Since we have a wise “no politics rule” here at MSW, I thought I’d use my (Election Day — go vote!) blog to launch a little series-ette that will appear on my posts over the next few weeks and months. I’m calling it “Manuscript Milestones” because 1) I love alliteration (maybe much more than I should) and 2) I want to take a fresh look at one of our favorite topics: the writing process, and consider it from the angle of each little stepping stone we cross from conception to completion. I think the writers will recognize their own significant moments, and readers might enjoy knowing how this writer, and others, view each “step” (or stumble) along the way.
Let’s start with that toe-curling, hair-raising, gasp-inducing moment we all live to experience. You know, that singular sensation of shock and awe, when the light bulb doesn’t just switch on, but a klieg rains down a blinding beam of beauty. An idea is conceived! Now, I’m not talking about any old throw away idea, or one that simply whispers a story possibility in your ear. No, I’m talking about a killer idea. The kind that you know instantly is a whole book, done but for the writing. A tasty, sink-your-teeth-in and instantly see the beginning, middle, end and the conflict kind of idea. Aren’t they the best? Doesn’t that moment rival some other memorable moments of conception?
But how does this glorious conception happen? I mean, if we knew where to get an idea, we’d go to that place a whole lot, wouldn’t we? Let’s just get this one answered once and for all: we writers don’t know where we get our ideas. They just show up, like gifts from heaven, kind of like a surprise twenty dollar bill in the pocket of a pair of jeans you haven’t put on for six months. When asked that dreaded question — “Where do you get your ideas?” — we have numerous smart aleck responses ready: “From the idea bank. I’m overdrawn.” “The idea fairy.” “I don’t know, but I hope to hell they keep coming.”
But the truth is, something sparks every idea. I can look at my wall of twenty-two book covers and remember the moment that each story idea was conceived. Every book I’ve written is the result of some outside stimulus that generated at least the foundation, if not the whole premise.
Like the time I was driving to Orlando and heard an interview with Quentin Tarantino on the radio. “You can do anything on the internet,” Quentin the Uber-Movie Director said. “Hell, you can sign up to get yourself kidnapped just for the thrill of it.” I almost wrecked the idea hit me so hard. What about a web site that arranges kidnappings for adventurous, thrill-seeking ladies and offers rescues by hot, sexy guys? Then someone gets killed during the game, and the only way to stop the next one is for one relentless reporter to sign up and track down her friend’s killer?! TAKE ME TONIGHT took off in my head before I sped through the next toll booth.
That’s not the only book hatched behind the wheel. Several years ago I was pulling into the school car line to pick up my kids and saw a billboard on the beach highway, a very simple sign of black letters on yellow background. “Lady in blue — I can’t forget you. We met at the South Hampton Downs apartment complex. Meet me there on Wednesday night.” Oh, heart gush! How romantic is that? He bought a billboard as a personal ad! Two days later, the message changed to another Lady in Blue personal, referencing their next meeting in the lobby of the apartment complex. And then the third one.
Oh. Duh. That’s right, it took three ads until this blonde (and a former advertising executive, so there really is no excuse) figured out this was a very clever ad campaign for South Hampton Downs apartment complex. But along came an instant story idea for the Silhouette Desire line, a manuscript titled LADY IN BLUE, which became LIKE A HURRICANE, my first Rita-nominated book.
KILLER CURVES was conceived while watching the Indy 500 (just to be nice to my husband, I had no interest in racing then), when I discovered that some of those drivers are smokin’ hot. A few years later, my manicurist told me about her secret online romance with a high school sweetheart. I immediately wondered “Is e-dultery really a-dultery?” and the whole plot of HIT REPLY unfolded in my head before the hot pink polish was dry. And the memory of one crazy, lusty night in a fraternity house in college inspired a reunion romance I titled…you know, I don’t need to reveal everything, do I?
(All right, CONTEST ALERT: Guess that book correctly and I’ll send you an autographed copy of any one of my backlist. One person is excluded. You know who you are.)
The fact is, ideas are everywhere. They come from experience, friends, the media, and listening to the couple at the next table in the restaurant. I’m loathe to toss The New York Times or USA Today into the recycle bin before I’ve read them cover to cover because I know that somewhere in those pages, there’s a germ of an idea just waiting to infiltrate my brain. Channel surfing is yet another source of ideas for me. A Discovery Channel documentary on the Mayan mystery of 2012 gave me the premise of FIRST YOU RUN, and a “What Not To Wear” marathon sparked the makeover story, HIS STYLE OF SEDUCTION. (And, of course, my undying respect for the right jacket and an A-line skirt.)
The moment a book is conceived is a very happy one, indeed. But once the tendril curls around your imagination and tugs, once the eye-widening moment has passed, once we’ve shared it with a friend or agent or editor, then the real work starts — how to fan a flicker into a flame. I’ll save that for next time, when I talk about the next Manuscript Milestone…creating the characters. (Hooray — more alliteration.)
Until then, tell me about your best moments of conception… but let’s stick with books, okay? How did you (or your favorite writer) conceive an idea? Do you remember that magic moment? Please share!