Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Finding My Next Big Love

I’ve written on I.N.K. about falling in love with dead people. It’s a great thing to do. But once you’ve fallen in love and written the book, then what? You have to fall in love again—with someone or something else. But how do you find your next subject? Why do we choose what we choose to write about? It is, at base, a mysterious process. But I will try to answer it here for you, as I also try to answer it for myself.

When I talk at schools, the most frequently asked question is: “Which of your books is your favorite?” I don’t like that question much, because, even if I had a favorite, I would not want to influence my readers. Usually I make some jokes about parents not having favorite children and my books are like my children, and then say that each of my books is my favorite, for different reasons. It’s actually the truth, because with each book I’ve either been in love from the beginning or fallen in love with my subject—be it honeybees, Diwali, JFK, butterflies, or Darwin.

When I talk to teachers or writers or other grown-ups, one of the most frequently asked questions is “Where do you get your ideas?” In front of an audience I have all the right answers… and I think I make it sound easy. You look in magazines, newspapers, books, and on the internet. You ask friends—both adults and kids--to suggest topics to you. (Second graders are the best—“You should write a book about my collie, Miranda!”) You keep your ears and eyes open everywhere you go—museums, concerts, on the street, at schools, in the airport. But most of all, when it comes down to it, you write about what you want to spend lots of time with. You write about what you want to learn about. But what is it you want to learn about? You think you have so many ideas and then… when it is time… your mind is one big blank.

Where is the IDEA FAIRY when you need her?

It's over a year since I finished writing CHARLES AND EMMA and I still don’t have the Next Big Love. For a while that was because I was still way too involved with the Darwins, still too in love with them. Whenever someone said, hey what are you writing about now? I felt I was being disloyal. The body wasn’t even cold yet, for goodness sake.

But now, I’m itching.. I need to find something, someone… I wish it were as easy as I make it sound when I’m talking to an auditorium full of people.

O.K. Sometimes it IS easy. Such as when an editor asks me to write a book (which has happened roughly half a dozen times), or even a series (which happened once). If the topic resonates (John F. Kennedy—easy! How to do research—sure. The Titanic—maybe, o.k., yeah.), you throw yourself into it, fall in love, and write a book.

But what if the world is open to you? What if no one is asking, but you need to write something new or else… or else the counters will be scrubbed into an inch of their lives and the treadmill will give out from too much use and your children and husband will run screaming to the hills from too much unwanted advice?

How do you find your next topic?

You can try to be practical. You can ask, what are the curriculum areas for grades 1-3, or 4-6? What history/science/social studies subjects are taught countrywide in middle and high school? You can look at the calendar and see what big anniversaries are being celebrated in the next few years. You can look at what adult books have been successful lately and steal the idea. (A friend just wrote on Facebook, where I posted that I was working on this blog: “Amateurs borrow, professionals steal. That’s what my old creative writing teacher used to say.”) O.K. I’ll steal something. But it has to be the right something.

The right something? Even if you're being practical, how do you find the right something? Suppose you do find some great curriculum/anniversary tie-ins, or a topic written about for adults that sold well, whatever it is, it has to speak to you. You have to want to write about it, to spend hours, days, weeks, maybe years learning about it. How will you know when you’ve hit it? In my book about doing research (somewhat out of date because of this pesky thing called the internet, THE NYPL KIDS' GUIDE TO RESEARCH) I say that choosing a topic is like buying a pair of shoes. You never really know how they’re going to feel until you walk around in them for a while.

So you try things on for size, for comfort, for appeal, for feel. And pretty soon you know. It's either a fit or it's not.

(O.K., Deb, think of something really silly, something no one would ever write a whole book about… huh… is that a rogue eyebrow hair I see in my mirror… let me get my…)

O.K. so let's say it’s the 4050th anniversary of tweezers. And that fits into the science curriculum under inventions. And perhaps technology. It’s a stretch, but it might be a good tie-in with history, too. Nah, probably not. But let's just say that it's a good, practical idea and you pursue tweezers and so you start to read about tweezers and


Did you know that there are magnetic tweezers and electric tweezers and optical tweezers? Optical tweezers. Really? That use light to manipulate atoms and such? Wow. I wonder if it’s really true that the first tweezers were actually two sticks of wood used to pinch another stick or object over a fire, back when fire was first discovered. I know that birds use tools… I wonder if they use tweezers. I wonder if other animals use tweezers…

O.K., I’m sorry. I have to go now.

Sing it, Marlene!


Mark Herr said...

So when is the book on Miranda the Collie coming out? :-)

As usual, a very nice piece. Personally, I tend to be an "idea man" with way more ideas than there is time to write and write well. And like you alluded to, it is the time and effort you wind up having to put into the subject that really should be determining what is "the right one to do next" Somewhere recently I read someone saying that anyone can write. The talent comes in with going back and making it as strong of a piece as it can be and knowing the difference in bad/average writing and good writing.

Susan Kuklin said...

Once again, Deborah, your insightful comments stir up all kinds of thoughts and ideas, and even a little self-evaluation. Isn't the "current" book the favorite book? One's passion for a subject and people - be they alive or dead - becomes our preoccupation, our obsession. Writing without feeling passionate about a particular subject rarely produces the kinds of books we hope our readers will love and appreciate. When passion strikes, though, writing magic begins.

BTW, it is a pleasure to read your passion in Chas and Emma.

There is a down side to all this. When I finish a book, I know that my career is over. I will never have a better idea. And when people ask what I'm working on, I become embarrassed because I know I'm doomed, I'll never feel about a subject the way I felt about the last one. Then, in the wee hours of the morning - perhaps months later - something pops and it's back on the horse.

Does that happen to all of you?

Meanwhile, where can we buy optical tweezers?