Kage Baker – a born storyteller and compulsive raconteuse – nonetheless depended heavily on this phrase for inspiration.
When her normal steady pace slacked for a moment, or a plot was wandering out of the Fields We Know (or at least the Fields Kage Intended …) or a character was displaying unexpected signs of evolution: she would lean back in her chair, take a firm hold on the end of her braid, and ask of the air: “What comes next?”
It often made me nuts when she did this, because she really did expect answers. Not necessarily from me – or at least, not only from me. This question was a trick one, intended to start a cascade of semi-conscious inspiration and evoke speculation from wherever it might be hiding. Kage was more than happy if it was her own muse; but answers were just as welcome from me, the parrot, or thin, thin air. Just as long as one of us spoke up, she could build a wall off which to bounce the golden balls of her imagination. Ultimately, something developed.
She did this when she finished a project, too. Some of what came next, of course, was rewards – whatever she had been dangling mentally before her own nose for the last 10,000 words in order to keep going. A new video game, or an old favourite played for a solid week; binge-watching something (Kage was an immediate fan of binge-watching once that became possible); a trip to the very peculiar nursery behind Budu’s Diner off Highway 1 just North of Cambria. But as soon as the carrot had been dispensed and consumed – and sometimes while it was being eaten – she was already wondering What To Do Next. Kage couldn’t stand not having a project ready to start.
I could help more with that. There was a wider range of suggestions available, since they didn’t have to fit into a plot. Or, if it turned out they did need to fit into an existing story, that was where I found out about them and what had been gestating in Kage’s own tertiary consciousness that I didn’t know about yet. Most of my suggestions were mere static; or, at best, framing devices and jump-off points. But that was easier than coming up with an analysis of how Joseph was going to sneak into a porno shoot in the 1930’s Hollywood Hills.
My ideas were not in the queue for that one. But they did produce (somehow) the chain of thought that ended up with Joseph dressed like Mister Peanut. And that’s how the process worked.
I finished a story last night; today it is with a few beta readers, who are checking out the spelling and punctuation and signal to noise ratio. My betas are all people who are intelligent, clever and basically nice people: I can trust them to tell me the truth but not make me want to kill myself. Ideas are already coming back to me, so I can start revisions as they seem needed.
But I’m still wondering, over and over: What Comes Next? I lay awake for quite a while last night, wondering that – trying out idea after idea, to see if any of them woke that frantic hunger for the keyboard that means something has clicked. Nothing had, by the time my dreams came along and added really weird plot lines to the ones I already have. But the question is still nagging at me today, and will until I begin writing something. That, too, is how the process works.
I do keep a Story File of nascent ideas, and update them as new bits occur to me. That’s where “Pareidolia” began, riffing off a one-sentence note from Kage. It went off in two disparate directions, and eventually ended up as both “Pareidolia” and “Hollywood Ikons”. It used to happen like that for Kage, too – “The Applesauce Monster” and “In Her Father’s Light”, though years apart in topic and execution, both arose from the same research trip.
Of course, I have two quite long fragments sitting around slowly accumulating words. They are probably destined to be novels. I won’t know until the next writing fit on either of them hits me, and I see how long it’s gonna take me to say everything I have to say. I thought “Teddy Bear Squad” was a short story, at first. It may end up as one, too, before it goes to my agent; but since I already have as much I want to add as I want to remove, I suspect it will stay a novelette.
And – behind Door Number 3! – there is the possibility that a new idea will strike me out of the blue while I sit reading tonight, and blow the lid off my hesitation. And my skull, probably.
One way or another, there’s an ambush coming. I can feel it. And that, Dear Readers, is also how the process works.