|The writer's natural enemy: the blank Word document|
There is something so awesome and so terrifying about that first tiny idea. I’ve written three full novels now, I’m in the middle two novels that I will almost certainly finish (oh the cattle prod that is a multi-book deal), and I’ve started another half-dozen or so that just went kaput. They all began as ideas in my head and I have no idea why some of them turned into big, grown-up novels and others…did not.
The idea for SALT & STORM came about because I wanted to write a book about island communities and the only island I had any experience with is Martha’s Vineyard and one of the coolest things about its history is its role in the whaling industry. I started researching whaling and New England folklore, looking for some inspiring stories, and came across a tiny note about women who sold good luck charms to passing sailors or (occasionally) cursed rude sailors with violent storms. And that was the aha: one idea that led to something else that led to something else that led to a story.
That was a pretty easy path from idea to story, and I got lucky, but I’ve also come across ideas that were stubborn, that took a lot of massaging before they were able to grow into stories.
The book I’m writing now, for example, started out from a conversation with my editor. SALT & STORM was always planned as a stand-alone—and it still is—but she wanted to know if there were any more stories in that world that I wanted to tell. And I surprised myself by saying yes.
That was the extent of the idea: tell another story within that world that can exist separate to the story I’ve already told. I thought it would be relatively easy—I’d already done so much research, I already knew this world so well. And then I hit a wall. Because all the fun research I found I’d already put into SALT & STORM. I’d already taken all the easiest paths. I had to take this idea and fight to get to the story. But I did. It took a lot of work and exploration and many thousands of thrown-out words to get there, but I finally found the story.
Would I have kept fighting for that story if there wasn’t an editor at the other end, waiting to read it? I’m not sure. I might have given up and moved on to another project, which would have been a shame, since I’d miss the experience of turning something over again and again, playing with it, changing it, transforming it into something exciting.
I share this because I think there’s a misconception that ideas and writing have to be effortless, that if you’re struggling, it’s a sign that things aren’t working. And yeah, it can be a sign things aren’t working, but what I learned is that there’s a difference between setting aside an idea that just doesn’t have much going on...and digging into an idea that challenges you to be a better, more innovative writer than you were.