You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.
- Jack London
So I’m back doing school visits again, which is admittedly a lot more fun than going to a nine to five job. Where else can you suggest to a gym full of kids that a cheese-vomiting giant bologna sandwich would be a really cool arch villain? At the end of the presentation, I usually do a Q&A session. One of the most common questions goes something like this. “What was the inspiration for your book?” My typical answer is that I wanted to write a fantasy where the kids don’t turn out to be the greatest magicians or superheroes, or whatever. They have weaknesses that they have to deal with.
That is a true answer. If there is an “inspiration” I can claim, that would be it. The problem I have with the word inspiration, though, is that—in the words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Authors and prospective authors tend to confuse inspiration with a sort of muse-like cloud that falls upon you while you are sleeping or showering or meditating on a park bench. Do authors get inspiration from dreams or showers or long walks in the turnip patch? Sure, but saying you should wonder the turnip patch in search of a “big idea” is like saying you should spend all your time walking along mountain streams because someone once found a gold nugget there.
Gold was discovered in Coloma by chance in a river. But later miners didn’t sit by the edge of the river waiting for a nugget to roll by. They hiked, and dug, and tested, and repeated the process all over again. In other words, they worked for their gold. Sometimes their work paid off, other times it didn’t. Authors need to take the same advice. Want to write the next great story? Don’t sit around waiting for the idea fairy to hit you on the head with her hammer of revelation. Get out and work for it.
Let me give you a couple of examples. Stephenie Myer had a dream about a vampire in a meadow. Great, call that inspiration if you want. But if that was all she had to go on, it would have been a very short book. What about the werewolves and love triangles and the good and bad blood suckers? (Not that I’ve actually read those girly books or anything. Cough, cough.) In other words, she didn’t just transcribe a dream. She took that small scene and crafted a whole series of books to go with it.
I hate to give my friend James Dashner too much credit (It makes his head swell up and turn red.) But the man is constantly coming up with cool new ideas for books. He isn’t waiting for some inspiration to strike, he is reading, and thinking, and plotting until he comes up with a cool idea that no one else has thought of yet. When Shadow Mountain suggested he come up with a few ideas to discuss during a lunch two years ago, he developed 13th Reality in a couple of weeks, and wrote up a synopsis, and sent it to them before the lunch.
I’ll be the first to admit (or maybe the hundred and thirty second) that some people come up with ideas more easily than others. But I also contend that anyone can come up with a story idea. In fact half my school presentation is showing kids that they can develop a great idea for a story in five minutes or less. And it works every time.
It’s really not that hard. Start with a genre. Pick something you’ve always wanted to write. Then throw in a handful of fun characters. Make them unique enough that each one stands out. Next give them a goal that you’d love to read about. But make it exciting. You want an idea that makes people around you go, “Wow! That sounds so cool.” Not, “Hmmm, yes, I can see how that might work.” Then throw in a dash of insurmountable obstacles. Nothing makes a story better than the point at which the reader thinks, “How can he/she possibly overcome that.” Finally, add to your meal, er story, a relish of major consequences. What happens if your hero fails? Make the consequences dire indeed. Once you’ve done all that, simmer and stir for awhile.
One of the posters to my Farworld forum suggested that a great way to come up with a fantasy name is to take a common word and change it one letter at a time. For example:
There you go. Princess Lamia. (When I Googled this name, I discovered that it is actually a real name. In Greek mythology, Lamia was a Queen of Libya who became a child-murdering daemon. But that just makes it that much cooler. When people ask you how you came up with the name, you drop that little tidbit and look educated.)
You can do the same thing with your story idea. If you are writing about a prince who falls in love with a princess and has to rescue her from a dragon, try stirring it up and see what happens. Let’s make it a butterfly who falls in love with a princess. Then instead of falling in love, let’s make it a butterfly who is jealous of a princess. Then instead of rescuing her from a dragon, the butterfly trades places with the dragon to slay the vain princess. This is just an example and is probably a lousy idea. But if you stir enough, you will end up with something that works.
Of course the concept of cranking out ideas like Big Macs may seem crass to authors who believe that all great book ideas must come accompanied by the singing of a chorus of angels and the sound of tinkling cymbals. But those are quite often the people that crank out a book every ten years whether they need it or not. If you’ve got a gazillion ideas, stop reading this and go write them down. But if you’ve been holding off, waiting for inspiration to strike, take Jack’s advice and go strike inspiration instead.
By the way, the title of this post was really just a play on words to get you to read it. Everyone loves a good book club. So if you read all the way to the end and are still looking for advice on forming a book club, um, well, "You can't wait for a book club. You have to go after it with a . . . another . . . club." Carry on.