Not literally – though if you have literally been struck by lightning you can answer that question, too – but have you ever had an idea so explosive and exciting pop into your head that you felt you just had to go with it?
I have to admit that this does not happen to me very often. Ideas pop into my head all the time, and I have a few organized files where I make sure to write them down so that I can come back to them later (read: never). But being hit by an idea that you just can’t ignore is something special, and I think that I’ve only had it happen to me twice.
The first time was about four years ago, when I had an idea for a four book series that I am still completely obsessed with. It’s been running around my head ever since, but I’m not yet ready to write it. And I’m not just saying that because I’m lazy. I’ve kept myself busy writing other things like books and short stories ever since. I’m not yet ready to write it because I firmly believe that it will be the best idea I ever have, and has so much potential that I want to do it justice. And because writing is a craft, and I’m still getting better, I’m content to wait.
The second time this ever happened to me was three weeks ago. I was driving to pick up food and bring it home to watch the Washington Wizards game with my friends and there it was. The car in front of me swerved and I almost crashed. That got me thinking about a few things (other than ‘holy shit I almost crashed’) and before I knew it a fully formed idea for a short story (which has since become a long short story) popped up. I immediately went to my room when I got home, opened my computer, and began to write down my thoughts in half formed sentences like, “And then he goes back, but because of before he forgot to do the other thing and had to call to ask if it really was the truth,” which I looked at the next day and had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. But luckily I got enough of my ideas down to remember the story. I’m actually happy that I was driving at the time because it gave me enough space to fully think about the story before starting to write it down. Eventually my food was cold and I had missed the first half of the Wizards game, but in my head it was worth it.
I’m now a day or two from finishing what will be close to a 10,000 word story, and I love it. When I think about how it came to me, and wonder if it would ever work for full length books, I find I don’t really have an answer. Can you really get the idea for a 100,000 word story in an instant? Maybe it’s possible for short stories because they pack so much meaning into so few words, but a book just has so many people, places, themes, symbols, developments, conflicts (and hopefully they all have meaning). Maybe the idea for a book can start as a bolt of lightning, but the time you take developing it changes it into something else. Maybe a book consists of one big lightning bolt followed by several more that help shape the story. Maybe a book is a lightning storm.
I think the real challenge is remembering the individual flashes of lightning. It’s so easy to dive into the actual writing and feel like we’re lost in the middle of a cloud.
Does your writing usually start as a bolt of inspiration? Or do you prefer to plan your work? Do you have ideas that you can’t not write? Or do you pick and choose which ideas you want to pursue with care? Was my ‘writing is a lightning storm’ analogy too much? Or are we all just going to let that one slide?