I am a big proponent of bringing strategic thinking into the creative process, because I have found that many writers simply aren’t inclined to think strategically and more and more, this is a skill that we need to survive in the publishing marketplace. It’s all about being an author entrepreneur – someone who not only knows the craft of writing, but knows the business, as well.
As a result of this belief, I bring strategic thinking into many aspects of the book writing process, from the moment of conception, to the structuring of a book, to the pitch process, to how you design and execute a marketing plan.
It may surprise some readers to know that I am an equal proponent of serendipity – which might be defined as the opposite of strategic thinking. I absolutely think we need to make room in the creative process for happy accidents, and, in fact, I think we need to cultivate the skill. Without serendipity, writing becomes the kind of thing that might be done by a robot or a committee, and no one wants to read something written in such a mechanical or compromised way.
So first, I am going to talk about serendipity at the very beginning moments of a fiction project. Next week, I am going to talk about serendipity in the middle of a non-fiction project. That part of the conversation includes a lesson on book categories and market research and it gets pretty nitty gritty. With both posts, my goal is to show you how opening yourself up to your story in a particular way can deepen it at every stage of the process, no matter what the genre.
Serendipity and Fiction
One of the biggest questions many writers ask at the very start of a project is this:
Is my idea any good?
They want to know if their idea has merit, if it sounds like it is worthy of an entire book, if anyone will care, if it’s even worth their time. There is no way to answer any of these questions, because most ideas mean nothing on their own. They’re just air, wind, sky. I have a quote on my desk by the cartoonist Scott Dilbert that speaks to this reality. It says: “ The market rewards execution, not ideas.”
But how can you proceed to write 300 pages without some sense that you are on the right path?
The answer is that confirmation about your idea can come from YOU – from your own brain as it interacts with the world. That’s where the idea sprang from in the first place, right? Something struck you. Something stuck in your head. It is ALIVE there in a way that other ideas just aren’t. You may have thought about starting an organic vegetable farm, or a line of sustainable outdoor clothing, or a gluten free bakery, but those thoughts were fleeting. The book idea, on the other hand, won’t let you go. It has you by the throat, and I have news for you:
When a book idea has you by the throat,
it’s not going to let you go.
What I have found is that if you make room for the idea in your mind – if you stake out a little territory there among the to-do lists – you can test out the efficacy of the idea before you invest too much in the process.
Does it have weight and heat and importance to you? Does it hold up against self scrutiny – not the “does this suck?” kind of self scrutiny, but the kind of self scrutiny where you actually give the idea respect and give it a chance so you can see if it makes sense to bring the idea to life?
Once you allow yourself to take the idea seriously, and to let these questions bubble up in your mind, answers will emerge. It has happened to me many times, and it has happened to people I coach many times and I hear other writers talk about this all the time, too. It’s just not something that gets talked about much. Maybe because it makes writers sound just as voodoo as we sometimes fear we are.
Here’s how the most recent experience of this looked for me:
I have begun a new novel about a woman who steals a dog. Okay, that’s not what it’s really about – it’s much deeper than that -- but that’s the external reality. (The working title in my head is Dog Thief. Although sometimes I also call it The Dog Story.) Attempting to write a new novel is a big step for me because I took a fallow period in my fiction writing after my seventh book fell flat. (Long story short: an auction was set, no one bid. I mistakenly rushed to self publish. It didn’t go well. You can read a bit about it HERE.)
I am was drawn out of the fallow period by something new and unusual and kind of insane and wonderful, which is that I am submitting myself to my friend/client/colleague Lisa Cron’s novel development system while she is writing about this system for her next book. She asked me to take an idea all the way through, step by step (which I also coach her through the writing of her book. Which is where the insane part comes in.) I tell you this only because this is the epitome of strategic thinking: I have to do what Lisa tells me, when she tells me, and even WHY she tells me. And it’s hard. (I can just hear my current clients feeling a certain schadenfreude just about now – pleasure in someone else’s pain. Because I know that it’s not always easy to be coached by me, or anyone. I’m here to say I get it. I mean I’ve always gotten it. I’m just experiencing it myself for the first time in years.)
A few weeks ago, I was working on a scene that was the very first thing Lisa had me actually write. There were a whole lot of exercises prior to writing and she finally set me loose to write, so I was excited. It is a scene that may or may not even appear in the novel. I’d tried about four versions and they were all falling flat. I needed some image, some moment, some center for this scene and this character at a really critical time in her life (when someone she was very connected to had just died) and I just couldn’t get it. It made me doubt my whole idea, doubt my whole story, doubt my ability to get back on this particular horse.
And it’s worth noting that no amount of cheerleading on Lisa’s part was going to help me. I need to believe in my idea, and for awhile there at the crucial beginning moments, I didn’t.
But then I happened to read the Sheryl Sandberg post on Facebook about her husband’s death, and it was so beautiful and moving and gut wrenching. And there was a little moment in Sandberg’s piece that just made me think, “That’s IT!” It had to do with a soccer chair at a soccer game. It was nothing anyone else would have paid any attention to in the same way that I did. But for me, it was everything.
It was my answer to the scene, it was the image I needed to be able to proceed, and it was also proof from the universe that I was on the right track with my story. It was like a gift. Why had I thought to read the Sheryl Sandberg piece that day? Or at all? Why had I even gone on Facebook? I’m hardly a power user; it’s a random thing for me. But I used that little moment from her piece to spur me on. I wrote my scene, and it worked beautifully, which then set me up for a whole series of other little successes as I worked to lay the foundation of my story.
The same thing happened again a few weeks later. I had envisioned a famous dog owner for my book. A young actor. The whole book had come into my head with that reality – my protagonist steals a famous person’s dog. But the whole famous person dog thing wasn’t holding up to Lisa’s incessant questioning (which I LOVE Lisa, really I do, I swear!) and so again, I began to doubt I could even make the story work.
I needed a solution out of the corner I had painted myself into – and again, it came to me through the most serendipitous way. I was on a plane to a wedding in Dallas. I was flipping through the in-flight magazine – and there was a feature story on a dog who had become Internet famous, and the trials and tribulations of his owner. Suddenly, everything clicked. If the DOG was famous instead of the owner, everything in my story would work. Problem miraculously solved.
And how did I get that answer? Because I sat at my desk longer? Hammered away at the keyboard more? Listened to another webinar? No—it was because I let that problem take some space in my head and I believed that the answer would come to me, and the answer came.
Not a week later the same thing happened again when I was trying to solve another problem in the story, and an article with the answer was on the front of the Calendar section in the LA Times. Why would that article be on the page I happened to read on that day? I don’t know, but it happens enough that I know now to trust it. That’s my point.
If this happens enough times that’s all the proof you need that your story has the heart and the soul and the depth to become something resonant. My little dog story was just a wisp of an idea a few weeks ago – a What if? A twinkle in my eye. And now it’s something that has shape and meaning, and it’s beginning to gather steam under Lisa’s eagle eye, and I like it. Which means that I have no reason to doubt it. Which means that the fallow season is officially over.
Many writers miss these moments of serendipity because they are looking too much outside themselves for validation. Other people can help us refine our ideas, stay on track, go deeper, and a million other good things. But only we can give ourselves permission to tell the story we want to tell.