Jump to content

Recommended Posts


I’ve gotten a spark for story ideas a lot of ways. When I was writing short stories for my MFA workshops, I used to get inspiration from song lyrics—so many songs are three-minute novellas of sorts, and I tried to take my own spin on what they could mean. (I remember I transformed Nada Surf’s Blizzard of 77 into a story about someone who’d lost a love one during the 9/11 attacks and was planning to run the Greenland marathon, which I’m almost positive wasn’t what the band was going for.) For Pretty Little Liars, I took inspiration from some of my favorite books—The Secret History, I Know What You Did Last Summer—as well as the show Twin Peaks and old Hitchcock movies. For my adult novel, The Elizas, I was very inspired by the old movie Sunset Boulevard and for The Heiresses, I heavily researched everything about the Kennedy curse. It was fun to take something I was fascinated with or deeply loved and put my own spin on it.

But with my latest novel, Wait For Me, the spark of the idea came to me a bit differently—it was given to me. Through mutual friends, I was introduced to Kevin Williamson (Scream and Dawson’s Creek!) and Julie Plec (Vampire Diaries), whom I’d admired for a long time. Julie and Kevin sometimes partnered up as writers, and they told me that they’d worked on a feature film pitch a while back but hadn’t quite cracked it—maybe the idea could be transformed into a novel?

I read the pitch and thought it was really interesting—it was about lost love, deep love, and reincarnation. It wasn’t the sort of thing I usually wrote, but I said I could give it a try. I really wanted to make it work for them. I was, after all, a huge fan.

For a while, I tried to write pages of a novel based on the exact story in the pitch, along with its same characters and setting. I felt so privileged to have been given the opportunity in the first place that it didn’t feel right to change their idea. But when I showed the pages to my agent, she told me what I already suspected—the pages didn’t really have “life” yet, and the characters weren’t very well-drawn. I went back to work, thinking that maybe if I made the story about teenagers instead, maybe the pages would have more of a voice. But again, my agent said, “I have no idea how I would sell this.” I think that was agent-speak for “these pages are really terrible, sorry.”

The truth was, I hadn’t connected to the characters yet. I didn’t know them or what they wanted. This isn’t necessarily because the idea was given to me from someone else. When I first started out writing professionally, I worked as a ghostwriter, writing books with other people’s names on them or based on other people’s ideas. It was a great learning experience—I was challenged to write an entire novel, work on a deadline, figure out dialogue, outline the plot, experience what it’s like to receive an edit letter and revise, and I got paid for it. Despite the plot coming from someone else, though, I always tried hard to connect to the characters. It was the only way I could write them convincingly and create a story that worked.

Sometimes it’s hard to connect to a character. Even if I fill out tons of worksheets about a character’s likes and dislikes, their backstory, quirks, and emotional wounds, it sometimes isn’t enough. In this case, I had to get more personal about who these characters were—especially the main character, Casey, who narrates the story. I’d started to think about her attending NYU, just like I had. This led me to think of my time at NYU in general—did I have any experiences that could connect to Casey’s story of feeling like she has it all but something feels “off”? I realized that maybe I did. When I was a freshman, I felt on top of the world—I was going to this college I loved, I had great friends, I was happy. But suddenly, the spring semester of my freshman year, I started to feel…strange. Like I wasn’t in my body anymore, like I was just sort of floating through life but totally disconnected. I had chronic headaches and malaise, too, but when I went to the health center, they said I was fine. I didn’t feel fine, though. I didn’t feel like myself.

And yet, no one really believed me when I insisted that something was wrong. I’d suffered for many months, and no one really heard my complaints—on the outside, I seemed perfectly functional. I was still going to class. I was still hanging out with friends. I was even still exercising. I didn’t feel quite like me…but how to explain that? Anyway, I got to thinking about this time in my life when I was writing Casey. In the novel, she also feels like she’s living outside her body. Except in her case, she’s hearing an inner voice telling her that she choices she’s making are wrong. But when she tries to tell people this…they tell her it’s all in her head. Or worse.

And there! I had my way in to understanding who Casey was!

I was able to connect with Casey because I knew what it was like to not be believed. I also got to live out some fantasies through her, including Casey running away from school for a little while and holing up in a remote beach town at the edge of Long Island so she could sort out her thoughts. I would have loved to do that when I was going through my issues…but, well, I was afraid to. Anyway, once I cracked Casey, and what she was about, and how I could connect with her, the rest of the story fell into place. Casey’s struggles very different than mine, and she goes on a much bigger adventure. But they were also the same at their core. I was finally able to create a story based on the feature film pitch that I felt inspired about…and, in turn, that worked.

Inspiration is something I’ve really thought more carefully about in the past few years. Maybe because of the pandemic, and how fleeting and fragile life seems these days—I’ve realized how important it is to feel inspired by something and how feeling uninspired will show on the page. There’s so much value in finding connection to the characters and story you’re writing about—otherwise, what’s the point? Writing should be passionate, fulfilling, and also fun. In my case, I got to work through the emotions and psychology those strange, foggy, depersonalized months of the spring of my freshman year with Wait For Me, and that feels like an added bonus. Maybe writing is therapy after all!

Never did figure out what was making me sick that freshman spring, though. The working theory is that it was some environmental allergen in the dorm room…but who really knows? Guess that’s a mystery for another book.



View the full article

Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Replies 0
  • Created
  • Last Reply

Top Posters In This Topic

Popular Days

Top Posters In This Topic

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.



WTF is Wrong With Stephen King?

  • Create New...