One Idea Is Not Enough

I had the pleasure of seeing Gabrielle Zevin, author of All These Things I’ve Done, and her editor do a reading and Q&A session at WORD last night. (WORD is a very cool indie bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The shelves are like a who’s who of what New Yorkers are reading — or a what’s what, or something.)

At one point her editor asked, “How did you come up with a future New York where chocolate and caffeine are illegal and a teenage girl who is kind of a mob boss?” Gabrielle had a long and funny answer involving migraines and dark chocolate and organized crime movies, but at the end she added: “One idea is not enough.”

I also just finished reading Inheritance by Megan Lindholm/Robin Hobb. Each story has an introduction explaining its origins. (These are hard-hitting stories, the kind that stick with you and make you think. Or maybe just give you an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of your stomach, mostly in a good way. A masochistic, that was good writing, kind of way.) As I’m at the beginning stages of trying to figure out what my next writing project is going to be, the explanations were fascinating and made me think about where my own stories started.

The first book started from a dream I had. The dream was a pretty complete narrative. In the end some parts of the book strayed far from that original dream, but others remain pretty faithful.

The second book was what Sherwood Smith recently called “white fire” in a post on Book View Cafe Blog Writers on Writing: The White Fire. The story poured through me in a rapid torrent from somewhere else. Never have I written so easily, so fast, so confidently in the story. Not to say there weren’t parts I labored over with blood coming out of my pen instead of ink, but for the most part the story came to me, like a package in the mail. Kind of. Sometimes I feel desolate, wondering if I will ever have that experience again. It also came from what I call postcards from the imagination. In my mind, I saw the main character grinning at me and I saw the setting.

The third book came out of the second, plus the rage that I was experiencing at that time in my life. No one has read that one yet, and I wonder how much of that rage is still there. This book was an act of pure will. I almost lost the thread — of the story, of my determination — many times, and I wrenched it back on path. Maybe back on path, as it technically isn’t finished. When the rage passed I don’t know if I lost a lot of the propelling energy behind it. That might be why it was so hard to find the ending to the story. But again it started with a character and this time a question left unanswered.

But now I’m starting from scratch: no dreams, no white fire, no postcards from my imagination. And slowly I am building up an idea of something I want to write. A vague idea about what kind of main character I want to spend so much time with. A bit of a setting. Something stolen — an unusual physical trait that I admired in a well-known book that I wondered, “how can I steal that and make it mine?” Which l did, in quite an inspired way, I think, and in a way that makes it indisputably mine. Two names for secondary characters. A dose of what-if. And yet, it’s still not enough to start writing. Because one idea, even several ideas, is not enough.

So how much is enough?

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2 thoughts on “One Idea Is Not Enough

  1. melleamade says:

    I’m so annoyed. I love this topic and just wrote a long reply to it, which was eaten by my browser. (Dang you, Browser Gods!!!) I had ‘copied’ it but when I hit control ‘v’… it was not there. Wah!

    ANYHOW… I have never had your ‘white fire’ experience in writing. I have had thoughts and little ideas that I write notes on and outline. From the outline I write a draft, which usually sucks. So, then… I rewrite and get a little closer to the point. But, usually have to rewrite again.

    Today I’m on Draft 5 of my latest manuscript and I think it’s going through its last rewrite so I can move on to polish-ville. While I’m writing it I keep getting glimpses of four other stories! It’s a little insane, but I’m excited by it. I have the 2nd two books in this series popping in to tell me about themselves, then I have a short story that is daring me to write Draft 1 as part of NANOWRIMO in November. Finally, I have the one that intrigues me, but I’m not convinced it’s a novel. I have the idea of a girl, a boy, a wild event of nature, an eccentric friend and a romantic, yet tragic mystery. It started with a news story and, if I hadn’t been neck deep in my current work, I probably would have started writing notes and outline from that one news story. But, now it’s germinating and encouraging me to find out what happened and what happens next. It’s definitely a slow build though. I don’t think I’ll get to write more on that idea until next spring at best.

    • Nicole Lisa says:

      Oh I hate when that happens! I would have loved to read it too. Hearing about where and how ideas come to others always gets my own imagination going. That’s awesome you have so many ideas all at once. I always seem to have too many ideas or note enough ideas. And I’m thinking of NANOWRIMO this year too. I’ll have to see where I am in the thinking process.

      But don’t get me wrong, even though I felt like the story was pouring through me for my second book, I still worked hard on that sucker. I think I wrote 11 drafts of it as it grew from glorified outline with some key scenes to an actual book. When I wrote it all down the first time it was only 45,000 words. By the time I finished it was 90,000.

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