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Spark, flicker, zap: Using catalysts to jump-start your fiction

How authors can best harness inspirational "sparks" and turn them into full-fledged works of fiction.

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Facing challenges with different catalysts

A good catalyst doesn’t equal a good story. As the writer, you must work to make a story from it. Also, depending too much on one catalyst can be a problem, no matter how promising it initially seems, says Perinot. “The danger in any catalyst or point of inspiration is that it may prove too feeble to support an entire book. But that’s why authors have dozens of ideas – scratched on pads, collected in folders, virtual or otherwise. We must let book ideas germinate, and we must be prepared to accept the fact that not all seeds will bloom into marketable work.”

Another challenge is using memory as an effective starting place for fiction. As we’ve seen, memory is a source of material for many fiction writers, but McBrearty is quick to add this caution: “Memory, which can be great to draw upon, carries the risk of writers failing to see beyond the memory.”

“If the memory is particularly striking and carries a kind of completeness to it,” he says, “it may be that that story should be told pretty much as-is, or even as memoir.”

But few writers are so lucky, he notes. “Most memories don’t come with a neat beginning, middle, and end, so invention needs to enter in. If we stick only to memory, the story may lack a sense of direction or feel more like a fragment than a complete story.”

Furthermore, “writers need to be aware that the memories they find interesting may not be so interesting to others,” McBrearty says. He faced this problem not only with his story “A Morning Swim” but also with numerous other stories drawn from memory. How to stir readers’ interest? You need a certain “angle,” he says.

“In my story ‘The Dishwasher,’ which won a Pushcart Prize, I drew on my experiences as a dishwasher but turned my imagination loose by presenting dishwashing as a glorious profession that everyone aspired to. The mock-heroic tone of the story (‘I’m a dishwasher in a restaurant. I’m not trying to impress anybody. I’m not bragging. It’s just what I do. It’s not the glamorous job people make it out to be’) lets readers know right off that this will be an ironic take on dishwashing.” In other words, your own experiences, whatever they are, may not grab other readers. You’ve got to find some way to connect, such as using humor or presenting a known experience with a fresh spin, as McBrearty did.

A writer’s memories are interior. What about external catalysts of one kind or another?

There is the media story, as we’ve already seen. This ready-made plot can be a risk, says Dickinson: “The writer might feel too great a responsibility to the actual event rather than using the story as a springboard.” If it’s a challenge to avoid the ready-made and privilege the fictional, Dickinson finds a highly successful example of the latter in Emma Donoghue’s bestselling novel Room. “The novel about a mother and son imprisoned in a sound-proof basement room by the mother’s father seems inspired by the media story about the Austrian Fritzl family, a daughter kept captive with her children for 25 years.” But the author wasn’t constrained by the media story as some writers might be, says Dickinson: “Donoghue uses the ‘dungeon family’ as a springboard for rich and evocative writing and alters many of the specifics while adhering to the media story’s contours.”

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Another catalyst approach that poses risks, says Skenandore, is when characters are “crammed into a premade story arc. Characters need breathing room to act and react with authenticity.” Or, as Dickinson puts it, “If you use plot as a catalyst, there is sometimes the danger that the sequence of events can overpower the writing. The richness of characterization and the texture of dialogue can take a backseat to the interconnected events and be put at the service of plot.”

But surely if you are inspired by a knock-out character conception, that’s pretty safe, isn’t it?

Not always, says Kibler. “It’s incredibly easy to let a character wander around with nothing to do, nothing to fight for, and nothing to prove. An interesting character isn’t enough if it doesn’t lend itself to conflict with the potential for change.”

Writers are often inspired by certain natural settings, city skylines, places steeped in history, art, and culture. But even “the most exciting setting can be a lot like a generic painting. Maybe it’s pretty, but it doesn’t really speak to anything but its prettiness unless there is something actually happening behind the scenery,” says Kibler.

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In short, with practically any conceivable catalyst for fiction writing, you’ll face a challenge.

And why not? A catalyst is only a beginning, perhaps a very good one, but it’s risky to put too much stock in any catalyst, no matter what it is.

That said, “writing is always a risk for me at the outset: Is this a sustainable idea? Will I peter out before I reach the third act? Is this really a story to which I want to commit myself for up to five years?” says Abrams. “If I wanted to live a risk-free life, I wouldn’t be a writer. So, my advice would be: if a catalyst comes along and knocks you on the head, follow it and see where it leads. What have you got to lose?”

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