In today's guest blog for Kindle Post, author Gavin Extence describes the inspiration behind his remarkable debut novel, The Universe versus Alex Woods.
Where did that idea come from?
Recently, I've been all over London and Somerset talking to lots of different booksellers about my new debut novel. There are three questions that tend to come up again and again.
1. What's the book about?
2. How/why did you decide to write a novel?
3. Where did the idea come from?
The third is the question I most like answering, and it's the one I'm going to focus on here.
I suppose there's a certain mystique surrounding creativity, and the more original or outlandish an idea, the more people want to know where it came from. (I think of it as The Life of Pi effect.) However, in my experience, at least 95% of the creative process is really just a heightened form of logic. You start with an idea of what you want to achieve (in a paragraph, a chapter, a book) and then you sit down and spend a lot of time thinking through your options. It's the sort of creativity that underpins any real-life problem-solving exercise. You have to get character X from one side of the river to the other and he has some sticks, some rope and Z number of hungry crocodiles to contend with. The only difference with writing is that all the crocodiles are self-generated.
So where does that leave the remaining 5% of the creative process? Because however much time and machine-like logic you devote to a story, there are still certain elements that seem to come 'from nowhere', that are based on intuition alone. I have one example that really sticks out in my mind when I think about writing Alex.
At its heart, The Universe versus Alex Woods is about the friendship between Alex, a geeky, slightly odd teenage boy, and Mr Peterson, a recluse who lives in his village. I always knew that this friendship was going to form the emotional core of the story. I also knew it was going to be quite difficult to write convincingly--mostly because the reader has to buy into it despite a half-century-plus age-gap.
Mr Peterson was always going to be an ex-serviceman. My grandfather was in the RAF during World War Two, and this provided the starting template. But it never got past the vague-idea phase. For some reason, I just couldn't make it work in my head. It never felt natural to me. Then, on what felt at first like an absolute whim, I decided to make Mr Peterson an American. More specifically, I made him a foul-tempered Vietnam veteran--and suddenly I could see exactly how his friendship with Alex would work, despite all the logical problems the decision presented to the existing plot. (Why the hell would a Vietnam vet be living in a tiny village in rural Somerset?)
Subsequently, I thought everything through at length and I could see that there were all sorts of reasons why the change made perfect sense--but I won't try to explain that here. It would probably require another 500 words. The pertinent point is that there are some ideas that start life as pure intuition--and these are the ideas it's always worth pursuing.
On a related note, when I find myself confronting a problem immune to normal logic, I tend to stop thinking about it and go for a long run. By the time I get back to my kitchen table, I'll often have several solutions germinating in my mind.