When I started writing as a teen, I found myself coming back to some of the same story ideas over and over again. Turns out there are specific stories I was drawn to. And I’d keep coming back to them until I felt like I’d gotten them “right.” At one point I even wrote a list, including:
· Time Travel
· Mermaids (I grew out of this one.)
· Artificial Intelligence
· Evil Scientists
· Mindlink with an assassin (don’t ask)
There were more, like three or four more, but I don’t remember them all now. I do know I kept the list for quite a while and that I hit many of those items. Also, I discovered certain story ideas that became list worthy later on—like cryogenic preservation. (Which seems to be coming back right now. Across the Universe and A Long, Long Sleep anyone? (Actually, a lot of my “list” items seem to be coming back. Hmms.))
But eventually I stopped keeping a list. And here’s why—
I realized it wasn’t those specific stories. It was about what they shared in common.
See, I used to have a very, very premise-based approach. My premise was my golden idea nugget. It was my own personal hook. Once I had a solid premise, I could write a whole novel, no problem. You can see this on my list—each of those items come with a premise attached. Amnesia? Person wakes up with no clue who they are or what happened; must go on journey to find answers. Time travel? Bad event happens, person must go back in time to prevent bad event.
But like I said, eventually my approach began to change. I became less intrigued with the premise, and more intrigued with…well, I wasn’t sure at first. Writing MIRRORPASS actually helped me realize what it was. I’m attracted to mysteries.
Pause. The word “mystery” has become associated almost exclusively with cop shows and whodunits and such; but that’s not the kind of mystery I mean. I’m talking more about the sense of mystery you feel while watching the original Stargate film, or in the show Lost. Books like 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher, Pegasus by Robin McKinley, Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater, Sweetly by Pearce Jackson (which I just, just read)—they all have this deep, dark feeling of unrest to them, as if something is moving there under the surface, something is coming alive; and nothing will be put to rest until we figure out what that is.
Pause again. I realize that I have just described the horror genre, and anyone who knows me knows how much I hate horror. Cannot. STAND. Horror. Like, Sean Of the Dead freaked me out. I’m that bad.
I don’t like mysteries that are all about the fear factor. Eerie, yes. Fear, no.
What I do like, and what I love, are mysteries that are about beauty. About things that have been lost and are being found. About deep, dark secrets that were never quite understood the first time.
This is what I love. This is what compels me, now, rather than the premise. And looking back on my list, I realize how many of those stories were about the mystery as well. “Person wakes up with no clue who they are or what happened; must go on journey to find answers”—it’s about solving the mystery. Who am I? What happened to me? Why am I being chased, what did I know, what must I learn?
This gets to me, guys. I want to know. As the writer, I need to know. The agony of not knowing is so delicious that I just have to explore it.
I am compelled.
And hopefully, my rambling has gotten you thinking about what compels you, as well. Because knowing what makes you tick as a writer can really, really help you out when things go downhill.
For example—I’m sure this never happens to you—sometimes I lose interest in my WIP. Things will be fine, plotwise, but it just doesn’t…interest me anymore.
When I take a step back and start asking myself the hard questions, I often discover my lack of interest is because I stopped exploring the core mystery. Which is like, you know, the best part for me. So no wonder I got bored.
It also helps me decide whether a story idea is worth writing about or not. Does it have a truly compelling mystery? Will I need three hundred pages to explore it, or will things resolve after fifty? Is this a unique mystery? Could I explore it in a unique way?
Now for you, these questions may be different. Perhaps you’re asking, Does it have a truly compelling character dynamic? Does it realistically explore family relationships? Could I relate to these situations? Could readers relate?
Or whatever. It all depends on what compels you to write, what your common element is between novels, what you look for as a reader, what you explore as a writer.
I shared, so now it’s your turn—what compels you? Also, because I’m curious—if you had a list of “ultimate novels I must write,” what would be on it?
Truly and always,