Sparks to flames: how stories start

How do your favorite books get from the writers’ heads to the bookshelf? This week, three more bestselling authors share how they write the stories you love to read.

Elyse Salpeter

My process for writing a book nearly always begins from a sudden spark of insight. For instance, my horror novel, The Mannequins, stemmed from an image I remembered from a dream one night. My YA novel, Flying to the Light, was borne by watching a group of birds pecking on the ground.

If the idea is strong enough, I begin to ruminate about it and start playing scenarios. Basically daydreaming about it. I’m not at the point of writing a book yet, just thinking about this scenario and then, if I can’t let that story go, I start to think about how to make a book on that topic. At that point, I quickly envision the beginning, something that happens in the middle, and then the end. Things can change, but that’s my process. After that, I’m pretty much a panster and just let the story take me where it goes.

I have just finished writing a YA apocalyptic tale. I could feasibly put this out this year, but part of me wants to try for a few months to get an agent for it. After that, if I can’t get any traction, I’ll publish it myself.

Jennifer Harlow

I do not recommend my writing process since it heavily involves insomnia.

I usually get a flash of inspiration from somewhere. It’s different each time. It usually starts with a scenario like a normal person being around superheroes or an FBI profiler. Then I ask who would be drawn to things like that and there go the characters.

With those kernels I start building the plot, characters, and world—while I can’t sleep. Within a month I usually have the general story, characters, and settings. I then usually try out the whole story again, working out the kinks in my mind before I actually start writing it.

Most stories don’t make it out of this phase. Those that do often change a little bit, but not much. I always know the general ideas, but the details change all the time.

It all starts with insomnia.

Scott Bury

Stories come to me at almost any moment, sparked by just about anything: a news story, seeing someone on the street, wondering “how did that get there?” Sometimes, that can be the beginning of a story, sometimes the end.

From there, I like to work out a pretty detailed outline. How do I get from the beginning to the end? Why would the characters do that?

Some portions almost write themselves; others are a slog. And then there’s the research piece. How far is it from, say, Springfield to Memphis? What are the roads like? What kind of landscape is it?

And other things, little details, can take hours or even, sometimes, days to work out. But it’s all part of crafting a story.

Keep following BestSelling Writers Connect to learn more about the mysterious process of writing stories.

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