|Publisher:||University of Chicago Press|
|Series:||Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing Series|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Chris Mackenzie Jones is marketing and communications director at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, one of the premier literary arts centers in the United States.
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The Sparks of Story
Every book starts with the spark of a story. That spark might ignite quickly in a moment of genius or burn slowly for many years. Over time it may continue to fuel the project or fade to a smolder, but there's always something of that spark in the final flame of a published book.
It is, however, just the starting point. The fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss once encouraged writers to participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) by blogging, "The worst unpublished novel of all-time is better than the brilliant idea you have in your head." Anyone can say they have an idea for a book, but very few make the effort to follow through and write it. The spark will flicker out unless it's acted upon with skill and determination.
And yet for some reason, ideas are the most publicly revered part of the writing process. Read ten author interviews or attend ten author Q&As, and the question will come up at least nine times: Where did you come up with the idea for your book? The question suggests that prolific, successful writers have a kind of padlocked treasure chest of creativity, and if they'd just reveal the combination, we'd all be able to write the next best seller just like them.
In a 1997 essay, "Where Do You Get Your Ideas?," author Neil Gaiman wrote that "the ideas aren't the hard bit." Yet, as he explained, most successful authors face an all-too-common situation of being approached by a stranger with a can't-miss proposal. The details of the proposal vary, but the thrust is always the same: they'll do the hard part and tell you their brilliant book idea, and all you, the author, need to do is the easy part — write it all down.
A book cannot exist without an original impulse or inspiration. So it's important for writers to contemplate how other authors find and cultivate ideas for their work. Yet as Gaiman points out, the idea is only a small step in the process — and even with a great idea, it takes practice, skill, and hard work to make any book a reality. Many writers start out feeling the singular pressure of the idea — they feel stuck, uninspired, and lacking. The Muse has yet to visit, and so they wait.
As many of the debut authors profiled here demonstrate, that's usually not a successful approach. These eleven books have a variety of origin stories. They began in depression, outrage, disappointment, conversation, suggestion, romanticism, and dream. They were inspired by a note on a Paris door, the words of a twelfth-century poet, a journey around the world without bags, a trip across the United States on bikes, and nostalgia for New York prompted by the September 11 attacks. If these sparks of story have anything in common, it's in how the authors approached their ideas after they had them. Seeing how others found their ideas may help you spark one of your own, but the most important lesson here is that ideas need to be cultivated if they're to turn into anything concrete. Subsequent chapters will highlight the most compelling stories from our authors, skipping those that are quite similar. But to lay the groundwork and better introduce each book, this chapter covers every featured book's origin story.
Eric Smith's Inked
Eric Smith's Inked began, like most good stories, as a conversation. Eric lived in Philadelphia and worked in marketing for Quirk Books, a publisher with an eclectic collection of titles including Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, William Shakespeare's Star Wars Trilogy, The League of Regrettable Superheroes, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. He also served as a contributor to several blogs and publications including Bygone Bureau, Huffington Post, and BookRiot.
One night Eric went out for beers with his "simply covered in ink" tattoo artist friend Brian. At the time Eric had self-published a book based on his graduate school work and "had a lot of other manuscripts in drawers." He'd started to explore a potential nonfiction book with Quirk, but he'd never contemplated writing a young adult novel.
Eric and Brian's conversation twisted and shifted, and at some point they turned to talking about the life of a tattoo artist. They talked about the ink, the machine, the wounds left after a fresh inking. Then they talked about the art. Just as a fitness instructor must be in shape, tattoo artists must have tattoos. Good ones. At least that's what Brian said. So they talked through Brian's tattoos, the ones he had, the ones he'd inked. Then Brian explained to Eric that with all the tattoos he'd received — all the ink in his life — there had been no question in his mind: he felt destined to become a tattoo artist.
"That stuck with me for a while," says Eric: "the concept of someone's tattoos setting them up for a future."
Predestination. Self-determination. Rebellion. Conformity. Mistakes. Tattoos could embody all of those ideas, sometimes conflicting ideas at the same time. This notion rattled around in Eric's mind. He didn't know what to make of it, but he couldn't shake it for several weeks.
No matter whether someone is drawn to or fearful of the mechanical prick of the needle, a tattoo is a powerful metaphor for choice. It's a permanent emblem or an intentional absence. Eric's friend Brian loved all of his ink and dedicated his working life to the art of inking others. Deep down, he believed that his tattoos might have determined his destiny. But in thinking about all the aspects of tattoos, a powerful question began to form in Eric's mind. What would happen if tattoos weren't a choice? And more, what would happen if people wanted something besides what was selected for them?
That question marked the moment Inked began. Eric didn't have characters or plot, but he had a world and a question. More than anything else, that question was what let Eric know that Inked would be a young adult novel. "It's an essential part of being a kid," says Eric. "You want to choose for yourself, but all around you there are people trying to choose for you. Parents, teachers, guidance counselors — and while they tend to mean well, it is irksome. Teens get a thrill out of the peer who does their own thing and goes against the grain."
Eric had his idea and his approach, and was ready to take the next steps in writing his book.
Rebecca Makkai's The Borrower
If a bar conversation started Inked, then outrage sparked Rebecca Makkai's The Borrower. In 2000 Rebecca had just graduated from Washington & Lee University. She has since gone on to become one of the most respected short-story writers in America, frequently publishing in places like Harper's magazine, Tin House, the Wall Street Journal, and New England Review. Her short stories were anthologized in The Best American Short Stories an impressive four years in a row (2008–11). Back in 2000, however, Rebecca had little publishing experience and was drafting short stories while teaching elementary school.
One day Rebecca read an article on gender rehabilitation programs for gay youth — children as young as six or seven — and it provoked a strong reaction. "It really affected me because I was teaching children around that age. I knew how impressionable and vulnerable and sensitive they are, but at the same time how fully formed these children were. I knew that someone asking them to change something so fundamental about themselves could really undo them for life," says Rebecca.
She remembers sharing her feelings about these programs with her mother. "And in a very Mom sort of way, she said, 'Oh, you should write a story about it.' And granted, that's her response to just about everything. You know, I'd get bronchitis and she'd say, 'Oh, you should write a story about that.'" But for some reason, this time the advice stuck a little more than usual. Rebecca started sketching out the idea.
Most of the time we read news stories passively. We might read about an oil spill, corporate fraud, or political corruption, but no matter what kind of emotion a story provokes, we're powerless to do much about it. As Rebecca read the story about gay rehabilitation programs, she realized it wasn't just outrage that she felt, it was the sense of being a powerless onlooker. But in her novel, instead of horror and apathy, she wanted to explore what would happen if helplessness turned into action. What if someone who had no right to do anything interfered in a dramatic way?
She felt she had a strong idea, but with no experience structuring a novel, Rebecca realized two things fairly quickly. First, this was not a short story; it did need to be a novel. And second, this was not the right time to write it. Like Gaiman in his essay, she quickly realized that "the ideas aren't the hard bit." So she set it aside.
Over the next several years, Rebecca tinkered with the manuscript from time to time but mostly focused on writing short stories, teaching full time, and starting her family. "At the time I saw myself eventually writing novels, but that seemed like such a huge, daunting, insane thing to do. I think I rightly intuited that you don't start writing a novel the instant you get an idea for it. These things need years to marinate." It would take several years before she turned her full attention back to The Borrower manuscript — a story I'll tell in a later chapter of this book.
Brian Benson's Going Somewhere
Brian Benson had never considered himself a writer before he rode his bike across the country with his girlfriend, Rachel. But the trip changed him, and he needed to make sense out of where he came from and where he was headed next. When he set out on the long trip, he did it for his girlfriend. "I'd decided to follow her anywhere, into anything," says Brian.
Rachel had suggested the trip, but halfway through — after hundreds of miles — something shifted in their relationship. They were starting to grow apart. But instead of resenting the trip, Brian came to see the journey as more about himself than about his dedication to her. Near the end of their journey, he realized their relationship might not last, but he'd found something he needed to explore. "When the idea came to me [to write the book], it was so vague and romantic and flowery that I didn't question it a lot," says Brian. "It wasn't so much about the bike trip when I was considering it originally; it was much more about choices."
Brian had mostly tamped down his creative side from childhood. He traces that back to elementary school. He and his sister Leah were placed in the same Gifted and Talented program, but they were separated into two different groups, he into the "intellectuals" and she into the "creatives." "Even then it felt like a silly distinction — we were both mainly making origami and building bridges out of toothpicks." He says he deeply internalized that split. For many years "Leah was the creative one, and I was the smart one," he says. "And I may not have known what 'being smart' meant, but I knew it didn't mean being creative."
On the long bike journey Brian began to rediscover his dormant creative side — drawing, journaling, and playing guitar. He had never written before — he'd never even considered it — but the trip allowed him to look at the world differently. He reviewed many stories from his life and made a decision that startled him: he wanted to write about the trip.
Few writers can point to a specific moment when they realized they wanted to write a book, but Brian can. He and Rachel were in Idaho, riding past a gas station on a heavily trafficked and highly potholed road. They were hot, hung over, and annoyed with each other, and still Brian remembers being really happy "in a way that didn't make any sense on the surface." For the first time in a long time, he felt a sense of purpose. "As I thought about it, these were the moments that resonated with the bigger questions I'd been asking. So the idea to write it came from a moment that was a mixture of adrenaline, inspiration, maybe low blood sugar, and a lack of self-awareness."
When Rachel and Brian reached their destination in Portland, Oregon — restless, weary, and hurt — he still had an overwhelming desire to write about the past several weeks. Days later he started writing, drawing on journal entries he'd made throughout the trip. "I don't think I considered in detail what it would be like to write a book with full character arcs and a deeper subtext and all those different dynamics. If I'd even had the language to consider all that, it would have terrified me, and I don't think I would have tried to write the book."
Brian didn't spend a lot of time considering it or letting it marinate, as some authors do. He plunged into writing the first page. "And it was the best first page written by anyone, ever, about anything," says Brian. "The next day I went back and reread that page and realized it was garbage." That realization led him to his next phase, giving up for quite a while.
Edan Lepucki's California
Many years before Stephen Colbert lifted Edan Lepucki's California in front of the cameras and encouraged his viewers to buy it, Edan had assigned a writing prompt to her students at Writing Workshops Los Angeles. She already had an idea for a "postapocalyptic domestic drama, basically a married couple at the end of the world." She says the spark for that idea came one day when she drove into downtown Los Angeles, noticed burned-out street lights, and wondered what it would look like if all the street lights stopped working.
In some ways, isn't this where many stories begin? Take an existing societal norm and just ask, what if this changed? While Edan was playing around with that idea, she assigned a new writing prompt to her class. The prompt was to write a scene in which a character interacts with a surprising secret object that he or she has hidden from other people for some reason. Edan had already developed some thoughts about the wife in her postapocalyptic story. But the secret object assignment crystallized her thinking and propelled her narrative forward. She started to write along with the class. She can't point to why she came up with a turkey baster as the secret object, but "that's kinda why I like writing exercises — you find whatever you can."
And if this wife would keep a turkey baster secret at the end of the world, what did that mean? Who was she? So Edan wrote about her a lot in class that day, about that turkey baster and what it meant to her. As she worked on that exercise, she didn't think she was working on her real manuscript. She just thought of it as a sketch for a down-the-road project that might never materialize. But then Edan had the rug pulled out from under her, and everything changed.
Edan had a draft of a manuscript titled "The Book of Deeds," and she'd just received a prestigious UCross artist's residency in Wyoming. She planned to use the residency to revise that manuscript based on her agent's notes. But about a week before she left, Edan's agent emailed her to say she couldn't sell the book and, furthermore, she didn't think she could represent Edan anymore. "My husband thought I had read an email that somebody had died, because I was shaking and suddenly crying," says Edan.
So she arrived at UCross with no agent and no manuscript to revise. Lost and defeated, and getting ready to abandon a book she'd worked on for five years, Edan returned to the writing she'd done for her class exercise. But this time she came with a different intention. "I wrote the beginning of California there, thinking, 'Nobody cares about me and nobody's ever going to see this.'"
Ten days into her residency, also influenced by an abandoned stone shelter on the grounds of that Wyoming ranch, Edan had written and revised forty pages of California. That was the most she'd ever written in such a short time.
For Edan, it wasn't one thing that jump-started her novel; instead an odd combination of disappointment, time to write, an abandoned building, a darkened street, a writing prompt, and a random secret turkey baster would form the foundation of California.
Courtney Maum's I Am Having So Much Fun Here without You
For Courtney Maum, I Am Having So Much Fun Here without You began with a note posted on a Paris door. She was living there and had just exited a difficult relationship. As much as Paris calls to other artists, Courtney says the perceived romance of the city and the failure of her relationship combined to stifle her creativity for quite some time.
As in Edan Lepucki's story, a period of darkness propelled Courtney to reconnect with her writing. But she struggled to find a way in. She spent a while looking for something to prompt her, and then one night she walked by a gallery on a familiar route. That night a note was attached to the door: "Dear Mr. Architect, you were wearing an elegant hat and you wanted to buy the blue bear. Please get in touch." That strange note would spark a dozen-year journey to publishing her debut novel.
Excerpted from "Behind the Book"
Copyright © 2018 Chris Mackenzie Jones.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Brief Lineup 1
The Ignored Question: How 5
1 Sparks of Story 12
2 Processing Process 32
3 Sources of Support 47
4 Craft Quandaries 63
5 Thorough Themes 79
6 Reviewing Revision 92
7 Publishing Paths 116
8 Setbacks and Perseverance 137
9 Preparing to Publish 150
10 The Book in the World 163
11 Lessons Learned 178
Appendix: The Complete Lineup 197