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Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much for awhile. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.
I just want to make it clear that I’m only letting Diana be a guest here because she has threatened me with a fate worse than death. Mind you, she’s already mentioned uni**rns like ten times. Surely that’s a fate worse than death? My blog has been violated! She and Sarah Cross need to go form a band together. I should also mention that Diana’s books are excellent. Especially—believe it or not—the killer uni***n ones. Also I agree with this post a hundred per cent. Except for what she says about uni***ns.
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Diana Peterfreund loves unicorns. Despite this, Justine is letting her guest blog. Her fifth book, Rampant, and her sixth, Ascendant (out this fall) are all about killer unicorns, specifically. So is the story she has coming out in Holly & Justine’s Zombies vs. Unicorns anthology. She’s pretty much the captain of Team Unicorn. (And she’d like to point out that the stuff about Tonks is a dirty rumor of John Green’s. Tonks was killed by a werewolf.) Diana lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and the most beautiful puppy in the world. She loves the outdoors, television shows about awesome women like Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Avatar: The Last Airbender . . . and all animals, not just unicorns. Also, Justine? Unicorns, unicorns, unicorns. Check out Diana’s website or Twitter feed.
TRASK. RADIO. TRASK. RADIO.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the complexity of inspiration. One of the most common questions writers get is “where do you get your ideas?” It’s one that makes a lot of writers want to run screaming for the hillside. We don’t all have cute, soundbite-worthy answers. Lucky the author who can cite a dream about a sparkly dude in a meadow and call it a day. Luckier still, those authors who can actually point to blog evidence of their inspiration in action.
Sans a convenient dream or public debate to spark the imagination, many authors, when faced with this ubiquitous question, just manufacture a Eureka moment to please their audience. I’ve actually gotten emails from enthusiastic fans who want to know why I say in one interview that Rampant was inspired by a dream of being chased by a unicorn and in another that I got the idea after mistakenly hearing the words “unicorn hunter” on a local television program.
The truth is, inspiration is not so simple. Rarely is there one bolt from the blue that turns into a 400 page novel. Rampant was also inspired by a desire to write about women warriors, by my long love of classic mythology, and by a passing interest of several years to talk about the topic of virginity in one of my books. Each of these motes float around in the brain, sometimes glancing off one another and moving on, sometimes colliding and accreting and eventually turning into something resembling what John Scalzi would call “a big idea.”1 Sometimes, the process takes years. And it’s not always interesting or linear or even something we can explain – or would want to in a public forum.
So why is this question so persistently popular? Is it the equivalent of talking about the weather? Less-than-imaginative interviewers who can’t think of anything more interesting to ask? My friends will tell you that I’m a lover of fictional concepts. I love hearing about people’s ideas, talking about the nature of ideas, the classification of ideas, how people sell ideas, why ideas fit into this trend or that trend (or not). I read Scalzi’s Big Idea posts religiously. And yet, how the person “came up with” the idea is never as interesting to me as how this idea was so powerful it moved them to create a fictional world through which to explore it.
But maybe I’m biased, because I’m a writer and I know the process of story creation is rarely romantic. So I tried to think if I’m fascinated by other kinds of inspiration—scientific discoveries or culinary coups. Do I want to know about apples falling on people’s heads, or an engineer taking a close look at the burrs stuck to a dog’s fur after a hike? (The inspiration for Velcro.) I know many of these stories off the top of my head. I know that Post-Its were a lucky lab accident, like Silly Putty, and of course, penicillin.
Though maybe I only know these because they are so famous for being accidents. Indeed, there are several other scientific inventions that are often called accidents, because that’s a far sexier story than, “This scientist named Goodyear was working for years on making vulcanized rubber, and he had all the ingredients right but for one and then one day, after many, many, many attempts, he finally got the formula exactly perfect.”
I liked learning that ice cream cones were a last-minute substitution after vendors ran out of dishes, that potato chips were invented to piss off a customer complaining about soggy French fries, and that Coke started out life as a headache remedy (possibly when it still contained actual coca leaves) and only then became a food. So maybe I have the same issue in fields other than my own, where the romantic aspects of those careers still hold sway.
Perhaps we’re hardwired to gravitate toward stories of “how’d they do that.” Maybe it’s similar to the urge folks have to know how a couple met? (Woe to the couple with no “cute meet” when asked this question. I feel their pain.)
Savvy readers will note that the title of this post refers to a line from the film WORKING GIRL. In the climax of the movie, the heroine, Tess, must defend her ownership of a business deal her unscrupulous boss Katherine is trying to steal credit for. The test—for both these women—is based on inspiration. Tess has a torn sheet of newsprint connecting the idea of Trask Industries and the idea of radio, and Katherine claims she can’t quite remember her initial “spark.” Though I love this movie, that particular scene always sits wrong with me.
I know Katherine is an evil thief and we’re all supposed to be on Tess’s side anyway, but I hate the fact that we’re supposed to condemn Katherine merely for not having a published record of her inspirational path. Moreover, on top of a torn sheet of newsprint, Tess has been working her butt off on the deal for the entire film. She’s put everything together – and Harrison Ford’s Jack was there to witness her doing so. Isn’t all that work far more important (and indicative of her true ownership of the deal) than some crumpled scrap of tabloid? Isn’t the work far more vital to the product than the spark?
Thomas Edison once said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. And that may be true, but that doesn’t mean it’s interesting to the audience. After all, here’s another truth: “Never let them see you sweat.”
Posted by Justine at 17:39, 8 March 2010 under Guest post, Ideas, Writing process | 7 Comments »
Jo Treggiari Says:
I’m hoping that readers aren’t really that interested in the truthful, long-winded and quite likely boring tale of how a writer comes up with their ideas. Most of mine start with a line of dialogue or a scene that I think is funny or gripping, or with a certain character.
I come up with a sentence or two for anyone who asks and that’s what I stick to. Of course I’ve only 1 published book out at the moment (description = funny story about my husband’s name- to- be at birth, a baby and our 3 dogs).
No one as asked me about the YA I have coming out in 2011 yet but at least I have some time to think something up.
Non-writing folk especially those who abhore even jotting down a shopping list, look at writers as if they are very strange beasts. With vastly different brains. I guess they’re just interested in knowing how we tick. They definitely don’t want to know how many crap ideas we have, how many books we find don’t work even after 400 pages, and how hard the whole process is.
March 8th, 2010 at 7:59 PM
Dave S. Says:
Yeah, it’s like that for me. Who knows where it comes from? I am just relieved it comes from somewhere. But process porn is what I find most interesting. Not where the ideas come from but how the good writers make them come alive.
March 9th, 2010 at 7:29 PM
Great post, Diana – beautifully written. I think for me as a reader, and a person who dabbles in writing very occasionally, I want to know where the idea comes from because, frankly, I don’t feel like I’ve ever hit on an idea that I would want to write about for 300 pages, and I just want to know what makes that one idea work for other authors. And I realize it’s about passion for the idea, and a ton of hard work just to make the idea work, but sometimes, I wish I could have that Eureka moment . . . and I guess it’s encouraging to hear stories that make me think I can do it, too.
March 10th, 2010 at 10:30 PM
Julie Polk Says:
I love this post! (Belatedly, I know…) Aside from the fact that I love WORKING GIRL but have always had a little tug in the back of my mind about that scene which you have now identified, I find I can never have enough reminders that writing is work – especially at those moments when I’m staring at the screen wondering what it was that made me think my spark was worth writing about in the first place.
March 13th, 2010 at 11:18 AM
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