About two months ago I came up with an idea for a new book. It arrived a bit earlier than was expected or required as I was nowhere near finished with the book I was writing at the time. Usually an idea comes to me as I am working on my final edits, almost as if my conscious and subconscious are working in unison, dishing out a new idea idea when I need to move on. But this time it came in so hard that I almost stopped writing the book I was working on. Fortunately for my sanity, I managed to hold off, and got that book wrapped up first.
Ideas for new books come to me in various stages of completion. Some charade as fully formed characters, others as snippets that need a lot of fleshing out. I’ve heard it said before that one good idea does not make a book, but it does usually constitute enough to get me started. Sometimes it’s the overarching plot or a particularly poignant scene that I imagine, maybe even an opening line. In this instance it was an opening line twinned with a reflective closing statement that got me all fired up, which would, I felt, unite the 90,000 words in between. So, a couple of weeks ago when I finally made a start, I couldn’t wait to get writing. As I worked on the idea I came up with a structure, a plot to tell the tale, and as I got the early scenes laid out on paper I thought it was all looking pretty good.
Then two weeks into the writing process, with roughly 14,000 words written, I had what I can only describe as a lightbulb moment. Other creative types will know the sort, and I suspect many others in professions of which I have no understanding will be able to appreciate the concept; a moment when you are so damn sure that you know exactly what you need to do, that you can’t ever imagine the outcome being anything other than perfect. Perhaps for a lawyer it is that breakthrough moment in a case, a final piece of evidence. For a surgeon that moment when she clips the right vessel and the bleeding suddenly stops. It’s that pivotal moment in time when you are sure that what you have just experienced is universal serendipity. For me as a writer it is what looks like the perfect idea, as if we were always meant to find each other and live happily ever after as New York Times bestsellers.
But the trouble with these fancy ideas is that they make your sturdy, stable ideas seem just that little bit less. They make you feel as if to stick with the original plan is playing it safe. Maybe as a surgeon or lawyer that’s a good idea, but let’s face it, somebody in my profession never wants to be accused of that. So, I spent the latter half of Friday morning mulling over my flashy new idea, trying to make it work. And when a couple of hours later I was still convinced it was the best idea I’d ever had I set about restructuring the whole novel. Of course it will work, I told myself. It’s amazing, I thought, certainly enough to tweet about. It was, I was sure, the perfect lightbulb moment. But do such moments ever really exist?
I didn’t work much this weekend, in part because we had a lot going on familywise, but mainly because in order to make my new idea work I had so much reorganisation to do in terms of my plot that I fancied instead just revelling in the idea for a bit longer. But yesterday morning when I came to sit down at my desk to do all that new planning and research, to find ways to incorporate that idea into the new manuscript which was barely out of nappies, I realised I couldn’t make it work. Not without losing everything else I already had. And without everything else, all that I had left was a flashy idea, and without the groundwork to hold it up, it didn’t even look that tempting anymore. I was left with a twist, and that on its own is nothing. What value is a novel concept, if it comes without substance? I’d hazard a guess that it’s not worth very much at all.
So yesterday I spent the best part of three hours doing not all that much in terms of writing. I had to work through the idea, test it from every possible angle in order to see it for what it was; a distraction. It was a major disappointment. But this time was necessary because it was what I needed to understand that what I had already planned really was the book that I wanted to write all along. The other, newer idea, was just a blip in the road. I’m sitting back at my desk now feeling much more comfortable that I’ve worked it through, with the knowledge that my new idea isn’t going to work. And in doing so I see the merits of what I have already done.
Changing focus during the writing of a first draft is always part of the course. This is my eleventh manuscript to date, and I feel like I have learnt quite a lot during that writing time, about what it means to see an idea through, and perhaps what it means to leave an idea behind. In my first books I took whatever idea I had and ran with it. This new idea would have without doubt ended up as a full-length novel. There was little planning to my work at that stage, and I would romp through whatever first draft came to mind and celebrate the completion of 80,000 words irrespective of what they were or what story they wished to tell. But writing isn’t about a word count. It’s about carefully manipulating an idea into a story that has meaning. A novel isn’t about a twist. Just like in real life, the moments that really count are never the extravagant gestures or carefully planned surprises. It’s the quiet interactions between people who care for one another that matter, the simple experiences shared between loved ones. When people look back at their lives it’s not the wedding they remember, but the acts of love and support that create the map of a shared life together that are cherished. The big moments are the foundations, but it’s the everyday experiences that help paint the picture of that life.
Moving from one idea to the next and trying to make things work in fiction never gets us very far. Working on something until it’s good? Now that’s where the true moments of magic are found. Rushing through to the end only leads to disappointment. My new book idea looked for a moment like it was everything I was looking for, but after taking the time to work it through I found myself back on the right track. It was an idea that looked too good to be true. But then again, most things that look that good usually are.