Here is a conversation all writers end up in, and we all dread:
Someone: I have this idea for a novel. How about you write it, and we split the profits?
Inspiration is easy, execution is not. I have 3 more novels partially written, which I hope to complete someday, not even counting the sequels to THE HALF-DROWNED KING I am contracted to write. I have 3 or 4 more ideas that are really fleshed out in my mind, some even to the point of having outlines written. Completing those may take another 10 years of my writing life. 6 or 7 ideas isn’t very many, but I still don’t need any more right now.
Also, that first inspiration is only one of hundreds needed to complete a novel, and the others only show up with hard work. One of the reasons I try to write on my novel every day is that when my head is really in it, everything I encounter out in the world feeds into the novel.
Yesterday I was walking home from work and listening to an episode of The Rachel Maddow Show. She was talking about the ad below, in which a Republican actor talks about why he will be voting for LBJ rather than Barry Goldwater. It is a moving ad, and then Rachel had the actor from the ad on her show, and I choked up a bit.
Part of writing is paying attention to these moments. I paused the podcast and asked myself why I was choked up. It was because this man had been true to himself and his beliefs, rather than tribal loyalty, and had made a moving, honest ad about it that may have cost him in his personal life. He went against his habits and his family, and he displayed thoughtfulness, emotion, and integrity in the service of a greater good. Roger Ebert said that we are often moved less when people are sad than when they are good.
So I was moved because this man was good, and he was standing up for his principles. It ways gets me–A Man For All Seasons is one of my favorite plays, even though I know the historical Thomas More had English Protestants tortured for heresy. It is moving when people rise above themselves, when people find their truth.
I turned off the podcast, and asked myself how can I let my readers experience this emotion. My main character will probably not be in a position to make a sacrifice like this for many reasons of plot and temperament, but I can give this journey to a secondary character, and my main character can watch. He can be moved and envious of the purity of the secondary character’s convictions, and also his sacrifice.
Those are generalities though. Then I needed to figure out how each character would get there, what plot and character levers need to be pulled to make it happen. And the trajectory I decided upon links several plot elements which until now had been mostly independent of one another.
When I’m really immersed in writing, this happens frequently. Sometimes I find a motivation for a big plot element, sometimes it’s just a snippet of conversation. Last week I found it in the season finale of Veronica Mars, Season 1, which never fails to move me, and which I’ve seen many times. This time, I found an idea in it. If I watch it in 3 years, when I’m writing something else, I will probably find something different in it.
I wouldn’t be open to those moments of inspiration if I wasn’t working on the novel every day, my mind always aware of its thousands of problems even when I’m not thinking about it consciously. Inspiration doesn’t strike from nowhere. This is what people mean when they say that inspiration follows the work. That if you sit down every day to write, the inspiration will come. It comes because you’re in the habit of looking for it.
For me, it’s noticing when I am moved by something, and tracing the emotion back to the things that caused it, the universals within the specifics, which I can then make specific again for my own work.