How I come up with my ideas

Hello friendos, nothing to report. Happy that my third YA novel, Just Happy To Be Here, is finally announced, so I can tell you all that I’ve been working on it. I’ve been working on it! And it’s going well. Rachel has also been reading the latest draft of my literary novel (now entitled The Default World), and she says it’s pretty good. Since she’s read two previous versions, no one is better able to judge than she is. Everyone who’s read this version says it’s completely different from the previous (this is the version I also sent to agents most recently, and which got me several offers of representation). I don’t think it’s that different! But Rachel is like, everything but the names of the characters has changed.

Whatever! Nobody understands me! I can still see the throughline. But yes, reading it through her reactions makes me remember, oh yes, the plot of this version is totally different from what’s come before, and the characters are different, the conflicts are different. Whatever, definitely hope that book sells! I’ve written at least…five novels, I think, that I intended for the adult market, and none has ever been on submission with publishers—I never had an agent who was willing to put them out. This one will most likely go out, but that’s no guarantee, so we’ll see what happens.

Anyway, I’m writing this young adult. It’s going well. A lot of feelings from my own teen years are surfacing, which is always a good sign. I have a few months to do this draft, and I’m moving at a deliberate pace, which is to say that if I feel some resistance, I back off and examine the book—it’s proven to be a good choice.

I’m also starting to toss around ideas for another book. I dunno, it’s weird. Enter Title Here hit me like a bolt of lightning—I heard the voice in my head for some months before I started writing, and after I wrote the first draft, not much changed before publication. We Are Totally Normal and The Default World were much more unformed, starting as rough lumps of clay that I slowly moulded into shape. But this third YA novel began as a proposal, and so far I’ve been sticking relatively closely to the proposal! Really weird to have a book begin as an actual idea.

I think if I continue to write YA novels, I’m going to need to write them on proposal. I was loathe to do this again, since I had a bad experience with my last publisher. But I think I understand the business better now. I understand how to write a proposal that can generate excitement, and I understand how much it’s possible to deviate from a proposal. And if you want to stay at the same publisher, writing on proposal is key, because it makes them feel like they’re part of the process of baking the book, almost like they’re your co-writers.

The key problem is I’m still not entirely sure what makes me want to write a proposal. What draws me to a character and a set of material and makes me think I can write it? And where is the interaction between those desires and the market? I know that I want to write about trans women or people who might someday identify as trans women. And I want to write about Indian or Indian-American people.

That by itself is a limitation. I’m unlikely to sell a romance or mystery or thriller for adults starring an Indian-American trans woman. I mean, it’s not outside the realm of possibility, but I prefer to write for the center of the market, rather than for its fringes. Science fiction and fantasy are doable. Literary is doable. YA is very doable (obviously). Within YA, my brand is contemporary, in that liminal space between “issues book” and “romantic comedy” and “thriller”, but I could probably get away with writing a fantasy or even a science fiction novel. However, again, writing to the center of the market rather than the fringes, I’d prefer to stick with contemporary stories when it comes to YA. The nice thing about contemporary is it’s a little less cyclical too than other forms of YA, because the prejudices of the school and library market means someone will always be there to buy contemporary books.

So, within those bounds: YA contemporary, literary, adult sci-fi / fantasy, what interests me? And what would interest other people?

Hard to say! Of course I probably couldn’t (and wouldn’t want to) sell a literary or adult sci-fi / fantasy novel on proposal, and I couldn’t sell another YA novel on proposal until after final delivery of this one. But I’m also not really starting another project now, I’m just kicking some ideas around a bit.

When it comes to generating ideas for books, I often start either with a setting, a character, or a conceit. For a while, I used to generate ideas for YA novels by thinking about characters nobody else was writing about (a bro’ey guy or a grades-obsessed grind), but the problem is there’s a reason people aren’t writing about them—the YA market doesn’t necessarily want to read books about the people they most dislike at their school. So now I try to think a little more about natural sources of conflict. In a contemporary setting, conflict is a little thin on the ground—I mean what problems do people really have? Well, other than the grinding meaningless and drudgery of everyday life, which is kind of difficult to dramatize. The problem is a little easier when it comes to teen stories, since the natural constraints of kids’ lives—they’re essentially immured each day in a loosely-supervised prison full of other hormonal maniacs—make conflict easier to come by.

Anyway, my latest brainstorm is that novels work a lot better when you have villains, because the villains can drive the conflict. They provide something that stymies the hero. I still prefer a hero who’s active and who actively seeks things, but in earlier books, I would often need to generate conflict through my hero’s own mistakes, which made life unnecessary difficult. If you have a villain, they can do stuff, and then your hero can do stuff—there’s no need to, like Persephone, have you hero unpick each night what they’ve woven during the day.

But where do you find villains? Especially in a contemporary school setting? They’re kind of thin on the ground! I personally like making teachers and principals the villains. Early in my YA writing career I was advised to tread carefully here (good advice!) because many YA fans actually like school. They’re the kind of kids and twentysomethings who enjoyed school and found it a refuge. Moreover, reviewers, awards juries and book buyers are often teachers and librarians themselves, so you don’t want to piss them off.

Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut school sucks. I don’t know how this can be controversial. I know some people like it, and I’m not saying that I entirely disliked it as a kid, but it was also quite frequently pointless and inane. And yeah yeah teachers are heroes, but they’re also prison guards. That’s just part of being a kid: people make you do stuff you don’t want to do, and then you rebel against that stuff and write angsty songs about it that eleven year olds sing loudly in the back of the minivan during carpool.

I also don’t like a story idea to be that complicated. You don’t want to be explaining to everyone the conflict in the idea: you want them to just intuitively get it. Ideally, the book should write itself in peoples’ minds. You want something simple and iconic.

Anyway, so then I just brood and brood and brood and brood and brood and brood and roughly once every five years I think of something. The rest of the time, the idea comes more organically, rising up out of whatever I’m writing, but that’s a different process.