Thomas Edison famously said, “None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met, and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.”
In my experience, that is somewhat true of writing books, too, in that all the inspiration in the world won’t save you if you can’t sit down and do the often hard work of getting the words onto the page. I feel like I’ve talked often in my posts here on WU about the perspiration side of things, and shared my own strategies for getting the work done and avoiding burnout. Daily word count goals, writing routines and schedules, outlines . . . those are all strategies that I use and have found invaluable in the course of all the books I’ve written and published over the years.
This month, though, I’ve been thinking about the inspiration part of creative invention, that part that Edison identified as being only one percent of the equation– and yet I think most authors would agree is every bit as invaluable as the other 99 percent of dogged hard work. (I’m actually not sure that I personally would put the split at 99% and 1%; maybe more like 75%/25%? But that’s beside my point.) My point is that the inspiration side is somehow much harder to pin down. At this point in my writing career, I’ve written a bunch of books and sold a fair few, too, and I suppose I can be cautiously optimistic that I know the mechanics of how to write a book. Not that I mean to suggest that anyone reaches a point where all writing is some kind of cakewalk . . . at least, if they do, that someone is not me, because I definitely haven’t hit any kind of cakewalk state of mind when I sit down to work.
But as much as I can come on here and offer tips and suggestions for getting the words on the page . . . that vital 1% or 25% or whatever it is of inspiration . . . the lightening bolt of a story idea that suddenly hits you, saying, Write me! Write me now! . . . I’m honestly not sure where those moments of inspiration come from– and yet I’m equally fascinated by them, at the same time, just because they are so illusive and intangible. I can do a good job of being organized and disciplined enough to write a story, but the inspiration that offers me the vital germ of a story idea? I’ve never been able to track that down on my own; I’ve never really tried that I can remember. Every book I’ve written, the inspiration has just streaked, meteor-like, through my head, leaving me frantically running after it, trying to keep it in my sights as I type.
I’ve written books that were inspired by a dream, books that were inspired by my love for classic works of literature, books based on retellings of fairy-tales. I have an entire series (under a different pen name) that jumped into my head while watching Blade Runner with my husband, so I suppose in a way you could say that the movie inspired the idea. And yet that series is absolutely in no way, shape or form anything like Blade Runner. No off-world colonies, not a replicant to be seen . . . my hero doesn’t even marginally resemble Harrison Ford, nor is the plot of the movie thematically or structurally anything like mine. So where did my idea come from? I suppose at most I could say that the movie left me with a certain wisp of a feeling that I wanted to capture in a book, but that’s still so hazy and intangible that it doesn’t say much about where and why inspiration actually appears.
The book I’m writing right now started with 2 lines of dialogue that popped into my head one day. That was it, just 2 lines. And they’re not even essential lines, either– I mean, I like them, but they really have very little to do with the world of the story, nor are they absolutely crucial to the plot. No one reading the book would probably ever guess that it was that scrap of dialogue that started it all. But those two lines stuck in my head got me thinking: Who were the characters speaking them to each other? What brought them there to that moment? Once I started imagining that, the whole story gradually unrolled itself from that tiny point in time.
I suppose maybe the best answer I have to where inspiration comes from is this:
It comes from nowhere, it comes from everywhere, all at the same time. Because it grows its roots in the writer’s imagination . . . which is also nowhere and yet everywhere, all at the same time. Maybe the best we can do as authors when we’re hoping for one of those lightening bolt gifts from the story gods is to be still, be present in the moment and open our minds– whether we’re engaged in someone else’s story or simply people-watching on a train, trying to guess what the couple in the corner seat are arguing about or why the woman next to us is frowning. To me, being an author means constantly being in a state of amazed wonder at this adventure we call life, constantly being in awe of who we are as humans, both the good and the bad. It’s that amazement, that awe and wonder that makes me want to tell stories about us, the good and the bad.
What about you? Where does your inspiration come from? Do you seek it out, or just let it come?
About Anna Elliott
Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen's classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.
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