Okay, there’s really no such thing as Twitter-mining --- at least, not officially, not to the best of my knowledge. I made the term up. (A good one, don’t you think? Regular ol’ Webster wannabe, that’s me.) But I can’t be the only person using Tweets to generate material for blog posts. Like this one.
(Engagement tweets, on the other hand, apparently are a thing, but not a good one. They’re shallow attempts by shallow people to bolster their engagement statistics by asking questions of other Twits. Why would they do that, you ask? Because one of the (innumerable) Quirkily Depressing Things [QDT] about humans, bless our black little narcissistic hearts, is this: people tend to be obsessed with numbers. Big numbers. Impressive numbers. Now, as I said, people doing the asking have no real interest seeing their questions answered --- which are frequently, and laughably, deep philosophical issues no one in their right mind would even dream of trying to answer in 280 characters, anyway --- but here’s another QDT: most of us can’t resist when we believe someone else humbly seeks our erudite opinion… even when it’s transparently obvious they aren’t, not really. That’s a third QDT, by the way: humankind’s capacity for delusional rationalization is almost endless.)
Anyway. End of rant. What was the Tweet in question you mined? you ask impatiently. Well, simply this: which comes first, the character or the plot? (See what I mean? In 280 characters? Are you kidding? Yes, of course, it’s answerable in 280 characters or less… but it’d be kind of like explaining that the cause of the Roman Empire’s decline and fall was carelessness. Gibbon would have an apoplexy… except he’s already dead.)
The question is, at its core, obviously one of those chicken or egg conundrums. So allow me to be really annoying and begin my answer glibly saying: neither. At least, as far as my own experience goes. (Your own test results may vary. Semi-professional writer working on a closed computer. Do not try this at home, kids and other cautionary notes.)
I self-published my first novel, Gryphon’s Heir; its sequel’s status for the last two years has been: almost-done-but-temporarily-on-hiatus --- much to the annoyance of at least one faithful reader (my long-suffering, variably patient wife). I can truthfully tell you I began it with no character and no plot; it began with a situation, to wit:
Slightly more than halfway through my 35-year public school teaching career, I found myself at a school where I was desperately unhappy. Let’s throw at least a modicum of professionalism over the answer to your next question (“why?”) by simply saying the school’s administration and I had fundamental, irreconcilable differences of opinion over what constitutes a rigorously academic, well-organized, well-run school. It didn’t take long to realize I’d made a horrible mistake coming there. One evening, after a particularly frustrating day, I began writing out those frustrations, as Writers Are Wont To Do. (It was either that or turn to alcohol, and as a devoted, if rather harried, family man, that wasn’t really a viable option.)
Instead, I wrote of a dissatisfied, demoralized school teacher suddenly confronted by an ornately carved wooden door in a blank wall of his classroom. Impulsively, he steps through that door… to be greeted by a quietly comfortable, deserted room between worlds. After the visceral shock and very natural what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here reaction as he flees back to his own mortal and rather drab world, he ventures forth again when the door reappears, this time meeting the room’s occupant.
Now, at this point, I had about 10,000 words --- pretty good words, I thought as I reread them, false modesty be damned, even though the premise is not the most original idea ever --- and I had a decision to make: (a) chalk it all up as an interesting experience, carefully file it away, and forget the whole thing; or (b) keep going and see down precisely which rabbit hole it led, and how deep.
Well, you can probably guess which alternative I chose… yep, I wound up with a 186,000-word novel that was obviously only the beginning of a much longer epic fantasy. So again, there it is: I began with a situation. I’d no particular idea who this guy was (besides me, obviously) or what the plot was. But that, I found, was no problem. As I wrote more of his story, either he got immeasurably better relating his tale, or I got immeasurably better hearing what he had to say --- probably a mix of the two --- and we had ourselves a story. Quite a good one, if I say so myself.
The sequel --- currently around 178,000 words and change --- simply takes up where the first left off. But a funny thing happened on the way to the epilogue, as they say: a couple of years ago, I envisioned another situation: lying in a bed in a castle, ill almost to the point of death, nursed back to health. (Not autobiographical this time, thank goodness.) I wrote it; felt compelled to write it. And then, as before, had to discover several things: who was this person? (Turns out she’s a feisty 19-year-old named Areellan… which, I must say, is an interesting challenge for a male of a certain age to write.) What’s she doing? Why should we take note of her? And so on. I don’t worry about plot or trying to chart things out; as before, I’m quite good listening to her while she tells her tale, and she’s generally quite good filling me in on details. Trying to dictate actions to her is pointless; she refuses to do what I tell her to do, insisting on following her own path. But it’s a joyous journey, nevertheless.
And thereby, as Will says, hangs a tale.