Going from ‘inspiration’ to ‘story’ is kind of like setting out on a voyage without knowing how you’ll get there, or where exactly you’re going. Some people think of this process as something organic – a plant growing from seed, for example. I think it’s more like a flow chart, or some kind of weird computer program. For me, the basic ‘idea’ starts out as something very simple – an image of something, an unformed concept. (In the case of ‘When Charlie Sleeps’, my starting point was nothing more complex than an image of a grey humanoid creature in a bathtub, completely devoid of context. Just a monster in a bath, floating in empty space.)
And then comes the hard bit. It’s rare for me to find an idea that comes with a story attached. Even if the story starts as a concept rather than an image (Red Rabbit: ‘a man sees painted red rabbits everywhere he goes and doesn’t know what they mean’) I’ve still got to dissect that concept, read the metaphorical entrails and work out where the story is. There are a dozen ideas floating around in my head right now, but most of them are likely to stay there until I can sketch out a basic map of what actually happens in the story. (I’m not talking about outlining. That comes later – if you’re that way inclined, anyway.) I don’t know if this happens to other writers, or whether it’s much more common for them to come up with an idea that has the bare bones of a plot attached like some special bonus gift from the idea fairy. The best way I can describe it is having a package from Ikea, and knowing that there’s a piece of furniture in there, but not knowing what you’re going to get when you put it together. You know the wood is red gloss. (Of course it’s red gloss. Red gloss is bloody awful.) But you don’t have an instruction leaflet. So there you are, sifting through a hundred tiny wooden dowels and screws that don’t seem to fit anywhere, and you might emerge with something stylish and practical, but you might also emerge with a mutant wardrobe/bed hybrid which is no good to man nor beast.