In my last column (“A ‘know-it-all’ approach to writing,” June 27), I wrote about Colm Toibin’s advice that a writer should know the whole story before writing his or her novel. Since I’ve always discovered the story by writing it, this for me would be a new way of working — but one I’m willing to try, if only I had my next big idea.
I’ve usually started with a character of interest or, lately, with a challenge, such as “write a historical novel” or “write a novel in a month.” For most of this year, nothing has grabbed me, but then in the space of about 10 days in June, I was “given” a cast of characters and the beginning of a novel.
I’m going to share below how these ideas came in hopes of demonstrating how ideas for novels can grow through accident and juxtaposition.
As I sometimes do when I am desperate, I “threw the I Ching” on June 17, using Jessica Page Morrell’s “The Writer’s I Ching, Wisdom for the Creative Life.” The book aims to use the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination system, to help writers proceed through a project.
I got water over water: Extreme Danger. Darkness. The Abyss. Not a promising answer to my question, “What should I write about next?”
A few days later, my husband and I were the guests of friends at their beach house, celebrating the host’s 65th birthday. His brother sent a humorous video he made, describing 65 not as a “turning point” but as “falling off a cliff.”
I later learned that the handsome, soft-spoken, younger brother lives in a trailer in the Wisconsin woods and is a follower of a female “peace and love” spiritual leader.
Periodically, the woman asks my friend for money to help support his brother, who is capable of supporting himself, and since my friend suspects the money will support her lifestyle rather than his, he says no.
But I am intrigued. Who is this spiritual leader? Why does the brother follow her? What is the essence of her charisma? Is the brother in any trouble?
Relaxing at the beach, I read two books by Jacob Appel, a lawyer (and doctor and bioethicist and Iowa MFA in writing) who has won just about every writing prize there is. I blast through his short story collection, “Scouting for the Reaper,” and then “The Biology of Luck,” which is interesting to me in part because it is about an amateur writer and uses the novel-within-a-novel device.
Appel’s characters, even the minor ones such as an idiosyncratic self-esteem guru who appears briefly in “Luck,” are all memorable, charismatic and larger-than-life.
I’ve known a few self-proclaimed gurus — they could easily be combined into one big and entertaining character. Borrowing again from Appel, writers make interesting characters: Maybe the younger brother is a writer or maybe the leader is?
At this same time, I’m supposed to be clipping “stories that interest me” for my biweekly writing workshop. I read a short item about a Miss Florida who was crowned by “mistake.”
Mistake? Like the time a major writing competition e-mailed me that “I’d won GRAND PRIZE!!!” — and then retracted in the next e-mail an hour later that I was “TOP TEN!!!”?
Mathematically, both could’ve been true, but only the latter was. Like Miss Florida, for a brief and shining moment, I was No. 1, the role model, the exemplar. And then I wasn’t.
For those who heard only the announcement, Miss Florida is the person they saw crowned. What if, after your dreams come true, they are taken away? What if the writing guru has only published once, to devastating reviews? Would a writer still follow a fallen guru? Why?
I get unexpected input on spiritual leadership at church that Sunday. The gospel reading was from Matthew 16:15: “Who do you say that I am?”
Another insight on charismatic personalities: It doesn’t matter if the spiritual leader says he’s the Messiah or if he is the Messiah — what matters is who the follower says is his or her Messiah.
The next night, a rerun of “Criminal Minds” is about a cult and explains that the leader targets the emotionally needy and fills the hole in each follower’s soul.
One of the characters on the show draws a pyramid of Leader/Die-Hards/Followers to explain that the heroes will likely only be able to save the Followers, not the Die-Hards. Die-Hards can’t be convinced they need “saving,” but what if someone wants to “save” them?
Add two more compelling characters, the Die-Hard and the Rescuer. Is the older brother a Rescuer? He might not want to send money to the guru, but how can he help his younger brother?
Charisma. Mistake. Leaders. Followers. Rescuers. Certainly, the stuff of novels. More importantly, of personal interest to me. But do I have a story?
My writing group helps me see that I have a beginning, and probably a middle, for the main story: “Guru asks a follower’s sibling for money. And then …”
A novel needs a B and a C story as well, but those will come the more I think about the characters and clip interesting bits of real life from the headlines.
Already in the clipping file: The nuns challenging a strip club near their convent; a woman under hypnosis who sings through throat surgery so the surgeons won’t injure her vocal chords; a noted French author refuses a prize. And in real life, a pro bono client asks for representation on IP matters — more synchronicity, as the client lives in a commune!
The primary story is simple, and the questions engage me. The fun part is that I haven’t yet discovered the answers. When I have a tentative ending — at least a direction — I will start to write and — I truly believe this — more will be (accidentally) revealed.