I had lunch last week with a writer friend, who is awesome. She brought her lovely sister, and I brought my lovely and awesome wife, and over omelets and gluten-free bread we had a grand time commiserating the experience of writing serious stories seriously.
Like most writers, my radar for “what if?” propositions is always rotating, and I got a hit when the topic turned to the ladies room at one of the area’s hottest bars, the kind where all the women look like they’re on the opening episode of The Bachelor, and the men like the buzz cut, cheesy golf shirt wearing guys those television reality housewives are, for some reason, always chasing down.
The talk focused on a woman who has served as the hostess in the ladies room at that famous club (hint: it’s in Scottsdale) for the past ten years or so. A woman beloved by all who have washed their dainty hands there after reapplying make-up. I immediately pictured Viola Davis in an Olive Oil pillbox hat, dishing out towels and smiles and sage advice for dollar tips.
Oh, the sights she must have seen in the room, the stories she has heard. She, it was offered, should write a book.
And then the “what if?” descended on me: what if this woman heard something in that bathroom that she shouldn’t have heard? About someone in the bar who wasn’t supposed to be there, doing things that shouldn’t be done? And what if something happened later in the evening inside that bar, something bad, lighting a fuse toward the elimination of anyone who knew who might be at the center of it all.
Suddenly Viola Davis was running for her life, and because she’ll be the hero, working to help the bumbling detectives find the bad guy before they find her in a dumpster out back.
I pitched the idea to the table, and resoundingly heard what most writers hear when they spout an off-the-cuff idea, especially to people who aren’t writers: oh my God, you should write that! Really! That’d be so cool!
It was breakfast, mind you. No alcohol involved.
We brainstormed it for a while, taking it through the First Act to a proposed first plot point, at which time the food arrived and we turned to other things. Like why some writers drink and others simply go mad.
Sad, that seems to be the only two options sometimes.
On the way home my wife asks me, “so, are you going to write that story?”
I didn’t have to think about it. My answer was a firm, no-looking-back, no.
Because ideas are just that and nothing more. They are aromas, not food. Promises, not deliveries. Seeds, not gardens.
Ideas – especially in the form of “what if?” – acquire true value when they open doors to something more substantive than whodunit gratification, when they put you, the writer, into a place that transcends immediate gratification and allows you to go deep and wide.
Ideas should scare the crap out of you. Or at least, excite you to the point of obsession. When you link a compelling “what if?” proposition to a deeper realm of time-tested passion… now you’re on to something
That’s the story you should write.
I had no real passion for the ladies room at this club, or for the social dynamic that becomes the social arena of such a story. To analogize this, I’ve never been inside a crowded ladies room full of preening cougars – and yeah, that sounds kinda interesting, I admit – but who am I to write this story?
If I’d been harboring a thing for ladies restrooms… maybe. But no. Not me.
Not that you have to have lived every story you tell. What I’m saying is that you should bring a long-standing, or at least overwhelming desire to have lived it. Starting a book on the heels of a breakfast conversation is like getting married after a conversation in the check-out line at Costco.
It happens. It never ends well, even in the most romantic of fiction.
The desire to live vicariously in our stories needs to be matched by our passion for the landscape upon which the story will unfold.
And that’s the question a writer should ask before taking any “what if?” idea seriously.
What floats your boat? How would you live your life differently if you could start over, what would you do, who would you be, where would you go, what would you embrace?
This crystallized for me this morning while reading about a new J.J. Abrams television show (Alcatraz), in which criminals who seemingly disappeared from an island 50 years ago are showing up in present day San Francisco, and they are killing people. They’ve traveled through time. They might be ghosts. But the dead bodies they leave in their wake are real, and they must be found and stopped.
Once a week, that’ll happen.
Now that interests me. Both on a “what if?” level, and on a time-tested passion level. I wish to hell I’d thought of it. Time travel is one of the most intriguing premises I can think of… and yet, I’ve never written a time travel story.
Hmmm. I should look at that. Because the passion for it is there. All sorts of thematic, dramatic possibilities. All I need now is a killer “what if?” proposition that keeps me awake at nights.
The books I’ve published were all, to some extent, grounded in something I have an obsessive, passionate interest in. Something I know. Okay, one was thin on that count, and guess what: it was my least successful novel, and the hardest to write.
Come to think of it, the idea hit me in the check out line at Costco.
Don’t jump too fast at your “what ifs.”
They are like items on a menu… the picture is appealing, and you know it’ll taste good. But will it nourish? Will it fill you, does it check something off your bucket list, will it give you focus and joy and challenge?
Is the idea worth a year of your life?
These are the questions you need to ask before you ask “what if?”
Write from a place of passion and obsession and innate, time-tested curiousity, a place where issues collide with the conceptual, set in an arena that fuels the drama as much as any characters you can place within it.
Write the story you should be writing.
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