Mommy, Where Do Novels Come From?

Novels come from ideas… But where do ideas come from?

I’m the proud mother of two young novels. One came about after a dream involving two thieves and a man by the name of Joe Christian. I changed his last name, gave his first name to one of the thieves, and the scene I saw while sleeping became a turning point in The Radiometry Conspiracy. The other novel was born after an afternoon playing a creative writing tarot game with my fiance. I drew the Nine of Cups for a main character, and that in combination with the other cards led to a mystery novel about a privileged cop addicted to alcohol.

I’m now about to start a short (please let it be short) story about… well… I’ll tell you some other time. But I got the idea from the combination of a scene in Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters, some women I know, and election signs around the town I live in.

That’s three different genesis stories for three very different ideas, so I still don’t know how to answer the question. Stories come from everywhere.

Maybe the more important question is, “How do I know an idea is good?”

There’s no good answer to that one, either. In the fall of 2008, I was still thinking about that dream I’d had the spring before I graduated from my Master’s program. I would commute from Hayward to Berkeley, looking at Lake Merritt in Oakland and the surrounding weird mix of pine trees and palm trees, listening to the Foo Fighters and imagining characters who had become real to me over months of daydreaming.

I finally told Drew I’d like to leave the newspaper and concentrate on really writing.

“Yes, but what would you write?” he asked.

“Fiction!” I said.

“Oh!” He thought this was a great idea.

But I was only brave enough to take that step because I had an idea I knew was good.

So how did I know?

I can’t articulate it. Not really. I just knew. I had characters who were real, a plot that compelled and consumed me, a world no one had written before. I cared.

I guess I’m trying to say that sometimes, when you really love an idea, and you commit to it with your whole heart, a novel is born.

Owning Your Writership

Do you read Poets & Writers? If you don’t, you should. It’s inspiring, enlightening, engaging, and lots of other in/en-ing words. I’ll do another blog post on writing magazines some other day–add it to the list of blog posts for someday.

I’ve been kicking this blog topic around for awhile, since before a friend told me he has trouble calling himself a writer and even more so since I got the current issue of P&W (about a month ago, haha) with a wonderful article by Ellen Sussman entitled, “A Writer’s Daily Habit: Four Steps to Higher Productivity.” And I’m sorry, but it seems you cannot read this piece online. Go to your local library, go to a book store, pick up a copy.

In it, Ms. Sussman says,

Repeat after me; ‘I’m a writer. It’s my job. It’s what I do.’

If you embrace that statement, you can begin to develop the practice of writing. You can go to work every day. You sit your butt in a chair (or on a ball, as I do–really) and you put your hours in just like everyone else who goes to work. But many of us are scared to commit to being a Writer, so we don’t commit to the job of writing. Take yourself seriously. Say you’re a writer. And if you’re a writer, figure out how to do your job.

Why do we have trouble owning our writership? We shouldn’t. At a newspaper, my editor came out after reading my first article for him and said, “Well, you can write.”

“Oh,” I said, feeling more than a little awkward. “Good.” I was surprised. I know I can write. Of course I know that.

But I’m a Writer, too. This is a lesson I’m still learning, and I’m a professional writer. I’ve worked for six different newspapers. I have articles published online. And I still have trouble saying to strangers, “I’m a writer.” I have the tendency to say, apologetically, “I’m editing my first novel, which, I realize, is akin to saying one wants to be a rock star…”

I’ve forced myself not to say that for a couple of months. Why? Because I write. I take my writing seriously. I have been paid to write. I am, therefore, by all definitions of the word, a writer.

And, like Ms. Sussman says, that attitude makes all the difference in the world. If you don’t take your writing seriously, it’s easy to put it off, much like any hobby. “Oh, well, I need to get in a work out and cook dinner and do the dishes… I’ll write this weekend.” But ‘this weekend,’ you always need to go grocery shopping and do the laundry and a gazillion other insipid things that take priority.

Let me share with you two anecdotes.

At a gathering a few weeks ago, a new acquaintance, after demanding my ‘biography,’ said, “Oh, so you want to be a writer.”

I sucked in my breath and said, “No, I am a writer. I’ve been published. And I’m working on getting my first novel published right now.”

She nodded and moved on. She didn’t demand my writerly credentials or ask to see clips. She just accepted it. And damn it, I felt good about myself.

A few days ago, at a job interview, a store owner asked me about my intentions regarding her job. She wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to ditch her in a few months in favor of a full-time job.

“No,” I said. “I’m a writer. That’s my main occupation, and I’m looking to supplement it with part-time work.”

“That’s great!” she said.

Of course, this was a New Age store owner in the hippy-liberal town I call home. But still–it’s great.

If you want to be a writer, you have to be a writer. A writer writes, a professor once told me. It follows, then, that if you write you are a writer. Take it seriously. Commit to it. Own it as your profession, your calling. You have to give yourself that title before anyone else will.

And write. That’s what you do.