Hello and welcome back to the blog! Yes, I’m back after taking a break from the blog for a month or so. Why the break? Honestly, I’ve been thinking a lot about making a change in my writing. This blog is approaching its one-year anniversary and hasn’t had the reception I had hoped. Yes, growth takes time, I’m aware. However, the opposite has happened in recent months. That’s not the only reason I’ve been more introspective than normal, which is already a great deal. Last month, I finished the first draft of a novel in hindsight I’m not sure I should have written. It’s the second book in a series for which the first book is unpublished. Self-publishing could be in both books’ future, only time will tell on that. A few minutes before starting this blog post, I sent my fiftieth query via email for From Darkness Comes… No interest has been shown in the novel, which is disheartening. Over the last year and half, I’ve queried nearly a hundred literary agents and received exactly one reading, with a hard pass being the result. It’s as if I’m stuck in the writer’s edition of Groundhog Day, repeating the same mistakes with the same unfortunate results. The break was about finding a way to break that cycle. Well, I’ve had an idea. I’m going to switch my focus to writing an adult horror novel. It will take a few months for the queries I sent out to run their course (if it’s a rejection with an agent that doesn’t respond if not interested). When that happens, I’ll reread each of the manuscripts and decide if they’re worthy of self-publishing.
Yes, that was a three-hundred-word intro. It’s good to be back. Since I’ve spent a lot of time over the past two weeks coming up with the perfect story idea for my first adult novel attempt in five years, I thought I would write about ideas and where they come from. Perhaps an enchanted faraway land where unicorns prance and leprechauns frolic? Or do writers carefully pluck them out of the sky with the eagerness of the snowflake of winter? Well, let’s find out.
I have a notebook in which I keep notes on current works in progress, agents to query, and, yes, story ideas. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that of those story ideas, ninety-eight percent will never be developed further than a quickly jotted down note on a page. That’s okay, it’s part of the process of developing and finding the right idea to suit the occasion. There are times when a story idea stays in my head for months (or years in a few rare cases) before the proper occasion is stumbled upon. But where do those ideas come from?
I believe we can all agree that the idea itself is a mystical and mysterious thing, the origins of which shall forever remain in the realm marked unknown. However, we can delve into the subject of how a writer comes up with an idea. In my experience, a writer comes up with stories in two basic ways. The first of which is brainstorming.
When I’m in need of a new story and have no inkling of an idea, whether it be good or bad, I try to manufacture one. Yes, at its core brainstorming is manufacturing a story idea. My process looks like this. With a clear mind and distraction free, I lay down on the couch with my notebook and close my eyes. My wife calls this napping. To which I reply only by waving my notebook at her in a “See? I’m working” gesture. At first, I’ll admit I get nothing. However, as time passes my mind starts to wonder into the realm of the story idea. Before I know it, my notebook page is filled with ideas. Content with my progress, the brainstorming session turns into the exact thing my wife thinks it is. A nap.
It’s at this point that I would like to point out a simple fact regarding my own history with ideas and turning them into either short stories or novels. Most of the stories I don’t pursue further came to me in the brainstorming fashion. In fact, the ideas which end up as stories on a page usually come to me in the other fashion. By lightning strike.
Every writer who has been doing the job for any length of time has had the following experience. You’re busy doing some task or another (in my recent past this was while people counting at my day job). Your body is focused on this task, perhaps even your mind. Then an idea leaps into your head, hailing from that magical place we’ve already discussed. You weren’t thinking of a story or trying to come up with something. One second it wasn’t there, then, boom, there it is. A lightning strike. You repeat the idea over and over in your head until you can jot it down on a piece of paper or in the notes section of your phone.
Those moments feel like magic, don’t they? In my own experience (yours could be different), these ideas are usually worth following up on, be it a few more jots with the old pen or an entire character analysis. Not all these stories are good enough on their own to warrant a novel. Yet there are times when I’ve combined a lightning strike idea with a brainstorming idea and achieved a brilliant story.
It’s been five years since I last attempted an adult horror novel, which I abandoned after the birth of my youngest daughter (life was hectic with a new baby in the house, as you can imagine). In retrospect, the idea that sprouted the novel wasn’t as good as I had envisioned. During the last two weeks, I’ve been focused on not repeating that mistake. So, which process did I use to come with my ideas? Both. However, a single productive brainstorming session resulted in two ideas worthy of a further look. The story I chose was unique and interesting, something all good ideas should be. When paired with a subplot from another idea I wasn’t pursuing further, and the result is a story I’m proud to be starting in the coming days.
Whether an idea comes through deliberate or unintentional means, be grateful the ideas are coming. Then get busy writing. Thanks for reading. Remember to follow your dreams, even if they terrify you.
Stephen Michael Roth