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Where do book ideas come from? There’s a different answer for every writer, I’m sure. Personal experience, stories they heard, newspaper articles, TV shows, random thoughts, each and every one of these is no doubt the genesis of a myriad of novels. My own are often a mix of the above, pieces of ideas I’ve had sometimes for years that coalesced at some point and got written.

But when you do get that idea, how do you know if it’s something you should write? I’ve come to think of those ideas, the ones that should be written, as StickyTM. Not like the mess your children leave behind after being fed, but sticky in the brain. An idea that won’t let you go, that you can’t move on from. One that haunts your dreams and your quiet times, that demands to be told.

Why? Well, there are a lot of reasons. The first that comes to mind is the sheer amount of time you need to spend on any given book that you write. I’m a fast writer, and usually write a novel a year. What that means in practice is that I spend two years on the book, at least, between my drafting, editorial changes, copy edits and proofreads. That’s a LOT of time to spend on an idea that wouldn’t otherwise stay with you.

On a related note, it’s also a book that you’re going to read more times than you’d like. I don’t know about you, but I don’t usually read a book 6-10 times in a two-year period no matter how good it is. But that’s what’s involved when you publish. What that means in practice is that there are NO twists and turns while you read, nothing that takes you by surprise or that you didn’t see coming. All you see are the flaws, the things that still need to be fixed, the overused phrases and words and ideas in your own work (he smiled, he laughed, he turned, he looked, he walked — GAH!).

Now imagine if you’ve gone to all the trouble of writing an idea that you weren’t that into?

Sticky ideas are also motivating to writers. For instance, Elyssa Friedland (The Floating Feldmans and The Last Summer at the Golden Hotel), says that she “feels a certain excitement in my fingertips when I’m writing an idea that has sticking power. Bursts of inspiration come to me—characters spring alive, plot points materialize out of thin air.”

But how do you know if an idea is sticky? For Emily Carpenter (Reviving the Hawthorn Sisters) it can mean leaving an idea alone. “When I have an idea I think is good, I won’t write it down. I feel like if it’s a viable idea—an actual book—it’ll stay with me. It’s like that inspirational poster ‘if you love something set it free.’”

Rachel Stuhler (Absolutely True Lies), knows she has “to write a book when the characters begin to live in my head like oddly persistent invisible friends.”

Which brings me to another point—some would say the most important, though not me. If the idea is StickyTM to you, it has a better chance of being sticky to others. But how do you know if it is?

Luckily, this is something you can try out. Work on your two-to-three-line pitch (or even one line if that’s possible) and try it out on the people around you. Do their faces light up? Do they smile politely? Writing for others is not something that I advocate, but if it’s of no interest to others, it’s probably going to be a hard thing to sell no matter how well it’s executed. Think about what makes you pick up a book in the first place. Cover, sure, but then you read the back cover copy, right? You look for that sentence or two that tells you what it’s about. And if it’s something that appeals to you—if it’s StickyTM—then you might click to buy or put it in your basket. That’s a decision that happens all along the publishing line, starting with getting an agent.

So, the next time you get an idea for a book, give it some time. Figure out if it’s StickyTM, or something that lacks adhesive. Write the StickyTM one.

What makes a story sticky for you–as a writer, and as a reader?

Write on.


About Catherine McKenzie

A graduate of McGill University in History and Law, Catherine McKenzie practices law in Montreal, where she was born and raised. An avid skier and runner, Catherine is the author of 11 bestselling novels, including HIDDEN, THE GOOD LIAR, I’LL NEVER TELL and YOU CAN’T CATCH ME. Her most recent novel, SIX WEEKS TO LIVE, releases in Canada April 20 and the US May 4, 2021.


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