People who are not compelled to be creative (read: sane folk) often ask writers and artists where our ideas come from.
For me, the answer is ‘everywhere’. People at the supermarket checkout watching their prices climb, cracked headstones in a cemetery, pieces of trivia I read in science articles – if you’re creative, you’ll be familiar with seeing these things in terms of what you can make out of them.
But there’s a special difference, for me, between these fragments and a real cracker of an idea. And that difference is my narratograph.
What’s a narratograph? And what makes it so fantastic?
Well, I’m cheating a bit. ‘Fantastic’ didn’t always mean what it means today; it used to mean ‘strange and wondrous; seemingly impossible or imaginary’, and was a close relative of ‘fantasy’. Today we might say ‘fantastical’ to mean the same thing. Most of my stories are in speculative genres like fantasy or sci-fi. I love the freedom these genres provide as a writer, and the journeys they take you on as a reader. So, whatever you might think of my writing, technically it’s still fantastic.
A ‘narratograph’ is fantastic too.
In the nineteenth century, when innovation was progressing in leaps and bounds, people used Ancient Greek to name their fabulous new inventions. Words like ‘photograph’ and ‘telephone’ were coined in this fashion: ‘photo + graph’ literally means ‘light drawing/writing’, while ‘tele + phone’ means ‘distant sound’. These sorts of names were believed to be classier than ‘light-picture-maker’ or ‘talk-a-long-way-thingie’.
The fantastic narratograph, therefore, is what I think of as a little machine in my head that helps me create stories. I picture my narratograph as a sort of cross between a printing press, a typewriter and one of those wild Dr Seuss creations with mechanical hands reaching every which way. The narratograph is a powerful device with lots of different functions. It can grab thoughts that float past and store them in chambers for later use. It can put ideas together like Lego blocks until they start to resemble characters or plot arcs. It can detect holes in a story, and generate ways to fix them. And of course, it puts words down in a order what sounds real good and nice.
Except when it doesn’t.
It’s all very well to talk about how easy ideas are to find, but it can be really frustrating when you’re unable to find a particular idea. You’re working on a project, and you wait for the narratograph to churn out the next line, and it stalls on you.
That’s another reason why the narratograph concept works for me: if I’m stuck, I can blame it on the machine.
For me, there’s nothing that juices up the narratograph quite like being busy. My best ideas always seem to arrive when I’m hiking and swimming on holiday, or (worse) in the middle of an exam period. In uni, I worked in a supermarket, where I used to scribble story ideas on the ends of the receipt rolls. There’s no surer cure for writer’s block, I find, than just leaving the damn thing alone for a while and going to fill my head with new material for the narratograph to sort through. It can keep working in my subconscious on its own. Often it will figure out that I have to delete a line, a paragraph or even a minor character, like undoing a bad stitch, before it will let me continue the story.
What’s your creative process like? Does the narratograph analogy work for you, or is your muse something different altogether? Tell me in the comments below.