Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Premises? Today They are Like Flying Monkeys Coming Out of My Ass!

By: Sandra Novack

You know how the monkeys in the Wizard of Oz freak so many people out?  Today was like that--totally freaky.  As fate (or circumstance) would have it, the idea of 'premises' worked well with my day and is a great blog topic.  Why?  Well, I'll tell you.  I was writing today, when I suddenly smelled burning electrical wires. The smell was strong.  Smoke wafted down the steps, from upstairs.  I panicked.  I called 911.  The fire trucks came.  The police came.  Turns out the LED light in our saltwater aquarium upstairs was letting off sparks.  There could have been a fire.  Thank God there was not a fire.

I am usually home during the day, but tomorrow or the next day if this had happened, I would have been downtown, at a writer’s conference.  What if the wire went on the fritz tomorrow, and not today? What if my house burned down? What is the nature of fate, or luck? 

I was musing over all this as I posted about my LED incident on Facebook.  A FB friend wrote in saying, “I’d need a glass of wine after that!”  So my fictive brain adds this bit, because it’s always looking for sources of conflict.  What if because someone was drunk, an accident happened and there was a fire?  What if it was a woman, and her child died in the blaze?  This is where imaginative play adds life to a basic idea, or truth.  The aftermath of that could fill 300 pages.  Sure it could.  Fate.  Bad luck.  Personal blame.  Conflict.  Forgiveness.  It could go any number of ways.

What if?  The basis of all fiction is a premise.   Something that can withstand 250-300 pages of going over, or, in the case of short stories, 10-20 pages.  Ideas come in all shapes and sizes, after all.  Some have more stamina for long distance running, than others.

The truth is, I have problems with a lot of things when it comes to writing.  Sitting down each day to write?  That’s sometimes a problem, particularly with a new puppy in the house, or, hmmm…when a fire hazard interrupts my day.   Staying focused when writing for more than 5 hours?  I want to pull my hair out. Laboring over scenes and the ordering of information? My head wants to explode.  But ideas for a story or novel?  Look around, and they are all over, Friend.  Premises are the fun part of my writing.

Since I am lazy, I steal a lot of basic ideas from life.  You probably could tell that already.  My debut novel Precious takes place during a summer when a young girl goes missing.  Yes, I have a sister who left home when she was seventeen and didn’t speak to our family for 32 years.  That idea of sudden absences and the fallout in a family formed the basis of the book.  And the basis of all those therapy sessions, my God!

My story “White Trees in Summer” contained a premise that was also stolen from fact.  An elderly and distant relative of mine lived with his wife for years and years.  He loved her, greatly. She was very sick and senile in the end.  When he found out that he, too, was dying, he shot his wife, then himself.  Now, my story was quite different in the end, and also really influenced by Graham Greene’s “The Destructors,” a story in which neighborhood kids set out to dismantle one of the few homes left standing in war.  They tear it apart, from the inside out.  In that case, an event and preexisting story combined to form the basic idea of mine:  What if a man killed his wife but backed out of killing himself?  What if he were not held accountable in a court, but the neighborhood took retaliation? 

Which leads me to stealing basic story ideas from other writers, and other stories.  What if I told a known story from a minor character’s point of view?  Ahab’s Wife comes to mind.  That entire epic novel was based on an idea gotten from a very minor paragraph in Moby Dick.

I get story premises from newspaper articles, too.  I am in good company, in this regard. Robert Olen Butler’s Tabloid Dreams took titles from tabloids and turned them into stories.  The titles became not only the basic premises for the stories themselves, but also an organizing feature of the entire book. Two birds with one stone, there!  Boy, do I like that.

Likewise, my short story “Fireflies” was based on a newspaper article about a rich woman who lost everything.  She lived out on the streets, homeless and destitute after having millions, and ended up meeting the wrong people one night under a bridge.  There was also a fire in that newspaper article, come to think of it.  (See how the day affects my brain?)  How this article turned into a love affair story, one that is sparked on the same night a building goes up in flames, is beyond me. And how what was tragic (real life event) turned comic (my story), is still another thing.  But that’s what stories do, and good premises.  They take on their own life and vitality. 

And the list goes on and on.  I’d write more, but I’m kind of being hyper vigilant at the moment, with my fish tank.  And house.

So in conclusion: Premises?  Not a problem.  They are all around, and only rely on a writer’s biggest talents:  That of being observant, and sensitive.  Or as my friend always says to me, “You’re not even that observant.  This shit just falls in your lap!”

Perhaps.  God help me, if the fates have a target on my back.

On that note, I will leave you with a pic of fires and monkeys, which, thanks to the miracle that is GOOGLE IMAGES, I can find, together!   And one question:  Where do your story ideas come from?  Please do post, because tomorrow I'll be away, and unable to tend to this blog entry, or my house.

Sandra Novack still has a fat ass, drinks wine (but not today), writes books, and has fire hazards in her 1914 Oak Park home.  You can find her at http://www.sandranovack.com


  1. Love this post...love the way your mind works! :-)

  2. Love this post...love the way your mind works! :-)

  3. Love this post...love the way your mind works! :-)

  4. Great post--love the monkey. I have to say, premises can wear me out, especially the ones that don't make the cut which is 90% in my head, at least. They get in and demand to try on this and that idea, narrowly avoiding dead ends; they grow fast and crowd out work-in-progress (a bad thing), until I finally throw them out. Just thinking about premises wears me out. Or maybe it's just been a long day.

  5. One great thing about being a writer--whenever something awful happens, our first reaction is, "Hey, maybe I can get a book out of this."

  6. So glad everything was okay.

    My ideas come from everywhere--a bit of overheard conversation, a newspaper article, a radio news report. I have way more ideas than I have time to write them!

  7. Ha ha ha--I love this Sandra! Sounds like your mind works alot like mine (I'm sorry!). I'm always hearing a snippet of something here or there and, for me, it's just figuring out which string to pull to find the whole story.

  8. What a crazy post, Sandra!! My premises come from real life, too. But my life isn't as exciting as yours!!

  9. Gah! Your experience is just the kind of thing that fuels my OCD-brain...going out, driving home to make sure I didn't leave the iron on, going out again, wondering if I really shut it off...Have fun at the AWP, speaking of flying monkeys...

  10. I love this post. People are always asking 'where do you get your ideas' and it is true--they are all around us. Often for me it begins with 'What if...." Also I have characters that bounce into my brain and simply start talking. They won't shut up--what choice do I have but to write their story down on paper?

  11. Fun post, Sandra. Have fun at AW. There's so many good panels this year. Wish I was there.