Inspiration: WWHPRD?

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). You’ll find a lot of varying opinions about NaNo, everything from “you’ve got to be kidding me, why encourage writing garbage” to “go ahead and be bold!” Me, I like NaNo. The novel I’m polishing now, that I want to start pitching soon, is last year’s NaNo project. And no, it doesn’t look anything like that first draft. I like NaNo because of the energy. Making a public commitment (I will do X by Y) makes me feel accountable, like people are watching. If you’re a beginning writer, looking to establish a writing routine, NaNo (or one of the many variations) is great for encouraging that because you can’t succeed without a routine. If you do have a routine, NaNo is great for stretching.

But this post is not about NaNoWriMo. Not directly.

This year’s project is the second in my Laurel Highlands Mysteries, series. I had an idea sketched out, a few things in Scapple thrown together and connected by dotted lines. It was going. But something was missing. I couldn’t really put my finger on it. But something was off.

I kept writing, doing what Hallie Ephron calls “hold your nose and write.” I’d figure it out, eventually. Maybe on draft 18, but eventually, right?

But then I started thinking something else. I started playing “what if?” What if it didn’t play out the way I thought? And then I realized something. I was doing exactly what one of my inspirations, Hank Phillippi Ryan, told me to do when we chatted months ago about a different project.

“But plotting is hard,” I said (okay, I whined). “We’ve all heard the trope, only 7 plot lines in the world.”

“I’ll make it simpler,” she said. “I believe there’s only two.”

“If that’s the case, how do you make it unique? How do you create something fresh?”

“Let yourself be crazy. Be bold. Ask ‘what if’? Don’t worry about logic, not yet. Just put it out there. The answer will come to you.”

I found these words incredibly comforting. Hank is like me. She’s said on her blog, Jungle Red Writers, that she never knows “whodunit” ahead of time. She writes every day to find out what happens. I’m the same. Oh, I’ve tried a really detailed outline. That was last year’s project. Outlines work for a lot of wonderful writers I know. Me, uh, not so much.

When I read Hank’s latest, Truth Be Told, there was one moment where I had to read the pages three times to make sure it wasn’t a typo. “Oh my God, she didn’t,” I said.

She did.

She asked, “what if?” She stood at the edge of the precipice, looked down, and thought, “what if?” And then she jumped.

Could I do that? Could I be that brave?

And then I realized: I already did that, twice. Once with last year’s NaNo project. That “what if?” moment resulted in almost a complete rewrite of the entire manuscript and the tossing of that very detailed outline. I did it again with a different project, a rewrite of my 2013 Black Orchid Novella project that Hank had read and given me feedback on (which had prompted the aforementioned plot discussion).

I looked at my current project and whispered, “What if?” It was a little scary. “Hank would do it,” my subconscious whispered.

I decided I could be that brave. I jumped.

And the minute I jumped, the minute I decided to pursue “what if?” and go into the darkness, it clicked. That feeling of “something is missing” disappeared. The story felt right. I hastened to scribble my ideas in Evernote, lest I forget them.

Tonight I’ll transfer those notes into Scapple and see how they connect. Then I’ll start plotting out scenes again. I’m in luck. This time I asked “what if?” before I’d written “the end.” I’ll have to change my map, I might have to go back in revision and tweak some things, but I can change course. And tomorrow, I’ll keep drafting with renewed enthusiasm.

I think every author has someone who inspires them, someone who took them by the hand (literally or figuratively) and whispered, “You can do this. Come on, jump. It’ll be fun.” Those people are more than fellow authors. Their kindred spirits, connected by some magical fluff of the universe.

And now that I know this, every time I get stuck, I can ask two questions: What if? and What would Hank do? From those two questions, I can find inspiration.

I must remember to thank Hank when I see her in December.

So Mysteristas, do you have a literary inspiration? Who and why?

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Author: Liz Milliron

Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people's stories, for as long as she can remember. She's worked for fifteen years in the corporate world, but finds making things up is far more satisfying than writing software manuals. A lifelong mystery fan, her short fiction has been published in online magazines Uppagus and Mysterical-e. She has also had stories included in Lucky Charms: 12 Crime Tales, Blood on the Bayou (the 2016 Bouchercon anthology), Fish Out of Water, and Mystery Most Historical. She is a past president of the Pittsburgh chapter of Sisters in Crime. Visit her online at http://lizmilliron.com, find her on Facebook at https://facebook.com/LizMilliron, or follow her on Twitter (@LizMilliron).

17 thoughts on “Inspiration: WWHPRD?”

  1. Oh, my goodness. I just burst into tears. This is–wonderful. Touching and gorgeous and thrilling! And HURRAY! I cannot wait to read it. Aw. Thank you. I am so delighted you had a great idea–nothing better,huh? (ANd thank you for that kind words about TRUTH BE TOLD–I have to admit, when I typed that scene, I couldn’t believe what happened!)
    See you–is it Dec2 ? At Oakmont! xoox

  2. Hank, I think of that conversation often with great fondness and it’s gotten me through more than one day. Yes, December 2 in Oakmont – I wouldn’t miss it!

  3. Edith, it’s incredibly helpful. And liberating. That whole “go ahead and be crazy, worry about the logic later” is so wonderfully free-ing. Hope it helps you.

  4. Mary, fantastic post! I love how the threads all came together for you, and yes, Hank’s advice is to be treasured. One of the highlights at Crime Bake is to see what gold nugget of Hank insight I’ll come away with (at my first one, she spent an HOUR after the conference ended chatting with a whole table of us–fantastic experience). Your story resonates with me because I, too, am a pantser (no idea who did it yet!), and need a nudge (kick) to take more risks. Thank you! I feel like you wrote this just for me. 🙂 Congrats to you on making those leaps!

  5. Love this! I knew what the title meant before I even clicked over to read the blog. WWHPR do is a good mantra for everyday life, too. Generous, determined, gracious, friendly, smart. Not sure I see a downside in trying to be like Hank.

    Mary, I write like you, not knowing what comes next, and a few times I’ve come to a point and had that sense of abandon when I wrote something I didn’t expect. It’s liberating! All of a sudden, the story feels exciting. I bet good things are going to come from this for you!

  6. I love your inspiring story! And totally believe in the power of “what if”!

    My inspirational buddy was Dolores Johnson, author of the Mandy Dyer drycleaner mysteries. She prodded me for a long time to take one piece of my experience (martial arts) and write a mystery about it, as she had taken her experience in the drycleaning business. Sometimes when you’re so close to your subject it doesn’t feel very interesting, but when you apply “what if” the story will come to life. Very cool! 🙂

  7. Mary, this is so wonderful! Funny: I have always used that word–“click”–to describe the moment where the writing project feels as though it has truly come together, too…to the extent that when I say to my poor husband, “I got the click!”, he visibly relaxes, knowing that the writer angst level around the house is about to drop a thousand percent. 😉

    And I know exactly what part of TRUTH BE TOLD you are referring to. Had the same reaction, like NO WAY, followed by WOW. Have to say, not only is Hank an incredible writer, but also I admire how kind and generous she is with everyone, always.

    I can’t wait to read your book, Mary!

  8. I love all the people here who do the “I don’t know what comes next” thing. On my gosh, you have NO idea how relieved that makes me! LOL I’ve started implementing those changes, and boy, I’ve got the “I really hope I know what I’m doing” feeling. 🙂

    Diane, oh, I hope so! And yes, there is nothing bad about trying to be like Hank (she was a guest at a local conference a couple years ago and made sure to visit with every person at the table at dinner – she was soliciting title feedback if I remember).

    Pamela, I’m glad it resonated. Yes, I’m always interested to see what nugget of advice I take away from meeting Hank. It’s always something.

    Sue, yes. If you asked, I couldn’t think of a single thing in my life that would be interesting. How awesome that you had someone to show you the magic of mining that experience.

    Cynthia, too funny about “the click.” My whole family knows when I’m struggling with something. My daughter even asked me once, “So, did you figure out how to kill the guy yet?” Unfortunately, she asked in a car full of relative strangers (7th graders who probably went home swearing they’d never drive anywhere with me again).

  9. Love this. WWHPRD is my new mantra. It is perfect. And so Hank! And so Mary. I realized my latest WIP is stuck in a rut so, what would Hank and Mary do? Hum….

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