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December 5, 2011

Dyan Sheldon on a Writer's Inspiration

Posted by Katherine

Dyan Sheldon is an American novelist, who has written for adults, children and young adults. Originally from Brooklyn, she resides in London and has written a number of young adult novels as well as many picture books in a variety of genres. Her young adult science-fiction novel Perfect was published under the name "D. M. Quintano", as it was a departure from her usual style. Dyan Sheldon's novel Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, a #1 New York Times bestseller, was made into a movie of the same name by Disney in 2004, starring Lindsay Lohan. Here she talks about how she comes up with ideas for her novels.

Many people think that writers only write when they’re inspired. If they ask how the book’s going and you moan or bang your head against the nearest wall, they say, “What? Not feeling inspired?” This reaction makes it sound as if we sit around in the creative equivalent of waiting to be struck by lightening. I’m not saying that writers are never inspired. But just as some people are, unfortunately, struck by lightening, most aren’t.

So if most writers aren’t visited regularly by Book Angels who whisper in their ears, “Hey, I know what would make a really good story…” where do we get our ideas from? For me, the answer to that question comes in two parts. The first part is: I absolutely remember the very second the idea for every novel I ever wrote came to me. The second part is: I don’t have a clue; you might as well ask my cat.

I’ll use my latest book, THE CRAZY THINGS GIRLS DO FOR LOVE, as an example of how I know and don’t know where my ideas come from. In the past, I’ve gotten ideas from news stories, from something I saw, from something someone told me, from really liking motorcycles, and, once, from a family member who happened to say, “If I ever write a book about so-and-so, I’m going to call it CONFESSIONS OF A TEENAGE DRAMA QUEEN” (and I thought: what a great title, I can’t let it go to waste). But with CRAZY THINGS, the germ of the idea came from my editor. My editor said, “Have you ever thought of writing a funny green book?” Meaning not the color, but about protecting the environment, of course. As it happens, I’m very interested in protecting the environment, and I do try to write funny books. So I nodded the way one does when someone’s encouraging you to write something, and murmured that that sounded like a possibility, and I went home to think about it. That’s part one, the part I know about.

But suggesting that someone write “a funny green book” isn’t really handing them an idea. It’s pointing them towards an idea. Which brings us to part two, the part I don’t know about. The part that happened after I got home and started thinking about what would actually be in this book. I needed some characters. I needed them to interact and have some reason for interacting. I needed things to happen. And I needed at least some of what happened to involve trying to save what’s left of the Earth. But it had to be funny. In my experience, there are two sections to a writer’s brain. One section worries about language, grammar, gathering concrete information (what’s in that bottle of shampoo, for instance), and that kind of thing; the other does all the hard stuff. Like creating the characters and setting them in motion. And it does it fairly independently from the section of my brain that is washing the dishes or wrestling with the subjunctive tense.