Career Authors Round Table: On Inspiration
What does inspiration feel like to you? How do you know when it’s happened?
BRIAN: For me inspiration rarely comes unprompted. What I mean by that is there is usually a catalyst. Most frequently that catalyst is the intersection of two inputs: idea and emotion. For example, the first input might be an article on my newsfeed. It could be something unusual that surprises me because of its newness, or it could be reporting on the human condition that tugs on my heartstrings or outrages me.
But the moment of inspiration doesn’t happen then…it typically comes a day or two later. I might be having a conversation with someone, or maybe I’m listening to music and hear a particular song that reframes the first input though the lens of the second. These are my moments of inspiration and greatest creativity—novelty supercharged by emotional reframing that changes the way I perceive the world.
PAULA: Inspiration typically comes to me in the form of images. I “see” an opening scene in front of me: a female veteran home from Afghanistan hiking off her grief in the mountains, accompanied by a military working dog (A Borrowing of Bones); a little boy with autism lost in the woods (Blind Search); my heroine Mercy at the deathbed of her late grandfather’s deputy (The Hiding Place).
Often that image is the result of my imagination running away with something I’ve heard or seen or read: the military working dogs I met at a MissionK9Rescue fundraiser; a news story about the rescue of a little boy with autism lost in the woods; my editor suggesting I devise a plot around one of Mercy’s grandfather’s cold cases.
I don’t know how I make those connections, I just know I have to prime the pump of my imagination by paying attention to life as I live it.
Maybe as inspiration (an intangible something) is converted into prose (a tangible something) the fire gives up its heat—like glowing, flowing lava transforming into basalt.
HANK: What I’ve learned about inspiration is that you cannot look for it. It has to present itself to you. If that sounds strange– and I know it might–think of the times when you’ve tried to force yourself to come up with a creative idea. You can’t make yourself do it. Ideas only come when your brain is ready to receive them. When your mind is open to them. And somehow only it knows when the time is right. Kind of as you said, Brian. A puzzle piece you have tucked away suddenly connects with a different previously unrelated one, and a new picture or possibility appears. How did that happen? That’s your story-creating subconscious meeting your story-telling imagination.
DANA: Feeling inspiration as an editor is a different thing. Sometimes I come across a manuscript–it may be troubled and it may need a lot of work–but I glimpse its glorious potential. Inspiration here is discerning an underlying greatness, then helping an author uncover it for all to see.
JESSICA: For me, it feels like excitement. A heightening of the senses, like a detective who has stumbled on a clue. I might not know exactly where it will lead, but I can sense that it’s important, and I know the idea won’t leave me alone until I explore it further.
Hank you recently shared a story during a Career Author’s Zoom chat about a powerful moment of inspiration that resulted in you going from zero momentum on a novel to 100% acceleration. Can you talk about what that felt like and how it happened?
HANK: Ah, I wish I could recreate it. I’d been working working working on a book pitch. And when I say working working working, I mean–I was frantic. I had to think of something. My deadline was looming. I had nothing.
(My husband laughed, because in 12 of my 13 previous novels, I’d had the same situation. “I have no idea,” I always tell him. “And good thing I wrote those other books, because I’m never going to have another good idea.”)
In this case, I’d had a little idea, and then another little idea, and another–but they never mattered. And then, I thought of one more puzzle piece, and wham. They all went together. And I was by myself, and I remember saying out loud–”OH! That’s why it happened!”
And I grabbed a notebook and wrote the 4-page outline of the whole thing. (A chat for another time, but I don’t think it would have worked if I had been typing it.) That, I have to say, has never happened to me in my life. I have never had a whole outline. But somehow, in one moment, where there was no story before, there was a story.
I had to wait for it.
I am convinced–and I could be wrong–that at that moment, my writer brain moved to a new plateau. We shall see.
We heard Hank’s process of manifesting inspiration into an outline. How do you approach converting the intangible (inspiration) into the tangible (a novel)?
JESSICA: I don’t necessarily outline in advance, so for me it’s more about manifesting an initial idea into a full-fledged concept that I’m sure can carry a novel. I’ll do weeks of brainstorming, alternating between sort of thinking out loud at the keyboard—writing down possibilities for who the characters might be and where the story might go—and taking long walks or bike rides where I set my brain to the task and dictate notes into my phone. Once I’ve hit on a more specific direction I feel good about, I’ll write a 3-5 page synopsis, sometimes using a worksheet or guide to make sure all the story beats are there. As a more intuitive writer who wishes I was an outliner, I’ve landed on this sort of hybrid approach that seems to serve my creative brain and the professional need to create a proposal in advance equally well.
If I find myself skipping ahead, I know I have work to do. As Elmore Leonard famously said: “Try to leave out the parts readers skip.”
PAULA: Once I have that opening image, I brainstorm ideas for scenes on index cards. If I come up empty, I go to my “Vermont” box, into which I’ve thrown all kinds of maps, postcards, articles, etc. related to Vermont where my Mercy Carr series is set. I find cool stuff and make a vision board. That exercise usually gives me a lot more scene ideas for my index cards.
Note: I have not experienced that kind of “4-page outline channeling” that Hank talks about. If only!
DANA: Inspiration may get a writer started, but hard work gets it done.
BRIAN: This might sound utterly absurd, but the more novels I write the more comfortable I’ve become “letting the characters guide me.” I used to think that if I brainstormed long enough and hard enough that momentum would find me, but I don’t think it really works that way. In writing, momentum comes from the physical act of putting words on the page. New ideas and inspiration are born as the character is active—talking, thinking, or doing.
Dana, as an editor whose read hundreds, if not thousands of manuscripts, is there such a thing as an “inspired” work? If yes, how does one recognize inspiration?
DANA: Absolutely. It is a rare instance for an editor to pick up a manuscript that captures and enraptures and holds tight with no distractions or glitches. The editorial pulse quickens! Being in the capable hands of an expert storyteller is truly exciting for any editor (and reader!). Then an entirely-thrilled editor can try and make what is wonderful into something even greater by very carefully polishing its gleam.
Or maybe the book isn’t even close to “there” yet, but–as said earlier–the author and author editor share a vision for its greatness. That can lead to a rewarding collaboration for both author and editor.
And when editing a novel, can you feel if/when inspiration is lost?
PAULA: If I’m bored with the story, I know the reader will be. I have to entertain myself first. If I find myself skipping ahead, I know I have work to do. As Elmore Leonard famously said: “Try to leave out the parts readers skip.”
DANA: When a plot loses momentum or coherence, when the narrative feels out of control, I worry an author’s inspiration is flagging. It may be that the writer is still excited about their plot but is just lost in the weeds–needing help. A skilled editor should be able to guide them out.
BRIAN: Inspiration definitely feels like it has a half-life to me. It’s strong and vibrant at first but it decays, like an isotope giving up its stored energy over time. The inspiration I feel at the onset of a project is certainly fueled by the novelty of the idea and being excited about the emotional and intellectual journey of new characters.
Maybe as inspiration (an intangible something) is converted into prose (a tangible something) the fire gives up its heat—like glowing, flowing lava transforming into basalt. As this happens and the manuscript takes shape, we as authors must find new moments of inspiration in the evolution of the characters and the plot to fuel the journey to the end.
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