"How do you think of what to write?"
I've been asked this question almost as often as I've heard the statement "I'd love to write a book, but I wouldn't know how to start."
I was musing this morning about the different ways ideas have, and do, come to me, and I decided to make a record in the form of this blog. It's as much a record for me (of both the varied avenues of inspiration, and a reminder to remain open to new possibilities) as it is a record for my family, and a way to contribute an answer to the question above, which writers are often asked.
The way I approached my first book, Captain Plop's Water-Saving Mission, was different to how I thought I would approach writing a book, should I ever find the courage to do it.
It was triggered by my Manager at the time, Kristen, asking me to write a book for SA Water's then new School Education Program. I was given free reign to come up with a water-related subject, concept, and target audience. Although terrified of failing, I was excited to explore the idea of writing a book - something that had been on my bucket list from as early as I could remember.
I started with researching what books already existed for kids on water-related topics; fiction vs non-fiction; which topics were already well-covered; which topic gaps could I identify; which style of book and characters seemed popular with kids; what messages and issues SA Water was needing to address. Maybe because I had a keen interest in fulfilling this request as best I could, it didn't take as long as I thought it might.
South Australia was experiencing a drought and we needed to educate both kids and adults about water conservation. Then, with the idea of making the process of learning as engaging and least 'preachy' as possible, I decided on a fictional story for 5-9 year olds. It needed to show kids the ways they could make a difference at home or school so I started with making a list of things they could do.
While pondering how to make it fun and engaging, I thought about what cartoons and movies kids of both genders enjoy, and landed on superheroes. The story took off from there, with input from my team at various stages on the characters' name, and story flow. So it was quite a structured approach rather than a light bulb moment.
Book two, Captain Plop: the desalination adventure, followed a similar vein. With book one successfully received, Kristen asked me to write another. Again I was free to research topics and suggest what I thought would fit with our program. This time was easier. We were still in the depths of a long drought, building a desalination plant, and frequently asked by teachers and parents for information to explain desalination to a child. With the characters already in existence, it was just a matter of coming up with the story line.
I had discussions with one of the desalination engineers, Matt, to help me wrap my head around how the process worked. As he talked about the different filters removing material like algae, sand, shells, bacteria and salt, I suddenly saw each item as a living character on a journey through the filters.
Then it was a matter of the story following the engineering process.
The hard part of this book was condensing a complicated technical process down into an easy to understand, yet engaging story that wasn't the size of a technical manual. In the end, I still wasn't happy with the length. The word count is beyond what industry standards recommend for picture books. Yet it was well received, for which I am thankful.
My third book, ThinkBeings, was a definite light bulb moment, an idea that jumped into my head while I was attending a three-day workshop on emotional intelligence. The afternoon of the first day, while listening to the presenter talk about the connections between our thoughts and feelings, I scrawled a couple of notes in my notebook. By the end of that day's session, I had about 12 lines of rhyme down and continued to work on it at home. By the end of the workshop, I had my first draft in rhyme. Perhaps the fact that I found the speaker so engaging and inspiring translated into me being in a better frame of mind to write.
The whole process from idea, through illustration development, to publication took twelve months.
Captain Plop and the tour de recycle came into being the following year. This one also took roughly a year from start to finish but felt like more of a slog, for the most part. We knew we wanted a story describing the water treatment and recycling process but my initial idea (jotted down some twelve months earlier) was for Captain Plop to travel around the world using the natural and man made water cycles. Then it morphed into a circus theme. I worked on the drafts, getting what I thought would be the final draft done only weeks before I was due to go overseas for three months. But my manager and team members had other ideas! I almost burst into tears when they asked me to rework the whole story... and while I was at it, see if I could make the whole thing rhyme like I'd done with ThinkBeings. I went home that night dejected and worried about how I would get that done before starting my holiday. Somehow I snapped out of it quickly and came up with a new idea that night, and a final version within a week. I don't know how that happened. I guess necessity is the mother of invention.
Peace of the Puzzle was a different story altogether. I'd had an idea for years of writing a story about a woman struggling to love herself and find a loving partner. Yes, there were definitely elements of my own life experiences in there, cobbled together with those of a number of people I knew or had heard about third hand. It seemed an all-too-common story so I figured there must be a lot of women out there who could relate to it. Pulling all that together into a fictional work loosely based on Tennyson's Lady of Shallot seemed, at times, more than I could manage.
After five years of steady creative output with the other books, I hit a wall. I'd written an outline for the story and started fleshing out parts of it before tour de recycle was published. Then progress stalled. Work commitments and life in general increased continuously, leaving me little time or energy to think about the story, let alone write anything. I'd have short bursts of creativity, then months of nothing. Over a period of six and a half years, I managed to pull together a mammoth 197,000 word draft (the average novel is somewhere between 70 - 100,000 words). Beta reader feedback helped to scale it back to around 112,000 words, but not before I quit my job (by this time I was living in Spain and teaching English) in order to have the time and energy to devote to serious word culling and reworking of parts of the story. An editor then helped to refine it further and finally it was done.
Camino into the heart, which I am currently writing, came about after a number of friends and strangers commented that the story of how my husband and I met sounded like a Hollywood movie. It was in the back of my mind to write it down one day, but not necessarily publish it. I wanted to write it for our own benefit, in case one or both of us developed a future memory issue (aka The Notebook), and for our future children.
As it turned out, I developed a serious health challenge at a much younger age than anticipated and wanted to write as much as I could for my husband in case the looming surgery didn't go so well. It felt like a race against time, my body and mind. I got the majority of it down before surgery, but not the entire story. I was blessed to pull through without any serious physical or mental issues and have continued to write our story, deciding to publish it after all. As one friend remarked, it has all the hallmarks of a great story - romance, adventure, magical moments, suspense, and potential tragedy. To be honest, it sounds like the lives of many people I know. It's part of the human condition to experience elements of these throughout a lifetime. For some of us, it just gets squished into a shorter time frame, and some experiences we perceive as more traumatic than others.
So, regarding the statement at the beginning of this blog, "I'd love to write a book, but I wouldn't know how to start," I believe everyone has at least one story in them. Your own life experiences on this planet are a story. Your story. Here is where many people would interject, "But my life isn't interesting. I haven't done anything worth writing about."
Again, I disagree. I am sure there are some interesting events, experiences, interactions, thoughts and ideas which have shaped your life.
From a young age, I loved to sit and listen to people tell stories about their lives. Sometimes the most interesting stories came from the most unexpected sources: the quiet, elderly lady in the retirement village I volunteered at in my teenage years; the person I sat next to on the Stateliner Bus while returning home for University break, or the talkative person at a bus stop in the city. Stories from people I've worked with, those I've met during overseas travels. The list is endless.
In more recent times, I've heard stories about my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Many of them are great insights into life at particular times and places; some of them worth noting for future reference should a similar circumstance occur in my life. Would I act / react in the same way, or choose a different path?
My maternal grandfather (known to us as Pop) rarely spoke to us grandchildren about his own life. Engaging him in conversation at all wasn't the easiest task. In more recent years, my Mother and aunts have told me a few stories, stories that I would love to hear more about. The last few times I saw him before he died, I tried to coax him into talking, but he only gave me a few more breadcrumbs. I got the feeling that, apart from feeling worn out, he didn't think there was much to talk about, except his experiences in World War II, which he generally preferred not to revisit.
The few snippets of his life I have heard made me wish I knew enough to write his biography. Stories such as walking to school barefoot in winter across paddocks and deliberately standing in cowpats to warm his feet; learning to swim after being thrown into a dam by one of his sisters; getting pushed out the way of an oncoming bullet during the war. The soldier who pushed him aside took the bullet in his leg. I think he said the man lost his leg and eventually ended up postmaster general at the Adelaide GPO. That sounds like the start of an interesting research project, right there.
I'm starting to hear more stories about the grandparents on my fathers' side, too. When Gran died, I started writing a kids book inspired by her. It's still languishing in draft form on my computer. I hope to pick it up again one day, when inspiration returns.
Last weekend I was fascinated by a family story my friend told involving a Minister who ran an all boy's orphanage, his wife and numerous daughters who lived onsite with him, a stabbing murder, and a courageous show of trust and love as the murderer was disarmed in a gentle, no-fuss way. The Minister was described as quiet and unassuming. I bet he didn't think his life was anything special. Yet the short snippet I heard made me want to know more. That's a definite mark of success, as far as stories go.
If a person or event had a major influence or impact on your life, there is no doubt people 'out there' who will enjoy or benefit from hearing it.
Granted, not everyone is drawn to writing down their thoughts and experiences, or fleshing out a scenario they've conjured up in a daydream. In the same way not all of us are born with a desire and innate talent for excelling at sport, or singing in public (I fall squarely into that box!) But that doesn't stop you telling your stories verbally in the appropriate time and place, or even hiring a ghost-writer or biographer, if you'd really like to get the story out there. Storytelling for the purpose of guiding, inspiring, entertaining, or otherwise enriching the lives of others has existed since the earliest civilizations could record them (and even before written records, and cave drawings, I'm sure).
PS: while meditating the other day, I remembered the draft of a story I wrote at least six years ago and hadn't revisited. It's a sequel to ThinkBeings, focusing on the emotion of anxiety. During the meditation, I received an idea for improving it. This has meant the last two weeks have been devoted to reworking the draft and thinking about possible illustrations. After such a long time languishing in my computer files, the story has decided it's time to come out. If I don't do it now, the idea might well run away and find someone more receptive to writing it (a concept I credit to Elizabeth Gilbert in her book titled Big Magic). The good thing about this is that illustrators can be working away at their own pace on this one while I go back to finishing Camino into the heart. I love feeling like I'm on a roll again :)