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?

Advertisements