Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Ideas and Cliches

I had my second class at the Loft today, and what I told Shawn after she asked about how it went: you never can tell what's going to hit.

Our official topic was "Where Do You Get Your Crazy Ideas?" but, luckily, while I was gathering things up for class and looking for a print-out of Neil Gaiman's Idea essay, it occurred to me that, when I was fifteen, ideas were NOT the problem.  So, impulsively, I grabbed my trusty list of science fiction and fantasy clichés, thinking that we could segue into that, if necessary.  I also grabbed some index cards in case we had time to play an idea-generating game.
But, trying to stay faithful to what I'd promised to talk about, I started out by reading Neil's essay.  I adore this.  If you've never read it, you should: http://www.neilgaiman.com/p/Cool_Stuff/Essays/Essays_By_Neil/Where_do_you_get_your_ideas%3F" It's charming and brilliant, and it set a good tone for the class. 

I tried after we read that to engage people in a discussion about where THEIR ideas came from.  My little zombie sullen youth stared blankly back at me.  So, I switched tracks.  I told them about an idea "seed" of mine that's never, EVER worked.  What it is, is a collection of cool facts.  Certain whale songs (humpback) get longer every year.  My "what if?" is: What if this is the mythic retelling of how whales chose to return to the water, despite having lived on land long enough to develop lungs.  It gets longer every year, because it's a kind of folk tale that gets retold and embellished.  Fact number two: there used to be a whale that attempted to swim up-river in Sacramento every year, and had to be driven back to the safety of salt water.  Are these events connected? Is there a whale prophet/explorer, attempting to return to the mythical land of her/his ancestors?

That's the gist of it.  I've had this story in my head for DECADES and have never pulled anything useful out of it, so I asked for their help (while sneakily discussing elements you need to consider when you start to flesh out a story.)  So, I asked them, who can tell this tale?  A whale, probably, but a whale a good narrator?  My problem has always been that a whale narrator is FAR too alien.  Whales, if you think about it, live in an environment hostile to them, in which they can't breathe and are in constant danger of drowning.  To breathe and survive, they have to stick their heads out of their environment into an utterly baffling, strange OTHER PLACE, where they catch glimpses of creatures with wings, boats, and... land.

I've always maintained that to write well from a whale's perspective, you'd end up having to invent so much world-building, culture and backstory that the whales would not be relatable any more.  So who else could tell the tale?

Then, we discussed whether or not, if I chose a woman who was descendant from a whale who chose to stay on land and thus could telepathically talk to whales, this was enough to have a story?  No, we decided it needed to be about something.  Something needed to happen.  I jumped on my favorite set of story questions which generate, often, the conflict of the story (which I always maintain must be two-fold: external AND internal) which is: What's at stake for the main character? What are they risking?  What do they have to lose?

Now, I would have thought this was the meat of the class.  I did manage to get some buy-in, but when I saw eyes starting to glaze I switched over to SF/F clichés. OH MY GOD, this was the thing that got everybody hopping.  My theory is that at 15 - 17 is when you really begin to develop taste as a reader.  Mason, right now, devours everything in sight.  He doesn't really filter for quality or story telling expertise.  It just has to be in his hands.  I think by the age of my class, people are really starting to form serious, informed decisions about plot and character and storytelling as a craft.  So the idea of clichés in the books that bugged them, really got some serious involvement.  I also related the idea of clichés back to our discussion of story generation.  Is it okay to use clichés?  It is.  If you know what you're using and use it wisely.  You can even generate story ideas by INTENTIONALLY SUBVERTING CLICHES. 

So, a good class.  We got so wound up shouting out different clichés that we never played our story game.  I have no idea if my students will find a game like the one I was planning helpful or groan-worthy.  Given that it's basically set up for adults who need idea prompts, probably the latter.

Since today went so well, I totally expect tomorrow to be a monumental fail...

1 comment:

Eleanor said...

Like. I could not teach a class like this, because I wouldn't switch gears fast enough when the students begin to lose interest. But interesting to read how it's done.