Ideas, as they say, are a dime a dozen: it is the execution of them that truly matters, that people pay for and enjoy. There would be little point in a magician describing a trick to someone and considering his job done; he has to perform the trick, to practise it a few thousand times beforehand until the sleight of hand works, and the effect transforms from mere fumbling into actual “magic”.
Writing, and anything, really, is the same: the spark is the idea, while execution the fan that wafts it upwards into a great flame worthy of notice. An artist has to paint the picture for it to be worth anything, not prattle on about what a wonderful idea he or she has for a painting; a scientist needs to spend hard, grueling years filled with long nights and failures and trial-and-error experiments to develop the medicine or synthetic molecule or invention after he is struck by that first bolt of inspiration before the world pays the slightest attention to him.
And therein lies the struggle of every person in any field that requires a great deal of originality, persistence and passion: that gap, between that first idea and the transformation of it into something tangible and can be experienced or seen or used by other, real people. It is a very great gap. To cross it one must not only need be persistent and courageous – you also need to have some pretty good ideas and methods for building the bridge so that it doesn’t collapse halfway in the middle, along with some snazzy cranes and chains to help you along, and to keep at it even when parts of the structure invariably crumble, for to succeed, to write or make something that did not exist in the world if you did not exist, is to create, word by word, stroke by stroke, an architectural impossibility. Or at least, that’s how it feels, a great deal of the time.
Take books, for instance. On the surface, they are just a series of eighty thousand or so words strung together in a legible sequence, printed on sheets of paper pressed together between two covers arranged in chronological order. But we all know they are much more than that: between the pages of a book lies worlds and characters, where ordinary people can pretend to fly up to the moon or talk with imaginary sea beasts: books hold the only kind of wizardry humans are capable of casting: stories, and all the drunken, magical splendor that they entail, limited only by the human imagination. To write is to create a world, a living, breathing world, to be a tiny God, ruling over your own miniature realm, and that is no mean feat.
First and foremost, you have to create characters who seem like they could be real people, with real flaws, thinking processes and personality traits. Characters are the bones holding a book or story together – without them, the whole structure would flop apart. As people, we are interested in other people and all the varied forms they come in, and we want to indulge in that fascination when we read, and to create a real person, using only words in the form of descriptions, dialogues, gestures and actions, is not the simplest of tasks, to put it lightly. If you think about how complex you are as a person as well as the people around you, you will realise the difficulty of creating a realistic character in this limited medium. When done successfully, the book comes alive; when unsuccessful, you may as well be reading a furniture catalogue for all the captivation it holds.
Then there is the world-building. As a fantasy writer, for me, at the heart of every book is the world it is set in. The world is what sets the tone of the entire story, the playground where the characters discover themselves and each other whilst tumbling down slippery dips and clambering, hand-over-hand, up ladders and bouncing up and down on the see-saws. Without it, reading would be like watching children playing with shovels and buckets in an empty sandpit. Do it properly, and you have a rich and nuanced backdrop, a source of wonder and delight for the reader, anchoring them in a magical realism as they are carried through the story from start to finish. Neglect the world-building, or, worse, create the world patchily, so that the reader cannot imagine completely it in their mind’s eye, cannot get a feel for it, and you may as well be like an artist leaving a painting unfinished, or half-done.
But living breathing characters, and a living breathing world, are not enough: for a book to be successful you also need a plot, you need a story, a thread on the end of a needle to be tugged through the whole lot and stitch it all together. Characters need to encounter other characters; things need to go wrong in the particular world you have created, in accordance with its rules, so the characters can find out ways to fix them; and there needs to be a logical succession of events, leading to a climax and then a final denouement, whereupon you end up with winners or losers or people who neither win or lose but survive, broken and jaded.
These three things – character, setting, plot – are merely the larger parts. In each there are contained a multitude of smaller parts that need to be figured out, from the colour of someone’s hair, to how one particular character’s flaw might move the plot forward, to the weather in each day of the imaginary world that tends to set the colour tone for the book. Writing a fantasy book, if done well, is an enormously difficult and magical feat, and if one cannot aim for the edge of the universe, then one must simply set their sights on the closest galaxy.
All that complexity starts with a single seed of an idea, which the writer, or the artist, or the scientist, or whoever it is, must water and nurture and love, over years of hard work, until one day it blossoms into something beautiful that others can use to improve their lives. It is not easy. They always say nothing worth doing is easy, but I have often found that saying quite irritating, because it does nothing to lessen the blow of the difficulty of achieving your dreams and only puts into words what you already very well know: that if you want to make something of yourself, you have to grit your teeth and sweat for it. But it’s worth it, in the end, as is clear if one takes a look around at human civilisation, and all the art, literature and science it has engendered.
So let us continue building our bridges between the chasms, block by block, link by link, dreaming of a day that shall come when the two sides of the cavern shall meet, linked by an architectural impossibility you created and build with your own hands and head, and that will, hopefully, last longer than your flesh and bones and bring joy to other humans for eons to come.