Today I want to talk about one of the most asked questions we hear as writers: How do you come up with your story ideas? I'll admit it's a topic that has been on my mind a lot recently. I'm currently writing the LAST chapter in the third and final book of my Siren Cove series. (Me, throwing confetti and popping open the champagne!) All three books will be released in 2018. My publisher usually gives me a deadline 8 months out from a set release date, and they publish 2 or 3 of my books each year. You do the math. It was making my head spin just thinking about that all important question... What comes next? I'm pretty sure I'm going to get an email from my editor in the very near future asking just that. I'd better have an answer.
Lots of thoughts have been running through my head. Okay, not running in an orderly fashion like seasoned athletes in a race. More like that proverbial chicken with her head chopped off...willy-nilly with no destination in sight. I can't plan just one book. I have to plan an entire series. My editor will ask for an overall series idea with blurbs for three books and the first three chapters of the first one. That's what they need to offer a contract. I've been freaking out with that knowledge in the back of my mind while I write feverishly to complete HIDDEN SECRETS.
So, how do writers come up with their ideas, not just for a book, but for an entire series? First, we need a strong common link to bind the books together. Step one. Right? What are the bonds that tie people together? Family. Friendship. Location. Job. I have two series tied together by family, my Who's Watching Now series and my Born To Be Wilde series. Been there. Done that. Okay, friendship and location. Again, my Secrets of Ravenswood novellas and my current Siren Cove series both have a common bond of friends from the same town. Honestly, writing three books in the same location can be restricting...at least for me. I like to give my characters the freedom to move around and visit interesting places so my writing doesn't get stale. And I need to do something different to keep readers from getting bored. As for using a job as the common bond, generally you brush up against that "same location" problem. So, I tried thinking outside the box. I had this vague idea to tie history into my new series, a current day suspense linked to a mystery from the past. I love history, so why not? I spent weeks trying to work out three plots that I could somehow tie together, and I was getting nowhere fast.
Lesson #1 in Encouraging Creative Inspiration 101: You can't force ideas. Something might sound wonderful, the perfect starting point for a book. But if you can't come up with a decent plot (or three) to support your idea, you might want to scrap it. I had this horrific vision of me, floundering to write three books that didn't have, strong and concise goals, motivation, and conflict. This idea of mine might work well for a single book, but tying three together in a meaningful way just wasn't happening. Not to mention the only plot idea I did have was so convoluted, even I couldn't figure out a way to make it work. If there's one thing I know about writing romantic suspense, it's that your plot has to have clear direction to tie together all those loose threads and give readers a satisfying experience. Back to the drawing board...
Lesson #2 in ECI 101: Get out of your work zone. Staring at my computer while I grapple for ideas doesn't help. That blinking cursor on a blank screen is NOT my friend. Same with the blank page in my notebook when I switched strategies to avoid my computer. So, I did what I do when I'm feeling stressed. I put on my shoes and took my dog for a walk in the woods. Ginger actually became my muse... I started to believe my working strategy (Remember, step one was to find a strong common bond for the series?) was faulty. Maybe what I needed to do was come up with a strong plot idea for a single book and go from there. As I walked my dog through the forest and felt my tension ease, the image of a woman formed in my mind. A woman with a lot of baggage from her past who was starting over, who was taking a break from a high-stress career to be a DOG WALKER. I pictured her knocking on the door of a house, opening it, and calling out as her doggy client ran up to her, whining. She steps inside, but her training warns her to be quiet (what training?). A body is laying on the living room floor. Quite dead. I did a happy dance in the woods. I finally had an idea!
Lesson #3 in ECI 101: Find yourself a sounding board. As I walked home, I went back to that earlier thought...what training? Could it be my heroine was highly trained because she was in the military or the CIA or...or...or The connection between the stories could be the other members of her old team. She turns to them for help when the going gets dicey. The chickens in my head were running wild again, so I sat down in front of my computer and pulled up (not a blank word doc) my email. I emailed my trusty CP to see what she thought of my brilliance so far. She bounced some ideas back. I countered. Every time I emailed her, I went a little more in-depth in my plot as the ideas unfolded for a private team, a tragedy that made this woman step away from her career, and ideas for plots for the next two books. Margo kept nudging me with What about this? scenarios. I didn't necessarily want to take all her suggestions, but they did make me think. They got those creative juices flowing faster. I copied and pasted those emails into a blank word doc and labeled it New Series Ideas. Ha, the page wasn't blank anymore!
So, to recap if you're still reading this extremely long post. My advice for Encouraging Creative Inspiration 101 is: #1 Don't force ideas. If you have to force them, they probably aren't that great. #2 Change your environment. Getting out of your house really does help switch gears when you're trying to think creatively. #3 Discuss your ideas with a friend with writing skills. First off, the person will probably have a thought or two you can use, but more importantly, you'll develop more ideas if you have to defend your original premise. I promise, these simple strategies work!
Your turn to share with us... Do you have a winning strategy for creative inspiration?
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Finally someone who listens to me. My kids will never believe it. We all need the, this will not work because qualifier. Glad I could be part of yours. Now that you asked, it is hard to pinpoint the details of a true winning strategy for creative inspiration. Like we did, sort of toss everything and anything at the wall, ie a CP, and see what sticks. Go you with this next group of characters.
I already can't wait to read it, Jannine! I think you're absolutely right that you can't force creativity. (Hey, that might be behind my continued failure at NaNoWriMo, that sense that I'm forcing it!) I love that back-and-forth with a story partner while you work out different angles and ideas. To me, that's one of the most fun parts of the writing process. I'm sure you're going to wow your agent when the time comes to submit the new series outline.
BTW, I just re-read the first book in the Secrets of Ravenswood series. Great story!
I found myself in your position a month ago, wondering what's next. Loved seeing your thought process. I pulled an idea out of my head from 2 decades ago about a woman who meets a man she swears is her boyfriend from her teenage years. It's a touch of reincarnation. Only now, since I write suspense I needed foul play involved. Then I decided to set it in a now thriving ghost town. I get my ideas as I make the 2 1/2 hour drive from here to my mom's every other week. It's sort of the equivalent of your walk in the woods because the drive is through mountains. The town is going to be my link but the books will also be tied together with relatives and friends. A thread of mystical too. And now we begin, Jannine!
Margo, I can't tell you how much it helps me to "think out loud" to you in an email. The back and forth is invaluable!
Leah, the "not forcing" is huge. I wanted my first series idea so badly, but admitting it wasn't going to work was important, both for my sanity and for any success I hope to maintain with my writing... It makes my heart happy to hear you read one of my books twice. A sure sign you liked it!
Brenda, that car ride is awesome planning time! All that scenery and quiet time not staring at a computer screen to inspire you. I loved Siren Cove, the town I created, for the series I'm just wrapping up. I loved all the townspeople who showed up over all three books, but the itch to move around the country for this next series was too strong to ignore. Go you! We can cheer each other on as we tackle these new projects!
Great post, Jannine. I get the ideas running around your mind like headless chickens. I feel like that often. What do I tackle next? What's the theme/problem/plot? So glad Ginger wanted to walk. LOL Your Muse & Margo were a great help. A lot of times, I just need to bounce ideas off someone then more ideas start flowing. Good luck!
Ginger always wants to walk, Diane! LOL That's never an issue. Yes, the bouncing creates a ripple effect of ideas, and pretty soon they're waves.
Jannine, sometimes I feel like we're psychically connected. You're at a much higher level in your career, yet somehow we're in the same place. I'm finally rolling again on the third book in my Phoenix, Ltd. series, but the big "what's next" question looms large in my mind. I also have an idea for a 3-book series, complete with all the questions and concerns you raised. I think you've come up with a real winner, and I can't wait to read them! Of course, I'm happy I get to read the Siren Cove books first.
When I wrote my Paris Intrigue series, I used family, Paris and terrorists as my unifying factors. When Kelly flew here from Berlin to spend a week with Calvin after his hospital stay, he Skyped his team for meetings. Kelly is manager of new product development at Mozilla. His team members are from San Francisco, Canada, London, Amsterdam, Miramar, and Hong Kong. All must speak English, the language of business, it seems. Workplaces are no longer defined by walls. Don't limit yourself and your creativity. I never talk my ideas over with anyone...which might be a bad idea...LOL.
Excellent post, Jannine. I loved reading about how you corralled those chickens into an awesome series idea. Sounds like another winner. Thanks for the tips. I totally agree. I've tried to force ideas as well, and when it's not working, it's just not working.
Alison, I feel like our process is cyclical. Creative energy harnessed to produce ideas we can get excited about, then the hard work of turning those ideas into stories. Sometimes it's difficult not to get too far ahead of ourselves in the process. I'm not great at focusing on multiple projects at the same time. My goal was to have something (anything!) germinating in my mind while I finished this last book to give me a starting point. I'm excited to see what you come up with next. And I'm really looking forward to reading your current WIP!
Vonnie, that's what I ended up with. A job connection that isn't restricted by geography. It sounds like Kelly's career would make a great suspense novel! I never used to talk to anyone about story ideas, but I find it helps to get my thoughts in order. Can't have those headless chickens getting loose!
Ally, I was trying so hard to pound the first idea into submission. It finally occurred to me that if it was such a battle, I probably should just let it go. We all need to learn that lesson at some point, I'm afraid.
Sorry I'm late, Jannine. I had a golf tournament today that had me up at O dark 0530...just got home. Had a good 18 hole round with neat women (one a probation officer for 23 years- yes, I will use her!). Anyway, I like the idea of letting the creative juices blend on their own...we never know where a good idea comes from. I am jealous you have Margo to help you toss through ideas...how lucky you are! Only one strategy from this humble source: I have determined my voice and my general themes...to help me focus each novel. Once I knew (assessed) the themes of my stories, I learned how to help the new plots come to fruition. Just a thought.
Rolynn, our distinctive voices make our books uniquely ours, no matter what we’re writing about. We have to stay true to that. I haven’t thought much about themes in the planning stage. Those just sort of evolve...
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