What’s Next

Just when I thought I had a little break coming, I get an email from my agent with that taunting, teasing, termagant of a question: so, what are you thinking of for “the next one?”

In the words of Snoopy: arrghhh. Here I was, enjoying a well-deserved (in my opinion) hiatus from writing. I’ve been avoiding all creative finger-on-keyboard activities including, but not limited to, this column and my blog. I’ve submitted and had blessed the next novel, the writing of which had not been an easy experience. The story got messy and the ending eluded me for more than a year. Issues resolved, tweaks tweaked, and final words laid down on the electronic page, off it went and I raised my head to notice that the sun was shining and I suddenly had a couple of extra hours in my day. Oh, what to do with them? Taxes, okay. Clean house, maybe. Get my barn chores done in the morning? Oh, yes, please. Then, the Email of Darkness.

Hey, I’m not complaining. Not really. I am extraordinarily blessed to have another chance at doing what I really do love to do, and I absolutely understand that. But even Mark Twain must have enjoyed the break between “Tom Sawyer” and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” I just thought I’d have longer to recharge the batteries.

The question is, what am I thinking about for the next one? Such a good question. One I’d like to answer fully. If I had an answer. Maybe what I need is a palate-cleansing of sorts (refer back to my last column which was devoted to the food/reading metaphor), a little mental sorbet to clean out the residue of the last manuscript.

Where are all you people who come up to me with ideas? This happens fairly regularly, someone says to me: I’ve got a great idea for your next book. My response is usually tepid, but polite, because I believe that if you have a story idea, it’s your story. At least this far in my career as a novelist, I’m eschewing the role of hired gun in the belief that fiction really can’t be ghost-written, as memoir and autobiography can. It’s got to come from within. It’s a mystery how that happens, but it isn’t something that can be loaned like a pair of socks. Here, I like these, but you wear them. Nonetheless, sometimes a germinal idea comes from someone’s offhand remark, or a newspaper article, or a glimpse of a stranger’s face.

This is a true story, and one of my favorites: My mother resides in what she calls the old folks’ home, but is actually apartments for seniors. Rent includes meals and, for reasons I cannot fathom, these mature adults have assigned seating. (I suppose so that the staff can discreetly keep track of who’s coming down and who might need checking on.) My mother and her table mates have come up with, not a story, but a title. They cheerfully chirp to me: “Chips, No Pickle?” Apparently, that singular phrase is repeated daily by the wait staff, echoing the residents’ preference for potato chips and dislike of the pickle spear. And they think this phrase would make a good book. Some of these people are retired professors.

If I were to write the book that would adhere to a title as quirky as “Chips, No Pickle?” I would have to live in the old folks’ home because what they are envisioning is their experience transformed into a story, sort of a “Waiting for God” American version. I wish it was as simple as coming up with a good title. Most of the time, the title is chosen after most of the book is written because the book is what evokes the right title, not the other way around.

Story ideas come to me in mysterious ways. They arrive like lightning bolts or fish. A phrase, a whimsical thought, a notion suddenly strikes and I get this little frisson of excitement. I have a fish on the line. Can I land it, or will it get off my hook and swim away into the pool of discarded ideas? Is it just a nibble, or is there a striper there that will be big enough to keep? (For the record, I don’t fish, so if this metaphor strikes you as weird, I apologize.)

So, what’s next? Stay tuned… I feel an idea coming on.