something like Dune or Foundation." But then I had to turn that around on myself and frame it as a question: why do I want to do something in that vein?

I found I couldn't make any progress on the idea until I could answer that question to my own satisfaction. In other words, if someone had said to me, "I'd like to do something like Dune or Foundation," I would have asked, "To what specific end?" To write a Big Science Fiction thing? To explore some idea in a broad-reaching, exhaustive, panoramic way? To create an SF/fantasy take on the existing genre of historical novel? And so on.

I needed a better answer than "just because", because without that better answer, I had no way to make the work in question mine.

Introspection of motives is difficult, but the further I go into this journey the more necessary I see it to be. It's okay to start by wanting to do something "just because", but you need to move past that fairly early on in the development process. If you don't know your own larger motives for doing something, you can't really interrogate the idea and develop things from it that are going to be what you are best at writing about.

In the case of the above big-SF thing, my own "why" was #2 on the quoted list: explore some idea in a broad-reaching, exhaustive, panoramic way. Once I had that idea (a far-future setting that is dividing itself between those who want to evolve aggressively and those who do not), I could see what was in it that I found personally interesting. I couldn't get by with just pinching a galactic empire from one story and a precious, all-sought-after resource from another. Just rebadging existing work doesn't make it.

Many creators are not good at looking at their own motives, because they feel it's like cutting the drum open to see what makes it go bang. They worry that if their creative stream is interrogated too closely, it will dam up the flow. I think this is more due to the need to disinhibit one's own production of ideas: once you have some habitual disinhibition in coming up with things, you don't feel like asking tough questions about any of it (or even any questions at all) are an interruption. One idea doesn't work, you come up with another. It's what you do.

Why we want to do some specific thing is always going to be related to what it is about that specific thing that's worth talking about at all, and talking about in the way that only we can bring to the table. Get that out in the open as early on as you can, so any unquestioned assumptions you might have about the project aren't left to fester under the surface.

When I applied this kind of rigor to Shunga-Satori, its development began to more directly follow the same path as my previous books: it went from a general, unfocused impulse to do something with certain flavors or feelings in it, to an actual story. It was a more general inspiration before ("I'd like to do this") and now it's becoming specific and focused ("This is how I need to do this"). Where before it was just the impulse, it's now becoming an actual drive and an ambition. Just as it ought to be.

Tags: Shunga-Satori creativity ideas