“Where do you get your ideas?”
This question is one every writer I know has fielded countless times. My answer is often something like “from the Story Well,” “from the Story Fairy,” or “from the Story Cloud”--which of course hovers nearby full-time, and all I have to do is reach up and pluck out a new idea the way Harry Potter plucks memories from Dumbledore’s pensieve.
The truth is that there’s no actual answer to that question. Story ideas come from everywhere, and they come from nowhere. Sometimes I’m inundated with new ideas and have trouble prioritizing my interests; at other times I’m stumbling through the desert under a blazing sun, my hand shielding my eyes while I search and search for the smallest story seed, but to no avail. You get them when you don’t need or want them; you can’t find one when you need one…they’re fickle, that’s simply the way of it, and every writer has to embrace that truth or go find a more predictable occupation, such as mortuary technician.
I began writing fiction seriously ten years ago. To date I’ve completed eight novels. Three of those are published. A fourth—number eight—is under contract and scheduled to come out next year. I turned in the manuscript just before my newest book, Exposure, was released, then held my breath waiting for my agent’s and editor’s feedback. While I was on tour, the news came in: the story was “drafty,” yes, but its bones were good and they were confident it was all going to come together very well.
This is exactly what a writer needs to hear after spending long months (or sometimes years) with the story idea that captivated them enough to merit such a commitment. When tour ended, I was all set to review my editorial letter and then get to work again.
I read the editorial letter and, as I always do, began mulling my wonderfully astute editor’s various questions and observations. Each character arc was examined, the plot arc tested, the overall message considered. This manuscript had a lot going on, and so my editor asked what, in my view, did I think readers would take away from the story?
When I answered that question for myself, I saw something I hadn’t seen before. Something that didn’t suit me at all. Something that, after two weeks of mulling things over, made me realize that I as a reader didn’t want to read that story—and therefore I didn’t want to have it published.
I hardly need to tell you that this is not an ideal situation.
I knew that before I told my editor I’d gone off the rails in this way, I needed to offer a solution to the problem. So I went to the story cloud and plucked from it a brand new story premise. Remarkably, that premise contained almost all the same characters as my completed draft, but in a situation that was so elegant in its simplicity and so interesting that I could see the story in its entirety. I was confident (or as confident as an experienced writer ever is) that the writing would feel more like taking dictation than the pushing of boulders uphill that it sometimes is.
Do I make it sound like finding that solution was easy? It felt easy—once I’d obsessed about it for almost three weeks, tortured myself with scenarios of never having another novel published, of being thought difficult and unreliable. It felt easy once I overcame my certainty that real pros would never write the wrong story in the first place. It felt easy once I remembered that the only person I ever truly have to satisfy is myself.
Will this new idea turn out to be the right one? That test is still ahead of me. The challenge is a rigorous one. But it’s the kind of challenge I’ve succeeded with before, so as I set out, I’m both confident and terrified—which should play well on the page, since that’s the state my characters find themselves in as well.
One thing I know for certain is that even if this story doesn’t end up working the way I want it to, doesn’t get published, never reaches readers, I can go back to the story well/fairies/cloud, and if I’m patient, be rewarded with a new idea, another chance to get it right.