I received an email from Harry the boss of Jericho Writers on the 7th of May. I’ve been saving it to share with you.
|“One of the strangest experiences in any author’s life arrives the moment they sign their first two-book deal. (And yes: fiction is normally sold in chunks of two. There’s no rigorous logic operating there, except that the first book is the one that attracted the publisher and the second one gives them another opportunity to profit from the success of the first. It also, incidentally, gives them the opportunity to compound their loss if the first book loses money, as most first books do. And yes: Publishing Logic is not really the same thing as actual Logic-Logic.) |
Anyway: we were talking about strangeness. And your first book almost certainly came to you in a rush of inspiration. Yes! I have to write that story. My head is full of these characters, these events, and I have to set them down. That opening burst of inspiration eventually produced a manuscript, some rejections, an acceptance and a book deal. Well done you.
But it also produces, right now, the expectation – indeed, the contractual obligation – that you will write another book of the same standard. Yikes! That inspiration? Where did it come from? How do you invoke it? How do you ask it to strike again, in the exact same spot as before, and in a timely enough way that you can meet the date written into your contract? The ask seems impossible. Seems – and sometimes is. I know a couple of authors whose second books simply didn’t meet the levels of their first.
In one case, I know the author simply bashed out a serviceable but uninspired second novel because she didn’t know what else to do. Her career never recovered. But there are solutions. There are ways for you to invoke that inspiration. To find it reliably and, as it were, to order. The trick is to forget about the bolt of lightning. That’s not what you’re looking for. You’re searching for the tickle of interest, a quickening of interest, the red thread lying in the blue.
Here’s a news story that tickled me today: The sheriff’s office announced Monday that [a woman from’ Salt Lake County], who had been missing since before Thanksgiving, had been found alive in an area not far from where she was camping. Authorities said the woman, who had yet to be publicly identified, “had lost a significant amount of weight and was weak” when she was found. She was lauded by the sheriff’s office as “resourceful,” living off grass, moss and water from a river. “We now believe she knowingly chose to remain in the area over the months since November 2020,” the sheriff’s office said in a news release. The bit I love about that is the grass and the moss. It’s such a great novelistic detail.
“Living off squirrels, edible tubers and insects” would have given a totally different and (to me) less interesting tale. Or another example: I was with a friend yesterday, who told me that she’d had a spate of burst tyres on her car. Each time she had a burst tyre, she got a call the next day from her (rather dodgy) ex, asking how she was. When she became suspicious at these coincidences, she checked her car and found a tracking device fixed to the inside rim of her wheel arch.
Or – Well, when I was wondering what to write about for my last book, I started browsing the website of the National Crime Agency and other similar outfits. There, I saw some references to antiquities fraud, which intrigued me. That criss-crossed with the idea that King Arthur was a genuine figure of the early Welsh Dark Ages. And what if …? What you notice here is that the story never arrives fully formed. It doesn’t even really present itself as a story, exactly. Not even the raw material for a story. At most, it presents as a kind of doorway into something. A portal. It is your task to bundle your way through that opening. To be active, not passive. So the woman in Utah with the moss and the grass: why was she there? What was it like for her? Was she running from something? Or to something? Who missed her? Who was looking for her? I don’t have much interest in what the actual answers to those questions are. Personally, I tend to discard the actual facts of any real-world story pretty quickly. It’s your answers that matter, not the actual facts of the case. Take that friend with the dodgy ex. The person in question threw the tracker away, changed her phone number, cut any kind of contact with the nutter. That was the end of her story, but your story would leave the actual facts almost immediately. Maybe she put a tracker on his car? Or started to mess with his head by popping her tracker onto the side of a lorry bound for France. Or …? The moral here, really, is that life – and your reading, and your existing interests – already furnish you with a million ideas for stories, far more than you could ever write. Your task is to notice those trembles of interest, then explore actively. Discard anything that doesn’t open out into something yet more inviting. Explore the pathways left open as deeply and actively as you can. “Actively” here means reading. It means writing. It means starting to write notes on possible stories. Inspiration can strike anyone, anywhere. But it only kindles fire when you’re at your desk, ready and working.
Harry makes an excellent point in his email. Inspiration is about exploring the hundreds of prompts we get from our native curiosity, and then arranging the answers into a story than has meaning for the reader and captures his/her attention.