There’s a lot of stuff written about writing, writers and the writerly craft. If you’re interested you can learn how writers plot, how they do characters, how many months they need for a first draft, how long they spend actually typing, whether they like to listen to music, exactly how many Nespressos they imbibe before starting (too many in my case). But what never really gets discussed is, perhaps – certainly in commercial fiction – the most crucial, pivotal moment of the entire writing process. Having The Idea.
There are several ways you can Have The Idea for your next book. Easiest of all is when the idea is given to you. This is not a common occurrence, tragically, but it has happened to me once. About fifteen years ago, when I first turned to the possibility of writing thrillers, I asked my agent (who was encouraging me down this road) what she thought might make a good subject, as I had no ideas of my own.
She pondered for about two seconds (she’s not really given to pondering) then said “What about that temple you visited, the one in the Garden of Eden, that would make a good thriller”. She was referring to the 12,000 year old archaeological site of Gobekli Tepe, in Kurdish Turkey, which I had visited a couple of years before, and which had compelled me with its strangeness. On reflection, I realized that my agent Eugenie was also bang on the money. Gobekli’s Tepe’s putative but fascinating links to the Garden of Eden myth made it a natural subject for a religious conspiracy thriller. Over the following months I sat down and wrote (under a different name) my very first thriller: The Genesis Secret.
It was a bestseller. It bought me a small flat in London. I was up and running. Thank you, Eugenie.
Another way of Having The Idea is probably the most satisfying and exhilarating of all: when it comes as inspiration. When the entire plot is presented to your conscious mind, with a kind of magical flourish, in a few sweet moments. This, apparently, is what happened to J K Rowling when she thought up the Harry Potter books. She got the notion of a school for wizards, and with that concept fresh in her head, the whole seven book sequence tumbled into her lap, like a slot machine paying out a silver dollar jackpot.
This, too, is rare – sad to say – but it has happened to me a couple of times. One notable occasion was with The Ice Twins. I already had a location for my thriller: the real, cold, bleak, yet beautiful tidal island of Eilean Sionnach, off Skye in Scotland. I also had a vague sense of who I’d put there: a troubled small family, grieving a lost child. But I had nothing beyond that, no story, no hook, no narrative arc. Then, one evening in a Highgate pub, as I discussed my lack of a proper story to write, one of my friends said, quizzically, “twins?”
It was like the proverbial dam bursting. In a few minutes the whole tale spooled out in my mind, a little girl mourning her lost twin sister, who comes to believes she is her dead sister, to cope with the grief. And what if the mother could not be sure which child, of the identical twins, was alive, and which dead? I knew at once I had a Good Idea.
I lucked out, and got a similar kind of inspiration, with The Assistant. I was hunting for a new theme, and I was talking about my need with my wife, and she said, casually, “Oh, why don’t you ask Alexa”. Obediently, I turned to my virtual assistant on the shelf, and I said” “Alexa, give me an idea for a book.” Alexa came back with one of those programmed jokes she does: “Oh, I can’t give you ideas”. As soon as she said it, the idea jumped fully formed into my head: an Alexa that talks back at you, like it knows you, like it wants to manipulate you. Thanks, Alexa.
What happens, however, if you aren’t gifted an idea, and you don’t enjoy inspiration?
In that case, welcome to the hell that is Not Having An Idea, which is particularly hellish for commercial fiction writers, who have to produce a book, even if they can’t think of anything to write.
There are techniques for tunneling through this obstacle. When I am really hungry for that hooky new premise, I will lock myself away in hotels, with no distractions, and just think til my eyes bleed. Or I will drown myself in distractions – music, art, the net – hoping that something sparks. One distinct method I have, to sweat an idea out of nothing, is to look at evocative photos, in evocative locations. What is that woman doing in that empty city square? Why is she staring at the sky? Who is scaring her?
As it happens, that is where I am now, as I write this. I am in the hell of Not Having An Idea, and I was meant to Have An Idea about six months ago, and my publishers are making disapproving noises. So if you will excuse me, I will now go and stare at some haunting photos of random scenes for six hours straight, until my eyes bleed.
(c) S.K. Tremayne
About The Assistant:
What would you do if your home assistant turned evil?
She’s in your house. She controls your life. Now she’s going to destroy it.
She watches you constantly.
Newly divorced Jo is delighted to move into her best friend’s spare room almost rent-free. The high-tech luxury Camden flat is managed by a meticulous Home Assistant, called Electra, that takes care of the heating, the lights – and sometimes Jo even turns to her for company.
She knows all your secrets.
Until, late one night, Electra says one sentence that rips Jo’s fragile world in two: ‘I know what you did.’ And Jo is horrified. Because in her past she did do something terrible. Something unforgivable.
Now she wants to destroy you.
Only two other people in the whole world know Jo’s secret. And they would never tell anyone. Would they? As a fierce winter brings London to a standstill, Jo begins to understand that the Assistant on the shelf doesn’t just want to control Jo; it wants to destroy her.
‘Terrifyingly believable and utterly gripping.’ Lisa Jewell
‘The Assistant is the definition of suspense!’ Jeffery Deaver
Order your copy online here.