Shiny New Ideas
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Tara Kennedy: Welcome you’re listening to a 2019 WriteOnCon podcast and this is Tara Kennedy from the WriteOnCon team I’m really excited to chat today with author Lydia Kang about shiny new ideas. Welcome Lydia.
Lydia Kang: Thank you for having me excited to be here.
Tara: So let’s start with the basics. What is this shiny new idea?
Lydia: So the shiny new idea is this particular creature that pops into the mind of a writer. Oftentimes at very inopportune moments like when you’re on deadline or you’re working on another project and it is a particular type of lightning strike because it’s not just like oh that would be kind of an interesting book or whatever it really kind of hits you to your core. And you suddenly can’t think about anything else you think it’s the best idea in the world and you feel like the world will stop moving if you don’t suddenly get to work on it right away. So it’s a very particular thing that I think most writers have had at one point in time or the other when they just sort of get that lightning strike.
Tara: So do you think it’s okay for an author to let themselves be swayed by a shiny new idea?
Lydia: Yes and no. So I think it kind of depends it depends on what your what your schedule is like it depends on the actual idea itself so I think when you get hit by you know when this muse sort of gets you, it’s very important. It’s such a great feeling it’s it’s kind of important to just acknowledge that you’re having this sort of fantastic idea and you’re really really taken by it because honestly a lot of times that is the energy that gets people really, really excited about a project. Now that energy doesn’t always live through the entire length of the project and sometimes it actually never becomes a book but but you have to you can’t quite ignore it. I think what’s really important is just to acknowledge that you’re having it and figure out are you gonna work with this shiny new idea given what’s going on in your life at the moment.
Tara: So what do you do if you have a few shiny new ideas and can’t decide which one to write first?
Lydia: Yeah, gosh that’s hard. When that happens sometimes it does help to flesh them out a little bit more. I mean with any shiny new idea you kind of have to flesh them out because a lot of times it’s just a concept and it’s not even a fully fledged book. There’s no plot there might not even be a character or it might just be the shiny new idea might be a character or it might be a setting or something like that. So a lot of times it’s just not very fleshed out and you have to kind of sit with it and just figure out well how exactly is this gonna work? Do I need to do a lot more development of this shiny new idea before I get as legs. I find a shiny new ideas seem to prioritize themselves. Like they’re ones that you are really really taken by and there are other ones that seem to sort of fall a little bit below the sort of either the energy level or the insistence of being written. When that happens a lot of times it’ll just sort of call out to you which one is the one that you really want to do. But when you are fleshing out the idea a little bit you also sometimes have to take into account the environment.
So let’s say this was a couple years ago and you have this fantastic idea for you know this post-apocalyptic story and guess what you know all the dystopians like have already crested and gone out and nobody wants to buy one right now. Even if it is the best idea even if it’s fresh and new and different. If that’s one of your goals is to actually get this thing published and to get you know a company to buy your book so that you can get it onto shelves you might realize you know what I might have to shell this one for a time when it’s gonna be a little bit more like viable from a business perspective. So a lot of time it’s that that happens a shiny new idea hits at the worst possible market time. And then that will speak also to whether or not this is something that you want to do or not. And time also makes a difference of figuring out what works for your schedule.
Tara: And so you mentioned I’m fleshing out this shiny new idea. Could you talk a little bit more about your process for that? How you plump them up and make them bigger?
Lydia: Yeah, yeah flesh them out it’s kind of like Frankenstein. Like you you might have like the head but you don’t have the arms on the torso. Then you need like everything to actually function. Well probably the first thing that I do is the idea is usually just again like this sort of glimmer piece of a larger story and I don’t have the larger story at all. So the first thing I usually do is you know like it could happen when I’m driving and obviously don’t want to crash when you’re driving but you actually need to get things done and be intact and so what I will oftentimes do is grab my phone or the computer whatever is nearby and I will send myself an email. So I have an email folder full of writing ideas. And they could just be a bit of you know dialogue. It could be an actual like shiny new idea for an entire book and what I’ll do is I will just dictate to myself or type out just a rush of notes. Just everything that’s coming with that shiny new idea. Why I’m so taken by it. What the concept is. And I write out as much as I possibly can about that idea and I just send it to my email.
So that is probably one of the most important things I think you can do when you get struck by one of these things is you have to get it down somewhere or you’re gonna lose it. Because it’s a lot like dreams also sometimes a couple days later you’d be like what was that idea? And you’ll forget. It’ll take a while for it to come back and it might not have the same energy. So take a couple minutes or an hour if you need to and just write down as much stuff as you can and put it in that email or that special folder or something where you put a lot of your writing ideas and then come back to it later. And you could come back to it in an hour you could come back to it in a week or a month or even a year. But a lot of times I find that the energy level of that idea, it just kind of calms itself down as soon as you start transferring it down to put note of some sort. The energy level goes from sort of frantic and like I have to write this right now to okay what am I dealing with? How viable of a story is this? What am I missing? And then once you also have it written down you realize what’s missing. Do I have another? Do I have a good world building set up for this? What do I need to do for the world building? What are my characters? What are the stakes for this story? What is it about this that’s going to make people really grab it be like wow what a great idea. I totally want to read this. And what’s it, what’s it missing?
And so it’s that second developmental part after you initially write down all the sort of interesting things that I think is a lot more harder as far as the work goes because now you’re sort of taking it out of the clouds and bringing it down to earth and trying to find out if it’s a viable story or not. And this is where a lot of, I think a lot of shiny new ideas just they don’t just seem to have like I kind of forgive it as a table and it has to be able to be stable. And if it’s kind of missing parts of the table it’s not going to stand up on its own and it’s not going to quite work as a fully fleshed story. And it’s in that fleshing out part that you realize, okay this isn’t quite working. It’s really missing something or that excitement that you have suddenly kind of glimmer, dims a little bit because you realize the stuff that you need to do to make it happen is not so if you’re interested in or it’s not working for you. So the second part I think takes a lot of the shine out of it and if you can get through that part and it’s still really exciting and really, you know, interesting for you then you’ve got a good idea at that point in time.
Tara: So how do you know if a shiny new idea is maybe something that should be incorporated into something that you’re already writing?
Lydia: Oh that’s a good idea. They will sometimes happening especially if you are in the process of drafting a book or you’re outlining a book and you’re trying to figure out how to make it go and it’s kind of missing a certain something. It’s missing a certain energy. It’s missing a certain set of stakes and you just don’t quite know what that is. And when that happens then you can get those lightning strikes again where you’re like, okay, oh this is what I have to do. And oftentimes again a flurry of typing. Getting that note down and trying to figure out what’s working.
So you know I kind of had this idea for this recently on a book that I’m currently drafting. It’s for Opium and Absinthe which is one of my historical mysteries that’s due to come out next year. And I’m in the process of drafting it. And I had this shiny new idea about oh my gosh, I’m gonna make this character, I’m gonna make it a plot twist that it turns out this character is adopted. And I thought, wow what a great idea. People won’t see this coming. And you know it’ll be I’ll be able to tie this into some of the other books. And the more I fleshed it out, the more I realized that I was using this really, really significant identity, being adopted, as a fun plot twist. And I realized that was really wrong. That’s not how things need to come to be. It felt very kind of tacked on and not fully thought-out even after I had thought it out. And I realized, this wasn’t gonna work out. But, you know, I had to kind of give that shiny new idea that little bit of energy that I thought might my character might had needed. And after I’ve sort of thought about it the glimmer kind of went away once reality kind of struck. I realized I wasn’t probably the best person to write an adoption story and I was using it the wrong way.
So things like that will happen. And again, you have to be very cautious about taking the idea and bringing it to that next step to find out if it’s really workable or not. A lot of times I think people get hit by shiny new ideas that are really, I have to say inappropriate. Like you know, oh my gosh I’m gonna write the story about you know what it’s like to be Muslim in America and have to deal with the kind of racism that comes with being Muslim. And I might think it’s a fantastic idea but after fleshing it out be like you know what I’m not Muslim. And this is really not the story for me to tell. I don’t think I would do the best job with it. And you kind of have to either let it go or take the essence of what that story was which is feeling like you want to fight against an oppressor and take it and make it a story that actually makes sense to you and feels right for you. So you do have to be kind of careful with them. I find that lightning strikes a lot with writers who are getting ideas for things that they might not be the best person to make the best of that particular story. And you have to be kind of cautious about that.
Tara: Now do you read while you’re doing your first draft?
Lydia: I will read material that is necessary for doing my research. So I do read a lot of nonfiction and I will read books that are sort of set in the same time period or it’s books that are kind of similar just so I can get kind of the right feel or tone. But I have to be, it’s really hard, I when I’m in the middle of drafting something, I all my energy is going towards drafting. And a lot of times if I’m reading other books or things that I really want to read, I get really kind of sad because I’m like I’m writing this crappy draft that’s really imperfect. It’s got holes all over the place. The pros is terrible. The dialog is flat. And so I’m so I’m reading this other finished book that is like really, really good and it makes me feel really bad about my writing, to be honest. So a lot of times I kind of have to let book-reading go by the wayside or I have to read something that is completely different. So for example, if I’m reading writing historical fiction or an adult murder-mystery that’s not like young adult. If I’m writing young adult. So I have to write read or I’ll write read nonfiction that is not in the subject matter of what I’m reading. So sometimes I just go to something completely different because it’s like a palate cleanser for me. I’m one of those people who definitely gets affected by if I’m reading something I will sort of unconsciously translate some of the tone and voice of that book into what I’m writing and I don’t like that to happen. So I have to keep it kind of separate.
Tara: But do you find that even sometimes when you’re reading you know, something nonfiction, or something that you thought was completely different that its sparks shiny new ideas?
Lydia: Yes there’s no question about that. And I think that’s why it’s really important to continue to try to read what you’re doing. I think that a lot of writers have the common complaint which is that I’m so busy writing that I don’t have time to read. And you know probably one of the most common types of advice that I give to emerging writers is read a lot so you get to know what really good quality writing is. So you know what kind of voice you want to have someday. Or you know, just to get great ideas. Because you will get ideas from books reading them and they will suddenly help you think outside the box and fix plot problems or character problems or give you ideas for Wow I would love to do a book like this but what if I did it this way what if I did it my own way or I put it on you know kind of a different spin on it. So absolutely especially if you feel like you have been working, working, working and you’re kind of creative tank is completely empty. If you just go out there and read a bunch of books you will get ideas and it’s not stealing because they’re just going to be inspiring you to think about how you could write things your own way. And they’re absolutely inspiring. Just like a glimpse of like a little place or person might have you think like oh someday I want to do something like this but how am I gonna make it my own? How am I going to make it really unique to me? So absolutely writing is a huge inspiration for getting shiny new ideas. Reading, I said reading, not writing. I meant reading. I’m sorry I’m in drafting mode. I can’t help it.
Tara: And then do you have any suggestions for how writers who are drafting and can help make that current work-in-progress feel like a shiny new idea when they’re hitting that that middle or that part where you’re just a little stuck?
Lydia: Yeah, that sort of smushy middle part which I’m kind of in the middle of right now. So that’s a really timely question for me because I, you know, when you get the shiny new idea and you’re like, oh this is fantastic. I love this idea and then when you actually to put the words paper words on your you know Scribner Word document or something like that and all of a sudden it just seems so flat on a page. And you’re like, wow this is just it feels very wrote. It feels very just connecting the dots and what where is the energy in this? First of all, you have to give yourself a break because chances are what you’re writing isn’t nearly as bad as you think it is because it will feel that way. So that’s one thing. Two is every time you have to write a chapter, every chapter is gonna have some glimpse into a reveal of some sort. Of the character, of the plot, a plot twist or sort of hinting at a plot twist. And you need to kind of get really excited about what am I going to kind of slowly open up my hands and reveal to the reader so that they get really excited about wait what is going on I just got thrown a left curve that kind of thing. But even when that doesn’t help, it’s very helpful to kind of go back to the original concept of the story. And what I wish I had it in front of me right now but what I sometimes do is I will take I have been using a program called Scapple, S-C-A-P-P-L-E lately and it’s a way of sort of making these bubbles of words that you can connect with these dotted lines. And I use them to make these sort of inspiration boards for characters and for the book that will have things like, you know, kind of the excitement level for the book. The tone of the book. Some images that I know I want people think of. You know, maybe a Gothic feel or that sort of menacing dark quality to your book. And I will look at that to remind myself like why I’m so excited about this book. Why did I fall in love with this idea to begin with. And I will print it out in color. And I will sort of keep it around my desk so I can look at it. And it helps energize me and remind me like why I felt so you know it kind of enamored with the story to begin with. Especially when you’re in that sort of Boggy middle where everything feels like a big soup of literary mistakes. But it does come out okay in the end.
Tara: So is each of your books based on the first shiny new idea you had for it?
Lydia: Yeah some of them came from a little bit more kind of blood sweat and tears of like trying to get a idea off the ground. Other ones were absolute shiny new ideas. So I would say all my young adult books. So Control was definitely a shiny new idea. And that was basically a concept of I’m gonna have a mutant bunch of teenagers with mutations that actually make sense that make biological sense. And I was I’m kind of fascinated by the concept of longevity and immortality and I knew I wanted to put that into the story. And so that was that shiny new idea. With The November Girl the shiny new idea was born from the love of this old song that I remembered from like the 70s or 80s called The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and they talked about the witch of November and these witches are these terrible storms that sink ships. And the shiny new idea was, what if the witch was a witch? What of the witch was a person? A teenage girl who could sink ships. And that was, that literally took me like a storm. I was like oh my god I have to write this book how to write this book. I wrote it quickly and easily and it just flowed for me. Because that was probably one of the most organic processes I ever had with writing a book. Where it was so easy to research. It was it was so easy to write. Every single paragraph was a joy for me.
Other ones, like Toxic that one just came out last month. So Toxic is the idea about a girl who lives in a biological ship and she the ship is dying and she is been created in secret. And she wakes up on the ship and realizes that everybody’s gone and the ship is dying which means she’s going to die. And I can’t remember exactly how I got the idea, but I remember thinking it would be really cool to be to have a spaceship that could think and feel and pulsate and interact with you but had feelings in a way that you maybe didn’t expect. And that kind of, that idea also that’s kind of where that one came from. And I was pretty, pretty excited about that one but I was really nervous about how to execute it. Other books of mine, A Beautiful Poison was a shiny new idea that was long and coming.
I worked in a hospital at Bellevue Hospital in New York City for a long time and I always knew that I was gonna put it in a book. I just didn’t know how. And then this is an example of actually when you read a book and you get a shiny new idea from reading something else. I was reading Deborah Blum’s The Poisoners Handbook which is a nonfiction book about the history of forensic chemistry in Jazz Age New York in like the early turn of the century. And I was learning about you, know like, methanol poisoning and cyanide poisoning and arsenic and all these horrible poisons. But at the, you know, this was right when they were just trying to figure out the chemistry behind how do these things actually get created. And I said, I’m gonna make this book take place during that time because I have to be able to sort of access this really cool part of history. It happened to be that the year that, you know that office got opened up was in 1918. Which is World War One. Which was the great influenza. Which was, you know, the end of World War One. Both of which were also super fascinating to me.
And so it was basically a triple whammy for me. I got the forensic chemistry out of it. I got the concept of the radium girls. One of the characters in the book is a radium girl. She’s slowly getting poisoned by the radium that she paints onto watch dials. I was fascinating by you know World War One. So all those three things came together. This is one of those things where I got an idea from another book. I had my shiny new idea. I had three characters. I had the setting. I knew it was gonna include the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. I knew it was gonna include the flu. I knew it was gonna include World War One. I had no plot. And so this was one where I had to really think think through. Like write everything down. Try to figure out like what is the plot. Like I think I literally typed or handwritten out. What is the plot? What is the plot? And you’re going to laugh but, in the end what I kind of ended up doing was I don’t know what to do. I’m just gonna kill somebody on the first page. And so that’s kind of what I did. And that’s actually how the book starts. And before I knew it, I was writing a murder mystery. it was kind of really my first murder mystery. It was my first adult book. It was my first historical book. And yeah I kind of joke about that now. It’s sort of like if you’ve got a great idea you don’t know what to just kill somebody on the first page because that’s what worked for me. So it’s not always gonna work for everybody. But it was great in my my case. So that’s kind of how it went. And that’s how my kind of career in adults murder mysteries kind of started. So sometimes those shiny new ideas turn into complete left turns in your writing career. It’s kind of interesting.
Tara: Now I know your agent had you discussed with your agent moving into new genres or was that?
Lydia: You know yes and no. I my so my agent is Eric Myers and I’ve had him since my very first book. And he has come to realize that I have a bit of a quirky imagination. That I am constantly making these left turns off of what I probably should be doing. I think the first time it happened like I came up with an idea for a middle-grade novel and he was also he and my editor at the time were sort of like you know you’re doing young adult science fiction let’s just sort of stay here for a little while before you just automatically start going somewhere else. Well I took their advice and that book just wasn’t really ready to be published anyway and I sort of set that aside. And then I wrote another one. That was also middle grade. And I’m like what am I doing? What am I, why is this happening? That one also wasn’t quite ready and then the book after that ended up being The November Girl which was not science fiction. It was like a literary fantasy. And at that point in time I think my agent was like, yeah let’s just go with it. Because I just couldn’t really control what I was falling in love with.
And I think that’s why not everybody’s gonna have a career like mine in writing. A lot of people are gonna be like, I am gonna do contemporary romance and that’s the only thing I’m going to do. Or I’m gonna do young adult science fiction and that’s all I’m gonna do. And I I just when I fall in love with a shiny new idea I kind of can’t help but write it. And so I have a couple ideas that are coming down the pike. And I have many, many other ideas that are sitting in that little writing folder in my email that are begging to be written at some point in time. But I’m not quite ready or I don’t have time. But as you can see sort of from the books that I write they are all over the place and I’m still ready to you know branch off and do other different things just because I personally don’t do well with writing things that I’m not really in love with. Which is why I have a lot of trouble with the whole saggy middle part. Like I I really need to energize myself and get my mood up to keep going because otherwise it gets really really hard to complete. But um yeah so my agent’s okay with it. He’s kind of realized, like okay, she loves it and her passion shows. Usually I can sell the book. So I kind of go with that.
Tara: N ow I know you said you’re drafting right now so not reading for fun.
Tara: Are there some fun things that you read before you started drafting?
Lydia: Oh gosh I’ve been doing a lot of nonfiction reading for this lately. So but I mean I have a couple of favorites. This past year I tried to read a lot more than usual. And so I got my hands on some things that I probably I really were on my list but I hadn’t read yet and they were fantastic. So um so I read like all of Celeste Ng’s novel. She’s an adult contemporary – she’s contemporary? She’s an adult novelist. She wrote was it called Little Fires Everywhere. It was it was so good. It had such a great energy but it was calm at the same time. But just full of some really terrific characters. And so I read like all her but once I read that I read her other one too and just loved her stuff. One of my friends recommended Star Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi. And that was particularly good for me to read because she has beautiful poetry-like prose. So beautiful and I am really really just enlivened by just gorgeous prose like that. So that was that actually sits on my desk. So every once in a while I’ll just flip a couple pages and read a few things here just to sort of remind me what beautiful writing is. And oh and then I read something that’s slightly out of my, I used to write a lot of poetry. And I used to read more poetry but I kind of haven’t in a couple years. And so I read The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo which was fantastic. It just sort of reminded me how much I loved poetry and you know novels in verse. It really had me sort of thinking outside the box a little bit about ideas and things like that. But so those are a couple things that I read. I was on a writing hiatus for like two three months and I read a ton early on in 2018. And so these were all some books that I read then. I was like oh my God these books are fantastic. So yeah, I’m gonna, I’m waiting till after I finished drafting and I think I’m gonna give myself a month and I’m just gonna read like you know 15 books in a month. Basically I can catch up.
Tara: Okay and then I know you said you’re working on your novel for I think 2020, is that right? And you also have a story coming out in an anthology in the fall of 2019?
Lydia: Yeah, I do and I we are oh my gosh we’re so excited about that story excuse me about that anthology. Eric Smith helped kind of put that together. Hold on, I got to put my dog down for a second. And that one was also really interesting for me to do because it was it was a short story and I’m not really that great with doing short stories in general. So it was a really really good exercise for me. So Sangu Mandanna put it together. Eric’s one who found me. and Sangu found me as well. And so it’s called Color Outside the Lines. And it’s actually an anthology about interracial relationships. So I’m totally excited about that it’s coming out in… Let me just see when is it actually coming out. Fall of 2019. So that one is gonna be out there soon. It was, the idea behind that one came from a fantasy story a fantasy novel that I have not written. But I kind of took a chunk of the concept and turned it into a short story. And at some point time I do want to turn it into a full novel. But that was so much fun. And it’s about a girl who lives inside the sort of walled place where her father works as a master poisoner and she stays within the walls. Because everybody outside, she is an immigrant. She and other immigrants to the country that they live in. And she makes friends with a boy through a hole in the wall. And that’s kind of what the story is about. So so much fun to write. Very, very challenging to write because short stories even though they are this big I usually need like a hundred thousand words to flesh out my idea. So just to be able to do it in less than like 4,000 or 3,000 words is really, really challenging for me. But I’m excited for that to come out too.
Tara: Great, well thank you so much for chatting with me today.
Lydia: Thank you for having me.