A friend in the film business was alarmed by my about the future… page.  “Aren’t you worried someone will steal your ideas?”

The film industry is notoriously concerned about secrecy.  Whether this is due to deep subtleties of production and marketing, or is just another bizarre manifestation of the vast, fragile egos of the industry is open to debate.  When I am doing research for a film, I assume the former and keep my mouth shut.

But for my own stories, what I think is:  The ideas come for free.  I am not quite sure whence they come, mind you; they just sort of pop into existence, like birds flapping up out of a field, and I chase after them and occasionally grab one by the tail.  When it happens, I’m proud to have caught one, but it’s not mine.  I’m happy to hold them up—look what I caught!—and if someone is inspired by it to write something, well then, I must have caught a good one.  Go, me.

The thing that’s mine, the thing that I make, with no end of frustration and failure and the occasional fruitful fit, is this:

Words in a row.

That’s all you get.  That’s what writers (eventually) produce, people (hopefully) read, and magazines (occasionally) buy.  Anything else—characters, plot, setting, themes—is in the reader’s head, a delusion, a vision brought on by an overindulgence of words, more gravy than gravitas, as it were.

Of course, I somewhat exaggerate.  It’s more than a row of words.  There’s a scattering of punctuation and breaks, that group that line of words into clauses and sentences and paragraphs and sections and chapters.  And there’s a start, and an end.  And there you have it.

When I am developing a story, yeah, I spend a lot of time chasing those ideas, those spectral, illusory characters and themes and settings and such.  But that’s not writing, it’s daydreaming.  It’s important, it’s essential dreaming; without it, putting words in a row is just a useful craft.  Man Ray said: “The streets are full of admirable craftsmen, but so few practical dreamers.”

When I am writing, though, either in my head or in front of a screen, I am almost entirely focused on finding words, and putting them in the right order, with the appropriate breaks.  The ideas are still there, lounging about like life models, far too beautiful to ever exactly catch on paper.  But at that point I really don’t care as much about capturing the vision as I do about wrestling with the flow of words and punctuation and newlines.  Even before I start typing, I’ve stopped watching the actions and started telling myself the story, sentence at a time; in fact, I won’t start typing until I can tell it all the way through in my head in words.

There is, of course, a danger in getting caught up in the words and forgetting the idea.  I like the words, lovely old words, and I will run amok with alliteration and semicolons if I go unchecked.  So, unless it is a very short story, under 5000 words or so, I have to stop from time to time and read what I have written, and let the visions reform.  Often, they aren’t quite the same as before; sometimes they are something entirely new.  But then again, the readers—the raving, mad, delusional readers—are going to have their own visions, as likely as not to be yet farther from the original idea.  That’s not my concern; all I’m doing is putting words in a row.

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