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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