A Question From My Daughter

By Mark Alpert

Okay, I’m hanging out right now with my daughter, who will be graduating from high school next month and attending Northwestern University in the fall. She’s taking a creative writing course this spring, and she has a question for all you prolific fiction writers:

Do you usually start writing out of a flurry of emotion — that is, only after inspiration hits — or can you sit down at your desk and start telling a story without the need for an emotional trigger?

I thought that was a good question! When I first started writing poetry as a teenager, I usually wrote in a highly emotional state, inspired by some passionate incident (seeing a girl I loved) or traumatic insight (realizing that my parents were crazy). That doesn’t happen to me so frequently now that I’m a 58-year-old novelist, but every once in a while I get stirred up by some strange, beautiful thought that eventually turns into a story.

For example: well, it’s funny, I was going to tell you what inspired me to write my trilogy of Young Adult novels (THE SIX, THE SIEGE and THE SILENCE), but now I can’t remember why I started those books. The things that inspired me were like the scaffolding of the building I was constructing, but the scaffolding came down after the books were published, and now only the novels stand there.

What about you?

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website: www.markalpert.com

9 thoughts on “A Question From My Daughter

  1. I often start when a character pops into my head with a line of dialogue or with an event he wants to tell me about.

    But I (and anyone, really) can “write on demand”: All it takes is a character with a problem in a setting. The problem doesn’t have to be “the” problem of the story. This is just something to drive me to the keyboard.

    Example: A thin man in a nice business suit (the character) steps through the front door of his suburban home (the setting), glances down and notices his shoelace is untied (the problem). What happens?

    Does a bullet slap into the door frame as he crouches to tie his shoe?

    Does a commercial airliner pass overhead, reminding him he doesn’t have time for this, that he has to get to the airport?

    Does he begin being pelted with rain from the sudden storm that’s come up?

    From there, I remember it’s the characters’ story (they, not I, are living it) and try to keep up as they race through the storyline.

    Emotion? Sheer joy and excitement at not knowing what will happen next.

    (Prolific? [shrug] Not by old pulp standards. I typically write fiction every day, from one to four or five sessions, 1000 words per session. I’m working on my 44th novel and have almost 200 short stories out.)

  2. I have two series and the one series, ideas pop in my head in different locations – that series is very location dependent. The second series I have to think of the recurring characters of the book and devise a story and then when I’m actually writing (I’m a pantser), some plot twists occur in my imagination that I couldn’t think of at the start of the book.

  3. I’ve done both with success, but normally it’s the sit down and write method.

  4. As usual, I do something in between. I have never been able to write to a prompt–after five years of being given prompts, I can count on one hand the amount that I actuall wrote a scene to. But I also don’t write on emotion. I need both. If the emotion comes first, I wait a few minutes, or longer if it promises to be a novel, until a scene forms, then sit down and write. If I have a scene, or a prompt, I have to search for something that excites. The second one also works for when I want to write a short story based on a character from a WIP.

    (If Harvey is not prolific, then I work at a snail’s pace.)

  5. Your daughter will probably be writing short stories for her class which can be written in a flurry of inspiration. I imagine she will soon learn that not all hot inspiration creates good fiction and will figure out how to go from inspiration to solid fiction without losing that energy.

    For longer works, if only hot inspiration is used, the work will never be finished, and if it is, it will probably look like the Winchester Mystery House with disappearing staircases, dead end halls, and fading ghostly characters haunting its rooms.

    In my case, the hot moments of inspiration are the spark that gets my creative engine running during the creative process of deciding what my book is about. The rest is careful thought, planning, and a steady pressure to the gas pedal to keep me moving forward in the direction I’ve chosen to go.

  6. Pingback: A Question From My Daughter | Loleta Abi

  7. For me, I get struck by a “What if?” That turns into a whole series of questions and the next thing I know, it begins to resemble a story. If it doesn’t, I hammer it into one.

    I do not feel any special emotional motivation. I write to my outline, with my minimum daily count (thank you, James Scott Bell). I often get excited while I’m writing, as my story presents new and unforeseen paths that I might follow, but that’s about the extent of emotion for me when it comes to writing.

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