From Writer Unboxed: Is It Sticky?

I’ve come to think of those ideas, the ones that should be written, as Sticky. Not like the mess your children leave behind after being fed, but sticky in the brain. An idea that won’t let you go, that you can’t move on from. One that haunts your dreams and your quiet times, that demands to be told.

For me, it’s not ideas. Or not the thing I think of when I hear the word “ideas.” To me, an idea for a novel implies a plot element, though actually, considering it now, I don’t suppose that is necessarily so. An idea for a novel could be a character, I suppose, or something else.

Anyway, for me, the “sticky” thing is almost always a scene, complete with setting and important characters and dialogue. The whole scene or a big chunk of it, not exactly as it will appear in the finished book, but nearly. A scene like that is the thing that haunts dreams and quiet times and … I wouldn’t exactly say demands to be told. I would say, That is compelling and that I most enjoy writing and that I frame the rest of the story around.

For me, the initial scene and some of the initial dialogue in TUYO was like that. So was the first night after Ryo and Aras crossed into the winter country. In fact, when I wrote TUYO, I jumped forward from the time they first encounter the actual antagonist to the moment they crossed the river and wrote most of the second half of the book before I came back and wrote those chapters in the middle.

In NIKOLES, most of Chapter 6 was the “sticky” scene. I wrote the whole story around that chapter. In fact, I think I wrote the opening scene, then most of Chapter 6, then the rest of Part I, then Part II.

I’m listening to the audio version of NIKOLES now, and wow, yes, Chapter 6 is still my favorite. Aras gets SUCH a chance to shine, in a very quiet, decisive way. It’s not an action scene … you know, I’m just now realizing that very few if any “sticky” scenes are action scenes. They’re all character scenes. I always have to work out action scenes when I get to them.

In TARASHANA, the “sticky” part included the first scenes with Tano. I wasn’t sure the Ryo-Tano plotline would work for readers until I started getting reactions from first readers — I knew very well I had made that plotline just as important as the Ryo-Aras plotline and I wasn’t sure how that would work for readers. But those early scenes with Tano were extremely complete and compelling to me. before I started writing. I didn’t write them first, but I wrote toward those scenes and then away from them.

The, um, the essential problem faced by Ryo and Aras in TARASHANA — I’m trying to be entirely spoiler-free here — was also very clear to me, but not as a complete scene or multiple scenes. In contrast, practically every scene involving Tano was complete in my head long before I wrote it.

A couple people have asked me if I’ve started the sequels. The answer is: No, and also Yes.

No, I haven’t written a single word of either Book 4 (offset novel) or Book 5 (direct sequel). I am busy doing other things. I have a couple of pages of notes, that’s all. But an astounding number of scenes are essentially complete in my head. These scenes are the “sticky” ones that will, first, encourage me to not lose enthusiasm before I have a chance to start these books, and second, help me frame the stories as I first move toward one such scene and then from that one toward the next.

I will just pause here to mention that another source of continuing enthusiasm is positive reviews. I’m just saying.

Anyway, the linked post also draws a line between “stickiness” and motivation:

Sticky ideas are also motivating to writers. For instance, Elyssa Friedland (The Floating Feldmans and The Last Summer at the Golden Hotel), says that she “feels a certain excitement in my fingertips when I’m writing an idea that has sticking power. Bursts of inspiration come to me—characters spring alive, plot points materialize out of thin air.”

Oh, I like this post now! It’s honestly a lot like that, or it can be. Sometimes amazingly important plot points really do seem to materialize out of thin air, even though I had no idea about them until they materialized. A startling amount of the end of TARASHANA was like that, including, hmm. Never mind. I can’t think of any way to be elliptical enough. I’ll just say, practically everything after Ryo has that conversation with Darra and goes to talk it over with Lalani. Nearly everything past that point sprang out of thin air when I got there — then instantly seemed both obvious and essential.

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12 thoughts on “Stickiness”

  1. I have read that Robert Jordan had the final scene of his Wheel of Time series in his head from the beginning. Sadly, I ran out of steam on the series before it ended, then he died, and I have no idea if the person who picked up the series and finished it off even knew what Jordan had in mind. If anyone does know, I’d be happy to hear!

  2. Interesting, Allan, thanks for finding and posting the link!

    I’m having trouble imagining knowing basically the full sweep of events over 15 books, but who knows? I guess the fundamental shape of the series and the last scene could well have been clear to Jordan, even if he had a lot of surprising side-tangents along the way.

    Long ago, I read Marie Brennan’s long and elaborate commentary on the Wheel of Time — part of that commentary is here — and that was frankly enough for me to decide I didn’t need to read it myself.

  3. Interesting what you say about Tano in Tarashana. I’d found myself thinking it’s a braided story: the throughline of Ryo/Aras/problem and the line of Ryo/Tano/clanstuff. They intersect but are clearly different stories working together to make the novel.

    BTW, I’m rereading it. And this time noting the typos to pass on once finished. (sorry. there are a few.)

  4. Yes, exactly Elaine.

    Also, I know. It makes me wince to think of it. Check and see if Amazon has enabled an Update for the Tarashana ebook. If so, then that version should be a lot closer to typo-free. If not, please let me know. I may have to ask them to enable an Update or something; I’m not sure.

  5. The update isn’t visible from my account so far.

    Though there is an update available for my digital copy of The Lord of the Rings. Maybe Tolkien’s pushed through the retcon where Orcs are descended from Men instead of Elves!

    (Seriously, Tolkien was probably lucky he didn’t have the ability to keep fixing works after publication. :-) )

  6. Rachel Aaron wrote about how to decide whether or not a story is worth writing, i.e. sticky, in her 10K book.
    I can’t recall the exact wording at the moment because my brain is wiped out. Today I finished the first draft of a story that I started based on nothing but a house with lots of atmosphere and a heroine with a mood. Took me a year and a half to write the first [censored] draft because that’s all I had to go on.
    My last story, I started with a scene in my head, high tension, high stakes, and I wrote the first draft (same word count) in a week. I’m definitely requesting more of that sort from my subconscious.
    I’m afraid I have Nikoles and Tarashana on my TBR and haven’t been able to delve into them until now. I’ll keep an eye out for chapter 6!

  7. An idea can be anything. An argument with a trope, a nifty curse, something a king can order (that one wasn’t a scene of his ordering it — just what he ordered) — but I get the scene, or merely part of it, most often.

    Some ideas are harder to expand than others.

  8. I’m not surprised your sticky scenes are all about characters: I think that’s what makes your books sticky to readers, those really juicy, pivotal character interactions.

    I can’t think of why you’d think Ryo/Tano wouldn’t work for readers: for me it seemed a very natural development, both character-wise and structurally. (For Elaine’s reasons and also others that would be spoilery to mention.)

  9. Kim, because it pulls attention away from the Ryo/Aras relationship. It’s sometimes hard for me to tell whether something is working for me but wouldn’t work for readers — I’m just too close to it. So, yes, I couldn’t help but worry — until you and Mary Beth both gave me a thumbs up. Then I pretty much relaxed. (So, thanks, Mary Beth!)

    Mary Catelli, yes, I’m sure you’re right. I’d say that “an argument with a trope” — nice phrase — or a curse or something a king orders — all of those are plot elements, and that’s the sort of thing that leaps to my mind when someone says “an idea for a story.”

    For me, it’s awkward if the first thing that occurs to me is a character. I need the character embedded in a scene and interacting with other people or I have no idea what to do with the character regardless of how neat the character may be.

  10. Congratulations, Evelyn! Wow, sounds like you deserve all the cake today! It’s just stunning how different the feel and flow can be for different books, isn’t it?

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