Here’s a question. Where does writer’s block (if it exists) end and not having anything to write about begin?
The late, great and still very much lamented Douglas Adams once observed that it’s a wonder second novels ever happen. This was his theory: the author spends the first thirty (or eighteen, or seventy-six, but thirty is a good average) years of his or her life gaining experience which feeds into the first book; then if it sells well, s/he spends the next six months sitting in bookshops signing copies, or doing whatever else the publisher’s marketing department requires to make it sell better.
And the publisher wants another book a year after the first. Which gives rise to two supplementary questions: when is there time to write the second? And if a novel based on sitting in bookshops signing books isn’t acceptable, what the heck goes into it?
This view was backed up by a good friend and novelist, also late and very much lamented, who told me that the last subject a wannabe writer should study at college is English (or American) literature. The important thing is not to find out how other people do it, he said, but to gather experience of one’s own; make notes on it if memory doesn’t do the job, store it all up, and sooner or later it will prove useful.
It’s easy to say fiction is all make-believe, and entirely a product of the author’s imagination. My question is, where does it all begin? What starts the process, fires up the imagination, ignites that spark that grows into a novel?
Imagination is what fans the spark into a flame which burns in many colours for a hundred thousand words or so – but isn’t all imagination extrapolative?
When I used to run weekend workshops and teach creative writing classes on a regular basis (I’m still available, folks, at very reasonable rates), an example I used to throw out for discussion was Star Trek. With very few exceptions (which I’m sure fellow Trek fans will be able to list), the aliens encountered by Jim Kirk, Jean-Luc Picard, Ben Sisko, Kathryn Janeway, Jonathan Archer and their assorted crews and cohorts had two legs, two arms, one head and a perfect command of American. (Yeah, OK, the language problem was solved by a handy gadget called a universal translator, but all the other things hold true.) In other words, the aliens were based on human physiology, sometimes very loosely, but always recognizably. The imaginations which dreamed them up took the human shape - and extrapolated.
And science fiction could almost be cited as the most extreme example of the point I’m making. Most other fictional genres don’t require such fantastical leaps; the lives the characters live could be lived (or could have been lived) right here on Earth. So what authors are mining is real life, and the real life each author knows in most detail is his or her own.
Which brings me back to Douglas Adams’s theory.
Of course real life is manipulated, refined, taken apart and put back together in a different shape in order to create fiction. And of course the blessed Douglas himself had never been whisked off in a spaceship to avoid expiring in the destruction of his home planet by inter-galactic highway planners, or entertained on another spaceship by a guy with two heads. Not as far as we know, anyway. But he had lived, and observed, and considered; and then his humungous imagination got down to work and extrapolated.
And so do we all. But first you need something to extrapolate from.
And I think what I’ve just spent several hundred words doing is explaining to myself why I do a lot of staring at a blank screen and not a lot of creative stuff at the moment. My life is sadly lacking in anything to extrapolate from.
Better get out there and have a few adventures.