Friday, February 21, 2014

First Ideas and First Pages

By Kendall Kulper
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.


  1. LOVE this post! Thanks for sharing. I'm currently in the "turning something over again and again, playing with it, changing it, transforming it into something exciting" stage.