Finding Inspiration Through the Work. Or, Kathleen’s Third (?!) Book.

It’s two weeks post-publication of Minor Dramas, and I’m writing from my bed at home, prepping for the second leg of my tour. (Are you in Texas?! I’m in Dallas tomorrow and Houston on Thursday and Friday, and I’d love to see you.

Anyway, It’s been a whirlwind, and the best advice about surviving publication I’ve gotten so far is from my friend Laura: “Spend at least one hour per day horizontal.” I’ve fleshed this out a bit and specified that it’s one hour horizontal without my phone. If I’m not feeling utterly exhausted (unlikely, I’ve discovered), I can read someone else’s book for my “nap time.” 

This is me. If I had waited for “inspiration,” I wouldn’t have finished my first or second books.

I think I’ll be ready to abandon this Kindergarten-like practice sometime next week when most of my book-related travel is finished, and I’m no longer required to give near-daily speeches and interviews about myself. All I’ve done in the last month, it seems, is talk about myself and my writing process. And so, it’s both easy and hard in this hyped-up state to think about this week’s topic: sources of inspiration.

First, I’m not that into the idea of inspiration. I’m into the idea of making myself sit at the table and put fingers-to-keyboard. The ideas flow when I’ve already started working, and waiting for a lightning bolt is both not my style and also impractical for me, as I’m trying to make a living as a writer. Most often I can’t wait for an idea because, DEADLINE

After I’ve put in my solo writing time, my ideas take shape and solidify when I talk them through with some trusted colleagues. Right now, I’m working on ideas for my third novel, and this has been my process:

  • My agent asked for a list of topics I’m interested in exploring. I kept these general. I’m interested in competition, elitism, and ambition, among other things. I free-wrote a paragraph or so about each of the one-word topics, and then my agent wrote back. She expanded on my ideas and asked questions.
  • I wrote a list of six or eight possible premises for novels based on the ideas we both liked. I showed this list to my writer’s group (we meet monthly), and they offered their reactions and told me which ones felt the most generative for them.
  • I talked about my lists–both the ideas and the premises–with my friend and unofficial story editor, Chadd. Together we picked a couple of the ones we liked the best and talked through potential plot points and tensions. I’ve written about my partnership with Chadd before. I wish every writer had a Chadd. Pretty soon, he’ll be available for hire, and man, do I believe in the power of his coaching.
  • My agent and I talked again about my evolving ideas and decided on two premises that I’ll now pursue. It’s about finding inspiration within some confines. I want to continue to be traditionally published, so in addition to writing something that thrills me and satisfies my creative spirit, I’ll also have to write something that has the potential to sell. My agent steers me in this respect.
  • Soon, I’ll share my ideas with my editor at Penguin Random House. My fondest wish is that she’ll offer to buy one or more of my next books, and we’ll get to continue to work together. The inspiration for my next book will continue to evolve through our partnership.

What about you and your inspiration? I wish I were the type of person on whom ideas would descend, fully formed. Instead, I’m the kind of person who eeks out ideas bit by bit, making discoveries as I write the words and talk to friends.

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Kathleen West

Kathleen West is the author of the forthcoming novel, Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes, out 2/4/20 from Berkley. She lives in Minneapolis with her family.

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