The Spark, the Smile, the Work
(This post originally appeared on the Supernatural Snark Blog)
There’s a scene in a wonderful movie, Topsy Turvy, that captures my favourite part of writing. Jim Broadbent, portraying the nineteenth-century writer of light opera, W.S. Gilbert, is playing with a sword he bought at a Japanese exhibition. He swings it back and forth, pauses, then a small smile appears, and in his eyes you can see the birth of The Mikado.
That is the best part of writing. When you have it, in that moment, you are Gilbert – and you are Mozart, Gaugin, and Einstein too. You are genius.
Granted, the feeling doesn’t last, because now you have to remake that concept using words. This was no problem for Gilbert. He seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of lunatic humor under his Victorian tweed – the scene in which Broadbent does a straight-faced reading of The Mikado’s silliness for his partner-composer Sullivan is worth the price of the DVD alone. Most of us, however, struggle to give some form to our grand ideas.
My YA fantasy novel, City of Demons, started with two such ideas. The first was from a memory of my own childhood. I was five years old, and something bad lived in my closet. I’m sure this was a common problem, perhaps even a cliché for five-year olds across Canada, but it seemed very important and personal to me. One day, after many weeks of almost, I opened the closet door. That may have been the bravest thing I have ever done or will do. It led my adult self to wonder who is more courageous, those who only fight or those who fear and fight – and if the weapon that monsters wield is first and foremost terror, who is best suited to fight it?
The second grand idea was born in magic, or more specifically a Magic, The Gathering card. I was a teacher in a Richmond, B.C. high school at the time, and these were all the rage among the Grade Eight and Nine boys. One such card was left in the class, and I put it on the corner of my desk, where it sat unclaimed. Before class one morning I looked at it. The card showed a wide expanse of prairie. Golden grass swayed and grey clouds scudded over a distant horizon. I began to wonder, who would cross such a plain. Where were they going, and in what company? Did they travel by choice or necessity? My first grand idea about fear poked its nose in to have a look.
I smiled, and City of Demons was born.
Or at least conceived. The pregnancy was difficult and the creature that presented itself at birth needed a lot of reconstructive surgery, but the concept kept me going. With the help of wise and patient reading-friends, I improved my writing, learned plotting and pacing, and even some lunatic humor. I still can’t read my own prose without wanting to fix it, but maybe Gilbert felt the same way.
And now for my point.
Don’t give up on a concept. Work at it. Rewrite it. Edit, polish, add, cut – do whatever it takes. You may never publish – I collected a fine set of rejections before Tyche Books saw something in my novel – but keep working. That idea gave you one of the best moments of your life. You owe it some sweat.