Ideas, by accident: The magic of nonfiction

A little more than a year ago, my former colleagues decided to do a video interview on my leap from the straight and narrow of nonfiction to fiction (thrillers in particular).

The same questions about nonfiction vs. fiction have been simmering over the past year – a busy one for me: finishing the book with James Patterson, working on a science-based nonfiction book I’m collaborating on as a ghostwriter and working on my own next piece of fiction.

I’ve always said I was interested in applying fiction techniques, like building suspense, in nonfiction, trying to be artful while I portrayed the truth. Doing it for a decade made for great practice. Doing it in a different arrangement – working as a ghostwriter on a nonfiction book and honing my own fiction on the side – has helped me understand more about the fuel that comes from doing nonfiction work.

A couple ideas emerged as I shifted from the everyday interviews and deadlines to a book project where I sometimes spent days at a time delightedly tucked away in my writing room. It was so romantic, for a while. The writing seemed to flow on both fronts, the nonfiction and the fiction, but then I’d slow down until I’d switch back to research and interviews on the nonfiction.

That’s when I realized something I hadn’t picked up on before. I hadn’t understood until this year how much the research I did in person and even over the phone gives me some kind of juice. I’d return to my writing more refreshed – and not just for the nonfiction. Sometimes, I’d have ideas for personality quirks for characters in my thriller; other times, I would just have a jolt of new enthusiasm. I’ve always thought that the muscle you get from writing, on deadline, every day is a worthwhile reward in itself. What I didn’t realize was the excitement I picked up from just talking to other people about ideas. Any ideas. That mojo manifested in my fiction writing, even though, of course, it had nothing to do with the context of the interview for the nonfiction.

But there was something else, something in addition to that connection to real, living other people rather than just the company of my fiction characters. Doing research for the nonfiction work, even reading through concepts that would seem to have no direct tie to the fiction I’m writing, gave something more to my creative efforts. There were times when an idea for a plot twist would seem to jump out of nowhere while I was doing my digging for the nonfiction. There was something about the act of searching and digging for information that fueled the fire in other parts of my brain. Blame the reporter still hidden inside.

It was a cheerful revelation: My ideas, even those that wonder into technothriller territory, come from some bubbling stew that requires regular input. The idea engine starts turning with everyday catalysts, from talking to people or from reading all and any kind of material.

I learned that there are times when you have enough of those ideas built up inside that you can sit down and happen to bump into something valuable that you felt, knew or thought – even without consciously realizing that you felt, knew or thought it. It seems like a miracle, ideas that pop out of nowhere. I believe in those, too, but I also know now that, at least for me, I need to be a constant collector – of strange experiences, random conversations, and diverse “to-read” lists.

Others have said this before, but I had to live it out to really get it. As a writer, you’ll do better when you’re aware that you’re curating a rare and beautiful collection, and not only because you’re intentionally collecting something in a specific subject. Like fuzzy bees picking up pollen, you’ll bring home even more than you shove into your pockets. You’ll brush against sweet, sometimes messy things you don’t even realize are there until you sit down to get back to work.



Take your chances

(Editor’s Note: This was written before the second co-author contest winners were announced, but I decided to keep it here for those folks wondering what the contest process was like for me. Also, congrats to this year’s winner, Tucker Axum III!)

To the fellow writers and kindred spirits who reached out to me about my experience with the first James Patterson MasterClass Co-Author Contest, thank you so much for your interest (and also just for being writers). Entering the contest was one of the most rewarding challenges I’ve ever undertaken, and I’m thrilled that someone else is going to enjoy the same whirlwind.

And to those who reached out seeking advice and haven’t heard back from me, please forgive me. I’ve started replies – and then erased them. Start again. Erase again.

I hesitate to write back because some part of me is afraid to steer you wrong.

I’d hate to dampen your enthusiasm for what might be a perfectly exciting idea just because it isn’t right for me, or to push you toward one of your ideas that I think is gold when you’re burning up to write another.

The best advice I could give is to follow the guidance in the MasterClass (like maintaining an idea folder), but, if it’s helpful to you, here’s the curious process that I still have a hard time believing worked for me and what marked the start of The Dolls.

Quick background: I’d signed up for the class, thought it would be a blast, and then set it aside because,  you know, life is all about juggling. I fully intended to get to the class when I had a spare moment.

Then I saw the contest … Time to go to class.

Wow. I felt that shiver that I’m sure so many of you are feeling. What if? Wouldn’t it be incredible? Hold on to that. It’s delicious.

I decided that I would simultaneously do everything in my power to win while also bracing myself for the more likely outcome: not winning. I’d come up with ten or so of the juiciest hook ideas I could put together and perform round after round of market research (inviting friends for dinner and asking their preference). Even if I never heard a word back from MasterClass, at least I’d have a cool idea, or even ten, down on paper. Idea folder started!

I plugged in the contest announcement dates on my calendar as if they were set appointments, and I went to work. I brainstormed the first idea, then set it aside.  It was okay. Maybe. Next, please.

The second idea came together all at once, a sort of patchwork of things I’d read or heard about. I started with half a concept and was playing with different ways to make it more interesting – and then the rest of it just showed up. It crystallized in a way that’s never happened to me before. It was like when you start a sentence and someone else – someone who 100 percent gets you – finishes the thought. I got that feeling like falling head over heels instantly. A serious rush. It was the one.

I jotted down a few other, less inspired ideas, but nothing else made me want to start writing right that second. I knew that crazy idea was the one I wanted to write, contest winner or not.

That’s where the other, more realistic side of me got to chime in. Even if I didn’t win, I’d still win. I had an idea that I felt was worth writing. I’d push myself farther than I’d ever gone into fiction before – and something might stick. Or it might not. Either way, I was bound to get at least a little bit better than I was. That’s winning, too.

So if there’s a nugget of advice I can offer with confidence, it’s this: Enjoy the process, the feeling of possibility. Write and scheme like it’s in the bag and, at the same time, decide you’re going to write, no matter what. If you are brilliant enough to have several workable ideas, pick that one that makes your heart beat a little faster than the others, the one you can’t wait to start.

(And if you aren’t sure what contest I’m talking about – and you’re someone with an interest in writing fiction – stop everything you’re doing and go check out this opportunity.)

Wishing you all the best of luck and hoping you let yourself enjoy every minute of the process!