Get the Idea: Then vs Now
I’ve been thinking recently about how I came up with the concept for The End of Atlas vs how I used to come up with the ideas for previous novel projects.
Before Atlas my usual technique was to build a world around a character, which I think started
when I was 8. Pokemon 2000 had just come out on VHS and I became obsessed with the villain (then nameless, now Lawrence III or Jirarudan). I built a whole world up around him and whenever I was bored or getting ready for bed, I would tell myself a little chunk of his story.
As I got older, I got really good at pulling character ideas out of nothing, from Lily the eccentric coffee shop owner, to Carson a devious criminal psychologist. I would build my story by saying, what if this happened? What would they do? Who would they go to? What are they like? And so the world would branch out around them.
But at some point during university, something else got added to the idea making mix.
First year, I did the same thing I’d always done. The characters came first, then the plot. At the beginning of second year, I created a Douglas-Adams-esque version of the previously mentioned Carson (Clarence) and put a lot of research into how you would go about stealing a giraffe.
Then, as the year went on, I hit something of an emotion crisis, and found myself thinking:
“For the love of God, I wish people would just do what I want them too!”
Shortly followed by:
“That would be a terrible idea, Emma. Don’t wish that.”
That moment was when Olivia, the female protagonist of Atlas and the original narrator, came to life. Whereas my previous characters had come from “it would be cool if this person existed”, Olivia came out of a necessity to express and idea.
I started with a very short story about a girl rescuing a guy from a mugging using her
mysterious ability to influence others. Through a thick, morose monologue, the girl revealed that the guy used to be her best friend, until she fell in love with him and he fell for someone else. Not wanting to be around him, she’d erased his memory and spent her life grumpily avoiding him.
As I said, I was having something of an emotion crisis, but let’s not read into it.
I loved the concept and I liked Olivia, but I struggled a great deal with her voice. It had a monotonous “I hate everything” ring to it and I knew I was never going to be able to sustain that kind of narration for a whole novel.
Still, I knew this was the idea I wanted to use for my dissertation. By the beginning of third year, I’d drafted the opening multiple times. Many drafts were from Olivia’s perspective, but one version was voiced by Alec (male protag and current narrator). Of
course, in that version he was a police officer investigating a vigilante…who was his wife…who he couldn’t remember despite the wedding ring he always wore. We’ll call that an alternate universe and move on.
The important thing about that Alec draft was that I realised Alec was so much easier to write. Without having the burden of ridiculous power to worry about, he can express a wider range of emotion, internally and externally. So I went back through my older (less absurd) drafts and rewrote a couple of scenes from his perspective. Bingo.
Over the years my ideas have gone from, “oh, man this would be cool” and a few questions to drive the plot, to very much emotion driven. The characters, plot and themes of The End of Atlas all come from a frustration that hit me hard in 2013, and
writing this novel has been a continuous reminder that no matter how tough things get, there’s a way through. We’ve had our ups and downs, me and Atlas, but my interest in experimenting with it’s core concepts has been enough to bring me back from the verge of quitting multiple times.
For those of you who want to write something longer and who struggle to keep yourself interested (as I do), I strongly recommend finding something that drives you emotionally; something that makes the impulse to pick up a pen (or tap on a keyboard) so strong that even when you’ve fallen out with your fictional characters, and you’re crocodile wrestling with how to make your plot work, you still feel some comfort in sitting down and getting what’s in your brain, out in words.
After all, is it really a good idea if you can’t bring yourself to follow through?
Featured Image taken by a friend in Amsterdam (2013).