I’ve written seven published novels. Even though my novels are short by modern standards, that’s still a lot of pages, a lot of characters, a lot of worlds and ideas. Inevitably, it leads people to remark on my creativity. “How do you think of this stuff?” they’ll ask, usually incredulous and in awe of my amazing talents. My response usually goes something like this:
“Avert your eyes, mortal. For I am a blessed demigod with muses whispering sweetly in my ears.” Then I usually throw a smoke bomb, ninja-style, and vanish, leaving the questioners to ponder the imponderable. Sometimes, if I’m in the proper mood, I’ll leave a haiku poem folded in a paper crane and maybe an autographed photo emblazoned with the wise words, keep your feet on the ground, but keep reaching for the stars! I’m cool like that.
Okay, let’s get real. I like what I do. I’m good at it. It’s true that I am creative, but being creative isn’t some gift from above. It’s work. And, if I can go ahead and let the cat out of the bag, it’s work almost anyone can do. Just as long as you’re willing to put in the time.
Stories in general, and novels in particular, are a great assembly of pieces, and it’s impressive to take a look at all those pieces once they’ve been assembled into a whole and marvel at how beautifully they fit together. This is the illusion of order, of plot, character, scene, and narrative thread, created by plenty of hard work behind the curtain. If it’s done right, then it shouldn’t look like work. The seams should be invisible, and all the effort should remain unseen. But this doesn’t mean that the work wasn’t done, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the obvious stuff, like creativity and originality, should be assumed to be the hard part.
Storytelling is innate to humans. We’ve been doing it forever. Every culture ever to rub two sticks together has a rich history of myths and legends, of heroes and villains, parables, fables, tall tales. The form varies, but the result is the same. Stories are everywhere, ever-present. They always will be. Yet for such a ubiquitous activity, it strikes many of us as mysterious and almost magical. Probably because we’re so distanced from it. We’re given our stories now. They’re pre-packaged and pre-sold to us, just like our music, television shows, and movies. We love stories, sure, but most of us are so removed from the act of telling a story that it might as well be magic.
Television, movies, and music at least involve props. They’re usually a great group effort. Writing books, on the other hand, is something any of us can do. (Although I’d like to take a moment here to thank all the editing, marketing, booksellers, etc. that make any commercial publication a success. I might be a genius, but I couldn’t do this without all your hard work and support.) But if you want to tell a story, all you really need is a pencil, a notebook, and you’re good to go. Honestly, you don’t even need that. Oral storytelling works just fine. It might not be the commercial commodity it once was, but if you want to test your storytelling ability, it’s the bee’s knees.
The parts of a story are available to everyone, and, to take my house-building metaphor to the next step, they are infinitely malleable and user friendly. To build a modern house requires you have a blueprint and that you know where every piece goes before hammering a nail. If you screw up along the way, it’s usually not so easy to fix the problem if you don’t catch it right away. Yet the parts of a story can take a beating and bounce right back. Don’t like a character? Get rid of him. Usually no one will even notice he was ever there. Don’t like where the plot is going? Give it a good shove. Realize that you shouldn’t have done that? Shove it right back. Everything in a story can be worked and reworked without fear of damage or irreversibility. Everything can be done and undone to your satisfaction. In the end, whatever story you wind up telling will be just fine.
I’m not suggesting that anyone can tell a good story or that storytelling isn’t an art. I’m just saying that anyone who thinks the creativity, the Where did you come up with that idea? question, is the hard part of storytelling is mistaken. Just as suggesting that the hardest part of building a house is buying the lumber is underestimating the real efforts that make it happen. Anyone can buy lumber, and anyone can come up with an idea. Or even a thousand ideas. You’d be surprised at how easily one idea leads to another to another and another. Putting those ideas together, driving the nails into them, making sure they all fit together properly, that’s the real work of writing.
At this point, I would probably use my grappling hook, Batman-Style, to swing away now, leaving you all the wiser for reading this, but this is the internet, so you’ll just have to imagine me doing it.