High Fidelity: the Romance of the Big Idea
I'm going to ask other authors to jump in and correct me if their experience has differed, but the number one question I get at events and online (and by a very large margin) is, "Where did you get the idea for Shadow and Bone?" And recently, I was asked by a reader (through the AskBox on Tumblr which I LOVE—come ask me things!), "When you have many ideas, which one do you choose to write first?"
My initial thought was, "Well, the one that won't let me sleep." But I think these questions come up so often because of a preoccupation we have with the Big Idea. The myth of this kind of inspiration is a bit like an old fashioned romance: The Big Idea shows up looking sexier, smarter, and just plain better than anything you've ever seen before. It takes you by the hand, looks deeply into your eyes, and says, "I'm the one," and you know, deep in your writerly heart that this is DESTINY.
I understand the appeal. Depending on how you work, it can take months or years to turn an idea into a finished manuscript. It's a serious commitment, and I think we want to believe that the Big Idea makes this commitment easy, that you open your laptop and never look back.
And y'know what? It's sort of true. For me, there's always a honeymoon phase when the Big Idea can do no wrong. I feel brilliant in its company, thoughtful, like a real writer who can simply see the plot spooling out before her in perfect loops and arcs. The Big Idea keeps me up late talking. It has a thousand questions, each one more interesting than the last. I neglect my friends and family because I just want to spend every minute with the Big Idea. It's a magical time, all moonlight and martinis, and then, of course, the honeymoon ends. Then the Big Idea clams the heck up and just sits there doing nothing. Then this relationship starts to feel like work.
This is when—I guarantee it—the Other Idea comes around, looking gorgeous, smelling good, and making all kinds of promises. When I was writing Shadow and Bone, I got an idea for a horror project. "I'm what you should be writing," this Other Idea said. "I'm the book that people will want to read. I'm hot and trendy, and you might as well know, I'm easy." And I was tempted. I sinned in my heart! I mean, the Big Idea had just gotten so complicated. The Other Idea looked simple and fun. It didn't make crazy demands. What if the Other Idea was the one I was meant to be with?
But this was nothing new. I'd started a lot of books, written a lot of first chapters. I'd never managed to commit to finishing a manuscript or anything close to it. With Shadow and Bone, I'd made myself a promise: Once the manuscript was done, I could bury it in a desk drawer or light it on fire and send it out to sea, but it had to be finished. So I opened a file for the Other Idea. I wrote down any thoughts or plans I had for it. I flirted, but I didn't cheat. I stayed faithful. And after a few rocky weeks, the Big Idea got over its damn mood and started acting like itself again.
Extended metaphor aside, I'm learning that the Other Idea isn't necessarily something to be ignored or pushed aside. Laini Taylor touched on this at a signing and it was a bit of a revelation. Sometimes, instead of being a distraction, the Other Idea can become an ally that points you toward a breakthrough. If you start to feel the draw of another project, try to analyze just what you find so compelling about it. Is it a character? A concept? Some kind of emotional impact? Then write that compelling thing into your current work. The lure of the Other Idea can be both a warning that something is lacking and a way to put your finger on what might be missing.
Despite our romance with sudden, cataclysmic inspiration, a book isn't just one idea. It doesn't require a single moment of inspiration. It requires daily inspiration. No matter how spectacular the initial concept, a time will come when you simply have no clue what comes next or how you wrote yourself into a particular corner. It's easy to look on this inevitable return to reality with let's-curl-into-a-ball-and-rock-slowly-in-the-corner dread. But it's also possible to anticipate it as an opportunity, to know that the story will get harder, but it will also get better, and to remember that, if we stick with it, we might just get to fall in love all over again.