But I think a lot of the mechanics of it are -- at least for many of those of us who end up with lots of ideas* -- something that gets done on a subconscious level much of the time. Let me try to unpack it a bit. I think most of what the subconscious is doing is what you often do when you're trying to figure out something you don't know: working from what you already know to what you might not know yet.
As I said on the panel, I don't really get story ideas without chunks of prose. They come with voice. Mostly I don't sit down and say, "I should write about alien squid. Now, what about the squid?" But I think some aspects of methodology would work for that type of idea as well. So since this is my journal and I can do stuff like this, I'll give you the chunk of prose that started "Carter Hall Recovers the Puck," since a) it's already published, so we know that at least some people think it went somewhere that made a decent story; b) it's towards the start of the story, so the exposition is in this chunk and not later; and c) I like it. This is what started me, more or less:
We were all glad to see the start of the season. It had been a weird year already, way too cold too early and lots of exhibition games, and then there was that thing with Tam and Janet on Halloween. I was still figuring that out, but Janet and the baby-to-be seemed to be okay, and Tam wasn't sacrificed to the lords of hell, and that's about all I could ask for under the circumstances.
There was one thing that confused me most about it. That game, when Tam had been forced to play for those weird French-Canadian dudes and Janet took him down and saved him, even I could see that there was a lot of big, bad magic going on in that game. I saw the face of that Queen woman -- hell, I checked her into the boards as hard as I've ever done. I know what was in her eyes, and it wasn't human. And I saw what she did to Tam, and that wasn't human, either.
But it wasn't really about the hockey. That's what I don't get. If I've ever believed in magic in my life, it's in the way my skates hiss on fresh ice, the slide of the puck. The way blood bounces: if that's not magic, I don't know what is. And that Queen chick, she used it, but it was just another tool for her.
I kind of thought it should be about the hockey.
Now. This is not, as it stands, a story idea. But it can get you there from here. From this, you know several characters: the narrator, his roommate Tam, Tam's girlfrend Janet, and the Queen of Air and Darkness. You actually know a fair amount about them. They are, with the exception of the Queen, hockey players. They are fairly serious hockey players. The narrator, Carter, is a bit rough around the edges and not particularly reverent. They have also had some experience of magic. They have been through fairly unusual experiences lately, and if their world is not an urban fantasy version of ours, it needs to be signaled fast, because everything in this passage says "mostly our world." There are French-Canadians, for example; there is Halloween. The magic is at least partially from a fairly familiar myth structure.
If you pick and poke at that last line, it tells you where the story is going: these characters are still not completely resolved with the dark side of the Fair Folk, and if this is not a tragedy -- and Carter's voice is not well-suited to tragedy -- the resolution must come on the ice. It has to be about the hockey. And because I write for an audience that is not exclusively composed of hockey fans, it has to be about the hockey in a way that's accessible to people who have never seen a game in their lives, or have never enjoyed it if they have.
So you have the familiar myth structure, and you have hockey, and you sort of toss them around in your head, and then you chuckle to yourself, because what comes out is: Oh, of course. Puck. And another thing that comes out is: Janet is pregnant. This is a story about consequences; this is a story about what happens after. And this is probably the first time in these people's lives that they have that kind of vulnerability to deal with.
And it's being told by a guy who was willing to check the Queen of Air and Darkness into the boards for his friends. So this is maybe not a story about thinking things through very carefully and doing a great deal of research and planning a lot in advance and not taking risks. And so you start to think, well, Carter, what did you say to the Puck that got you in trouble? and Carter says, funny you should ask, and on you go.
Most of that I am not doing consciously. It's a series of clicks, a series of tiny epiphanies; the connection process only makes the conscious level when something is going wrong. For me, of course; I don't say that people can't do all this perfectly consciously and end up with good stories.
It doesn't have to be this sizable a chunk of prose for everybody, obviously. willshetterly said that he used to look for a magic sentence, and many of those can give you things to unpick: what setting does it imply? what characters? what plot structure? what ideas, what attitudes, what voice? But even a simply stated, "I want to write about a generation ship," will do: what kind of generation ship? Is everything going all right mechanically? How about socially? Who's on it? Who sent it? Where's it going? How well do they know where it's going? How have they diverged from the people who sent it? What does it smell like? Is it noisy? What kind of noises? A lot of times I find that I instinctively know the answers to some questions about my story, so that if I talk to someone else and they say, "Oh, and it's malfunctioning and plummeting into a binary star?", I can say, "No, no, that's someone else's." But if you don't know the answers to any of the questions you can think up about your story idea, either you don't have a story idea, or else it's time to make arbitrary choices and see where it takes you, and back up if you choose yourself into a corner, or if things start to fall out as clear and personal, as the story that you can tell differently than anyone else would.
Does any of that make sense?
*This does not necessarily map to writing quality. pameladean has said several times that she is not a writer who gets loads and loads of ideas. Some of my other favorite writers dismiss ideas because they are so chock full of ideas that they can barely move. It's that thing about people varying again; amazing how often that comes up.