All of my previous novels have been inspired by setting. My first was a gritty Chicago novel, my second a lakeside wilderness, my third inspired by the gothic cathedrals of the UK. After deciding on a setting, I would think about characters. Who would people these worlds? Why? What did they want? Then, to make it into a story, I would add a dash of plot.
The result? A mess.
This method might work well for some, but for me it resulted in rich settings, rich characters, and a random, illogical set of events for the characters to stumble through.
One of my absolute favorite books is SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson.* It's about a girl who has something so devastating happen to her that she loses her ability to speak. It's such a simple concept. Even the title is simple. I used to ask myself, why can't I write a book like that?
Then one day it happened. I got an idea. I knew instantly it was a brilliant novel idea because it wasn't a setting, it wasn't a character, it was a premise.
What if a person could see the future in her dreams?
That question produced a character, a setting, and a whole new way of writing. By trying to answer the question, I wrote an entire novel with a plot absolutely intrinsic to the story. The result, as you may have guessed, is Project Sparkle (and yes, I am finally giving a hint as to what this mysterious book is about!).
Lots of authors talk about the magical "what if". But it didn't come naturally to me. Perhaps because I grew up on thick, epic fantasies, it's hard to think of a story in such a bare-boned way. Or maybe my mind is just a needlessly complicated place. But now that I get the "what if" concept, I see it as the starting point for so many books.
WHEN I WAS JOE by Keren David: What if a boy witnessed a knife crime and had to enter the witness protection program?
CRACKED UP TO BE by Courtney Summers: What if a perfectionist fell apart?
It's harder to make a simple question for fantasies, but still possible.
A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY by Libba Bray: What if girl in a very regulated situation learned she could enter a magical world where anything goes?
As Project Sparkle is nearing its end, I'm beginning to think about my next project. Do I write something new? Do I go back to my ghost story Adele? Whatever I do, I know I first need to whittle it down to a single question: what if?
Do you use "what if" questions in your writing? How do you ensure all the pieces of your story (character, plot, setting) fit together?
*I wrote this post over the weekend and scheduled it for publication Monday morning. Sunday evening Twitter erupted with the news that Wesley Scroggins wrote an article in the News Leader of Springfield, Missouri suggesting schools should reconsider teaching SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson. He equated the two rape scenes in SPEAK with "soft pornography." Read Laurie Halse Anderson's blog post about this and what she suggests her readers do in response. You can follow all the Twitter conversation and posts about this through the tag #SpeakLoudly.
For my part, SPEAK is one of my favorite books because of the power of its message. I think it should be read and discussed so that kids can be made aware of rape, molestation, and the importance of speaking out. In fact, I taught it to my students at my previous school. I hope other schools will continue to do so.