Inspiration or Calculation

(Inspiration or calculation? How do you decide what you are going to write?)

Alphabet Soup.

I feel like I’m full of soup. Possibly also something else beginning with S, but definitely soup. It sloshes around inside me when I walk. It’s made up of bits of  everything I am. All the memories and relationships, all the music and reading and experiences and obsessions and loves and hates and hopes, that I’ve known. Then, like the arm of a jukebox when a coin is inserted, something reaches down into that soup and plucks out a combination of bits to make a book. Is the combination random or deliberate? And is the coin Inspiration? And is this becoming a clumsy mixed metaphor or what?

I don’t know where it comes from, or if Inspiration is too grand a word for it, but I do know it when it comes. I can clearly remember the day when the arm of the jukebox reached down and pulled out the combination of bits that became the premise of my first novel, FAITH.

There were some books and films which I’d carried in my head for years and which obviously supplied some of FAITH’s building-blocks: Moby Dick, Kafka’s The Trial, Duel. There was a particular day when all of that, and several other things, combined and recombined and gave me the premise of a novel: the meeting of two apparently invincible opponents. Of two ships, one of human origin and one unknown, locked together in a battle that almost tears space-time around them. This wasn’t the first time a possible premise for a book had flitted through my mind, but it was the first time I absolutely knew it was viable. Almost before I’d finished thinking of the premise I was plotting the details.

It was the same for the second novel I’m currently writing: I remember exactly when the arm reached down and pulled out the combinations of bits. As with FAITH, I could list some of the books or films or other influences which I’d carried in me for years and which combined to make the premise of the second novel. What I’m not sure of is what else they combined with, and where it came from.

If they did combine with something else, then it must have been Inspiration.
Perhaps, like Dark Matter, it can’t be seen or objectively proved but can be postulated from its effect – you can only conclude that if it wasn’t there, nothing else would add up properly.

So the premise comes fully-formed and stays unaltered throughout – at least, that’s how it was with FAITH, and how it is so far with the second novel. But details of plotting, characters, back-stories and so on, can alter radically as I’m writing. A bit like assembling an engineering construction: while writing I might have an idea for a back-story or a character-trait which strengthens the construction like a strut, passing through it three-dimensionally and reinforcing every bit it touches. The process of fitting it into the structure where it can do most good is more calculation than inspiration, though it’s still one which I find fascinating and satisfying. The inspiration, if that’s the right word, is the Dark Matter lurking in the other process, the larger one which produced the book’s premise.

I love this genre. For me, the special features of the genre are part of the process of inspiration. Whenever I have an idea for a book, SF is the automatic default option for expressing it. The genre gives more freedom to make philosophical or political points – and it makes for a good read. What I wanted FAITH to say would not have been impossible in other genres, but it was more possible in SF.