A lot of helpful “you can do it too” type writing books try to give you ideas on how to find inspiration. You will see examples of how to look around you, look at your experiences, or think about things you like and maybe consider combinations (Like in the classic Hollywood pitch style: “It’s ___ meets ___”). For me, I find none of that works.
“Thinking” for inspiration, rarely gives off enough of a spark to carry a project through to a satisfying fruition. Yes, you might finish a draft of something, sure, but it will never be as good, in my opinion, as an idea that overwhelms your consciousness or wakes you up in the middle of the night like a scream.
A good book needs a spark.
Part 1: The Spark
One of my favorite examples of finding inspiration is around my novel Megan. To understand what I mean, I need to give a little back history on myself up to this point. My wife and I had just moved away from LA, back to my home state of Michigan.
While Michigan is hardly the hotbed for new upcoming writers, I had my writing degree from USC, and a great agent in New York representing my books; so, really, I thought I didn’t need anything more. “Why deal with the madness of LA, unless you have to?,” I thought. I decided to let my agent deal with all that while I followed my wife to the University of Michigan and her dream for an MFA in Dance.
The thing is I was the last writer really on my agent’s radar and the more time slipped by, the more I needed to take deep breaths to control my sanity. Because I was in Michigan, I wasn’t in LA, I was losing contacts, and I was becoming more and more irrelevant… and then I was working Temp. ARGH!
Is there anything more depressing than working temp? Seriously? On the career ladder? Hardly, you aren’t even near the ladder. The ladder is way over there, you aren’t allowed to touch the ladder. This was definitely not where I saw myself after graduating from USC. Where were the long lines at book readings and award ceremonies?
I did temp job after temp job helping support my wife through school, while spending my evenings writing my books and checking nonstop for e-mails from my agent, which were fewer and farther between.
By the start of this tale, my agent had two of my books to represent, Cassandra on the Island (my thesis from USC, still unpublished) and my newest My Problem With Doors (which was published later here); they were not looking for a third unpublished book, and had hinted that as well to me. They were, as they explained, having enough issues trying to figure out how to sell Doors, which was a time-traveling adventure trying to be a lot more than a time-traveling adventure (in theme and in literary terms). To be honest, I was not making it easy for them, since I was not creating what I would consider pop lit. Sue me, I wanted to do something new artistic as well as tell an entertaining story…
OK, so there is the scene— I’m away from a writing homeland, my agent doesn’t want more books from me, and I am working lousy temp jobs.
So of course my mind would come up with an idea!
I was working a data entry temp job that was in the evening (Probably one of the worst I had ever had), and I began to wonder how many other people around me really wanted to be there until 1 AM typing in bills on trucks and shipments (Yeah, painful), debating about who our boss was having an affair with (That is not a joke, he was doing that with someone on the staff, making the evenings that much more awkward). Yet, that environment was the initial spark as I began to imagine the dream alter egos of the people around me.
One weekend my wife and I were driving home from my parents’ house when it hit me like a punch. I asked my wife to write down a sentence for me. She scurried in her purse and using something from her makeup and on an old envelope wrote, “But in Megan’s imagination she was a princess.” I still have that envelope around.
Part 2: Helping It Grow
Now here is the rub that most new writers don’t know. If I didn’t make a big deal about writing down that idea, if I didn’t allow my brain to run with this idea, the novel would never have happened. It needed this moment, like that seed and water. Ideas die if they are not allowed this time (and I have let a few die because of it, some to my regret).
Novels are not destiny, they are entities learning to breathe. And while sparks of inspiration can feel magical (and that magic can sometimes follow a work as certain scenes lock in perfectly together), ideas need help when they (and you) are ready. Yet, to make this more complicated, you can’t force the inspiration now. The writing happens at its own pace and it will “lock in” if it is meant to “lock in.”
So many times, new novelists want everything now, rushing the process and creativity. The thing they don’t realize is that for the well-read reader you can tell it in their fiction when they rush. Dry spells in creative dialogue or descriptions are always great example of a writer rushing the process (I like to compare dry descriptions to a scene in any episode from Dragnet. “Just the facts, ma’am.” “Okay, copper, ok. There was this house. It was on the corner of a street. A family of four lived there. A mother, a father, and two kids…”)
I recommend at the start, when you are ready, begin thinking about a plot. But do not, I repeat, do not, allow yourself to think that it is ever finished. A plot should be as fluid as the tide when working through a first draft. You don’t know the beginning or the ending? That is fine. Write what you are INSPIRED to write at that moment. I have never written a book in a linear fashion.
Let the spark tell you how it wants to be created. This may seem silly, but I have had ideas that demanded I NOT work on a computer during the first draft. If I tried typing it, my creative juices will shut off. Yes, I had to go old school with a notepad. Other works, needed a certain environment or sound. Whatever the case, the half of the brain that oversees creativity does not come with a logic button. You need to run with it. If you need to wear a certain hat, you NEED TO WEAR THAT HAT.
Over time, after the spark, the seedling will start to appear; a plot (in fluid) will form around the idea, and some characters (definitely some will be stronger than others) will become as clear in your mind as a childhood memory. This is the start of the book’s life. You need to nurture it and feed it when it is hungry.
PART 3: Starting The First Draft
This may seem crazy but I have works that have taken years from the Seeding to the Helping It Grow stage. Each work has its own schedule, and time is always more helpful than not. When there is enough of the plot, and there are enough ideas for certain moments in the book to appear on a page, you can begin that wonderful first draft (And in my opinion, there is nothing more fun than writing the first draft).
Yes, it is exciting writing a novel. And it’s fun telling people that you are writing the great American novel, but writing is a solo task. You need to do what is right for you and your work, and if you calm down, chances are the answer to that is already talking to you; you just need to listen.
If there is one piece of advice I would love new novelists to take away from this rambling blog, in other words, what is the trick?- “You need patience.”
Take a breath.
If the tree is meant to grow, it will grow.
If you liked reading this post, why not check out one of my books? I’ve had three novels published in the last few years, A Jane Austen Daydream (coming in April), My Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my amazon.com author page here, or as an eBook on Google eBooks here. Thanks for reading!…