The Story Already Exists

The Story Already Exists

A lot of people say to me, “I want to be a writer.” (And, generally, I look at them and I think, Really? Have you ever even read a book?) But I don’t say aloud that I think they’re deluded and have totally the wrong reasons for wanting to become a writer. I’m far too polite for that. So instead, I’ll say, “Okay.”

They tend to expect more than that, though, so they’ll ask, “So how do I become a writer?”

This has always struck me as a little bit of a stupid question. What are they expecting – for me to take them through some midnight initiation rite involving the blood of innocent characters being offered as a sacrifice to the great gods of publishing? I’ll say, “Well, you need to write books.”

“But I don’t have any ideas.”

I wrote, like, a LOT more.

Guys. If you have no ideas, why do you want to be a writer? I started writing because I had stories I wanted to tell. I started writing because I read books and I thought, “I love the idea of elves fairies dragons wizards caterpillars like this, I want a go at writing them.” So I wrote about them. And you know what? It was pretty terrible, so I put aside the caterpillars and read some more books to work out how they made it work, and then I wrote more.

But I don’t know, maybe you’ve got a character instead of a plot, or a plot but no characters, or a whole bunch of beautiful phrases that you can’t knit together and you’re looking for something to act as that missing element.

Personally, I wouldn’t advise taking that last one as a starting point. If you want disconnected but beautiful sentences that can be interpreted hundreds of ways, become a poet. But get a real job as well because you’ll be skint for the rest of your life.

(Oh yeah, and that’s another thing. You want to become a writer? Expect to have no money. I told my friends I had a short story published and now they keep asking me if they can borrow money. First of all, as far as I know I’ve earned less than a fiver so far. Second of all, I am COMPLETELY BROKE. I am unable to pay my library fee of 30p at the moment. STOP ASKING ME FOR MONEY.)

Right, so you want to write a novel. Now let me tell you this. The story you want to tell already exists. Someone wrote it already, and it’s in bookshops and in the library because there are only so many plots in the world.

That doesn’t matter.

I cheat when I write novels. I base them on Celtic mythology. And okay, I’m not retelling stories plot-wise, but I steal characters (the Dagda) or little elements of mythology that work for me (alternate worlds occupying the same part of space but separated by some invisible divider thingymajig) and it makes my life easier. I’m currently working on something that borrows elements from Norse Mythology (and am fighting the urge to include eight-legged horses of dubious origins).

You know, this is ALLOWED. People write novels all the time that are based on mythology, on fairy tales, on Bible stories.

Bible stories are great starting points, by the way! I’ve been listening to the soundtrack to the Prince of Egypt at the moment (remember that film? You probably watched it when you were a kid/ when your children were young) and there’s a song called The Plagues which includes these lyrics:

Into your dreams, into your sleep
Until you break, until you yield

Your character wants a decent threat? SEND ALL OF THE PLAGUES. Until they break. Until they yield. THAT is how you bully characters into doing what you want. That is what your antag should do to your protag or vice versa.

You want somebody to realise their entire life is a lie? THEY’RE ADOPTED. This ALWAYS works.

It happens in the story of Moses. He thought he was Egyptian, but nope, he’s an Israelite and he’s watched his people be slaves all the time.

It happens in the movie Thor. Loki thought he was a god but nope, he’s a Frost Giant and he’s been brought up to hate his own people. (True story: the gif you see here is saved on my computer as ‘Oh sh** I’m a frost giant!’) It happens in so many books and films and you know, it always hurts.

Why? Because the one thing your characters can trust is who they are and when they don’t have that, it’s TOTAL CRISIS time.

Okay, so you’ve got a few plot twists now. You’ve got threats and heartbreak, but you want crazy beasties to liven things up a bit. Your characters need to get somewhere, so you need a form of transport that’s a bit unusual.

MYTHOLOGY, DUDE. Or the Bible, alternatively. I mean, Revelation’s got some interesting stuff and no one’s going to notice if you steal the seven headed dragon because they’re too worried about the woman giving birth in the sky and whatnot. But mythology’s got loads of it – creatures that are half this and half that, or weird things you can’t even begin to explain.

Also, eight-legged horses of dubious origins.

Now you’re stuck for names. Again, go to mythology. I named my character Aifa after a warrior princess from Celtic mythology, because she’s a princess who fights people and she’s a fairy and it doesn’t get more Celtic mythology than that. She’s not that warrior princess, but I like to think she was named after her. Even though she might be older than her. I’m not sure how old she is now. I lose track. (1000? 3000? 10,000? 23?)

My character Cormac turns out to have the same name and a similar story to a dude called Cormac Connlonges. I discovered this particular Cormac while drafting the sixth draft of Watching. I had no idea that their banishment and whatever was so similar, but hey, I can pretend I did, right? I’m highbrow and I link to lesser known characters in Celtic mythology, guys.

You can steal elements from all these things and muddle them up (mythology with the Bible! Okay you might want to watch how you go there, could be risky/offensive. Don’t mix Sleipnir’s story with Jesus’s. Just don’t). It’s okay. You can do that.

We do it all the time.

So you want to be a writer, but you’ve got no plot. That’s okay. Read mythology. There are plenty there that you can steal.

And that is my piece of advice for today. I apologise for the overuse of parentheses, capital letters, and exclamation marks.

28 thoughts on “The Story Already Exists

        1. Sleipnir is an eight-legged horse. Loki, the god of mischief (also known as the Trickster), was its mother (yes, you read that right). He turned himself into a mare to distract Svaldifari, a stallion who was helping a giant build a wall around Asgard, in order that the wall didn’t get finished on time so they didn’t have to pay the giant the ridiculous things he’d demanded (Freyja, the sun, and the moon). So Loki distracted the stallion, the giant couldn’t finish it (and was slain by Thor), and thus Sleipnir was born. Loki then gave Sleipnir to Odin as a gift, although some say Odin took it without it being offered.

  1. Caterpillars? Where did that come from, xD?
    “Whole bunch of beautiful phrases that you can’t knit together”. Though I totally agree about your comment of turning to poetry, Lewis Carroll managed to write his story ‘Sylvie and Bruno’ from jotting down odd, unconnected fragments from no particular point, because he would rather have not “abandoned them to oblivion”. I guess, however, because he was Lewis Carroll, he had the immense skill to turn chunks into a story…
    And one last thing (!): my current WIP is about a girl who finds out that she was adopted. I love the power in having her know nothing about her past, esepcially as the mystery is for the protagonist as well as the reader.
    Cool post,
    Alexandrina :)

    1. MAKE EVERYBODY ADOPTED. Always works.
      Lewis Carroll was CRAZY though :D I do tend to write down phrases but they’re not usually where I start from, just things I try and work in. For example, I have a particular phrase that came from a Twitter conversation I was having with someone that sparked off a scene I’m adding into the novel I’m currently writing/editing.
      I like caterpillars. Especially woobits (though I can’t spell it).

  2. “The Plagues” is one of my favorite songs ever. Particularly the German version that I found on YouTube once. Let me tell you: The Plagues in German is SCARY.

    1. I’ll have to look it up – it sounds scary/hilarious! Yes, it’s a very awesome song and has given me all sorts of evil plans for the rewrites of the third book in this series (which may or may not involved adding plagues just for the fun of it because I DO WHAT I WANT).
      I’ve been on Tumblr too much today. Too much capslock. *sigh*

  3. Persoanlly I”m a fan of the memory wipe – or blocks. Memory block with dismatling triggers is fun *giggles*

    Why Rachael? *eyes character* Why are you giving me that stare?

    The wonderful double personality I got when I disolved one block was a ton of fun, though utterly unexpected – but when one half lives ten moths a year and the other half lives two months a year, when they start communicating again it makes for interesting conversation. *giggles* -it’s like someones adult self trying to rationalize with their teenage self…

    Okay I stop rambling now. :}

  4. Your post gave me a lot of insight. Lately for me coming up with plot twists, weird interesting characters, etc… Has been pretty hard. So thanks sooo much for the lovely ideas. :)

      1. I haven’t read any Celtic Mythology (WHHHHATT?) and I don’t exactly know what to look for, because I really want to start reading some. So where should I start? Thanks so much :)

        1. Anywhere you like! Ha ha :)
          It’s easiest to start with books rather than the internet as you can just flick through. I have “Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race” by TW Rolleston as well as “A Guide to Irish Mythology” by Daragh Smyth. These are both pretty hardcore mythology books. Well, not hardcore, but they have a lot of myths in them, not just the well-known ones.
          I advise you find a list of key characters and read their stories. Follow through links on Wikipedia. Read the weird stories :) Also, fiction based on Celtic mythology is actually how I found it. First ‘The New Policeman’ by Kate Thompson, then ‘Lament’ by Maggie Stiefvater, then ‘Tithe’ by Holly Black – not to mention the fairies in the Artemis Fowl books! That was how I got interested :D

  5. Oh, OK. O_o

    And I liked your point about, “Well, why do you want to write if you don’t have ideas?!” I write because if I didn’t, I’d forget all my ideas…

    1. Ehehe, it’s one of the stranger myths, and more difficult to explain to my parents than some of the others!
      It’s true. I will never understand people who don’t have ideas. I always have too many ideas.

  6. I use ALL THE MYTHOLOGIES!!! *grabs stories* *hides them in a box*

    It always weirds me out a little when people say they don’t have any ideas. I’m like “You don’t tell yourselves constant stories? WHAT DO YOU DO INSIDE YOUR HEAD ALL DAY LONG?”

    1. I know right? *ignors Loki comment* At least my hubby admitted to reciting Robert Frost’s poem, Stop by the Woods on a snowing evening (though I probably just butchered the title) when he rode on the back of a Bike to Sturgis.

      But I’ve come to learn that people just think different. And so trying to understand a writer’s mind is as hard as it is for us to understand the non-writers mind. or the computer logical brain, versus the non-computer logical brain… But that’s what make life work, because if we didn’t have so many types then not much would get done. Who would feed the writers if we were all writers? right? *grins*

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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