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 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?