Finding ideas for a book: further thoughts

One of the strangest things about being an author is the way we write contracts for inspiration. Back in 2010, I sold a crime novel, Talking to the Dead, to those lovely people at Orion. We ended up signing a three-book deal so that, to earn my corn, I needed to write a novel a year until the end of the contract. With luck and a following wind, that contract will be renewed later this year, in which case I’ll be signing up for more of the same.

The books I’ll be writing will need to be crime novels, they’ll all feature the same central character, but each book will need to feel vital, alive, essential, unexpected, and compelling. No doubt, if I ever achieve Rankin-ian levels of success, my readers will forgive the odd misfire, but the market today is much more unforgiving than it used to be. For the moment at least, I misfire at my peril. And bear in mind the timing too. I have to write a book a year: the sacred duty of any crime novelist. Given that it takes time actually to write the darn thing, then more time to edit and so on, that means that I’ve got, let’s say, three months at most to gather together the bits and pieces of from which a story might be stitched.

In effect, these crime contracts seek to industrialise the process of inspiration. They have no patience with authory excuses about the muse not visiting. They assume ideas can be made to come, because come they must.

So how to do it? What are the tricks?

I’ve written elsewhere about some techniques, but this post will talk more about me. How I actually go about it. Not in theory, but in practice, right now, for the book I’m about to write.

It’s tempting to say that one simply needs time away from the whole business of writing and thinking. Let the subconscious do the work. And for sure, it’s important to do those things: walk the dogs, mow the lawn, catch up on life. It’s important to fluff out the mind, get some light and air into it, make spaces for things to enter and take root.

But – for me at least – that’s not the only part of it. The thing about dog-walking alone is that it’s a completely random strategy. It makes room for things to take root but doesn’t in itself either l seeking and the nurturing.

When I’m in idea-hunting mode, I’m always in that mode. If I hear a crime story on the radio, I’ll always examine it for possible interest. And if I feel an idea nibbling at me – a prison break, something to do with rock-climbing, a denouement at sea – I’ll always follow those things up. Buy a book on prison breaks. See where the rock climbing idea could take me. Start seeking out material on trawlers, or storms, or whatever. Early on, those things are just building blocks. I’m not looking to acquire a plot. I just want to find bits and pieces that appeal to me. That don’t quite let me go.

And I don’t let a day go by – don’t let a morning or afternoon go by – without turning those things over in some way. The subconscious is a mighty thing, no doubt, but you need to tell it what matters to you. It travels down the roads you pick.

Oh, and it doesn’t matter the quality of what you pick up. I’m as likely to get a useful lead from a crappy book as from a very good one. Indeed, the very good ones are often a little more closed. The thing they do, they do so well, it’s hard to see an alternative approach yielding anything better. A poor quality memoir about something interesting, however – that’s gold dust. And remember that they key bit of inspiration might come from a single sentence. (There’s a really crucial sequence in the book I’ve just written which was inspired by one off-hand remark in a book on police procedure.) You don’t judge the idea by the merits or scale of the material which prompted it. You judge it by the potential of the idea itself.

Then, as I get closer to something that feels like a possible book, I start to get more concrete. So, for example, I’ve just delivered my third Fiona Griffiths novel to my publisher. No sooner had I handed it over than I started, immediately, the process of thinking about number four. I’m chasing ideas, watching films, listening to the radio, buying books with FG#4 always at the back of my mind.

But at this stage, I put nothing down on paper. Don’t try to connect any two things. Don’t seek to force the pace. But as things start to coalesce, I do find that it helps to start noting things down. The mind works from the place where you last left off. If you don’t start gathering your various ideas into a heap – connecting things up – sketching possible lines of attack – you’ll find yourself circling round the same old things. Those might be good things, but not yet the stuff of a novel. If you give the mind an ever more formal platform, your subsconscious will scrape away at the problems which should currently be occupying you.

And of course, it’s not just specific incidents that matter, but the big structure or theme of the book. The elevator pitch, if you like. If you’re not happy with the basic thrust of the novel, then you need to leave everything else you’ve got, no matter how pretty, until that big central thing is sorted, and sorted right.

Last, I’m always ready to discard ideas. Even at a late stage, if I start to feel uncomfortable with something, I’ll discard it – no matter if I’ve already read five books on the topic, bored my wife with wittering about it, sketched half a possible plot line. If it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t right – or at least will need to be jiggled into some shape. Discarding stuff is always difficult, because there’s a presumption involved. A presumption that this inspiration business will work out, that there’s a better book to be written, that this uncertain process will arrive at the desired conclusion.

But then look around. It’s not just contemporary crime authors who have been able to industrialise inspiration. It’s Dickens too. Or Trollope. Most of the books in a bookshop have been written under contract or in full expectation of one. Contracts with deadlines and expectations and financial consequences.

Which is all well and good, but that doesn’t quite release me from the thought I ALWAYS have at this stage of things. Roughly: Yikes! I’ve been found out! I’ve written the last half-decent book I’ll ever write! I don’t know what’s coming next! I’m just going to nick my next plot! Or retrain as an insurance clerk! Which suggests one final tip. No matter how terrified you get, don’t tell your agent. Feel amateur, act professional. ‘Delivery next March? Oh sure, yes, shouldn’t be a problem…’

This entry was posted in How to write a book. Bookmark the permalink.