Inspiration and the “Yeah, but…”

PhotobucketTherese here. Today’s guest is debut author Mia March. Mia’s novel, The Meryl Streep Movie Club, seems to be taking over the world: It’s set to be translated in over *15* languages, and reviewers love it. Romantic Times called it “meaningful women’s fiction,” and said the sometimes (read: often) prickly Kirkus: a “heartwarming, spirit-lifting read just in time for beach season.” (Read the full review HERE.) What’s the book about?

Two sisters and the cousin they grew up with after a tragedy are summoned home to their family matriarch’s inn on the coast of Maine for a shocking announcement. Suddenly, Isabel, June, and Kat are sharing the attic bedroom–and barely speaking. But when innkeeper Lolly asks them to join her and the guests in the parlor for weekly Movie Night–it’s Meryl Streep month–they find themselves sharing secrets, talking long into the night–and questioning everything they thought they knew about life, love, and one another.

Each woman sees her complicated life reflected through the magic of cinema: Isabel’s husband is having an affair, and an old pact may keep her from what she wants most . . . June has promised her seven-year-old son that she’ll somehow find his father, who he’s never known . . . and Kat is ambivalent about accepting her lifelong best friend’s marriage proposal. Through everything, Lolly has always been there for them, and now Isabel, June, Kat–and Meryl–must be there for her. Finding themselves. Finding each other. Finding a happy ending.

I’m thrilled she’s with us today to talk about igniting the idea for a novel until it’s a full-bodied flame of possibility. Enjoy!

Inspiration and the “Yeah, but…”

Six years ago, when I was going through a divorce, I rented a bunch of Meryl Streep movies from Blockbuster (remember video stores?) and spent a sad-sack weekend on my couch with tissues and popcorn. Heartburn made me laugh for the first time in months. Out of Africa reminded me to strive. And movie after movie, I couldn’t help remembering a Thanksgiving years before, when my mother and grandmother, who weren’t getting along, joined me to watch The Bridges of Madison County. The discussion that film engendered afterward changed everything; we talked—and very openly—when we weren’t talking at all two hours earlier. Flash forward to the Meryl Streep marathon and an idea: a novel about a fractured family of women, watching Meryl Streep movies and how discussing the films might change their perspectives, their relationships, open up their views about their lives. I emailed a writer friend with my idea, and she wrote back, “Who doesn’t love Meryl Streep? But, to be honest, it sounds kind of gimmicky.”

Yeah, I guess, I remember thinking, inspiration deflating. Gimmicky. Gimmicky is bad. Gimmicky is reliance on something other than story, something other than character. It’s using and phony baloney. But I couldn’t stop thinking about those women. And the story I imagined writing didn’t feel gimmicky to me; it felt like a story about characters, about family and estrangements, and how people find their way back to one another.

I sat down with the laptop and let myself write without worrying; I just wrote to see what would come out. I knew in my heart of hearts that what I had, the story I wanted to tell, was special to me, filled me with questions that I wanted to answer. To me, that’s what makes inspiration novel-worthy, what makes it worth the ups and down, triumphs and tribulations, joy and torture of writing a book. While I was writing, I kept thinking: if I take away the “gimmick,” the frame work of Meryl Streep movies, do I still have a solid story? Are the characters dependent on that framework, or do they have their own force?

“Yeah, but if you took away the framework of Meryl Streep movies,” my friend wrote back when I emailed excitedly that I’d written the first five chapters, “would anyone in the publishing business—let alone readers—be interested?” I have some tough writer friends. When it comes to the subject of writing, sometimes those tough friends are great; sometimes they’re not thinking of me or the pages I’ve shown them at all. This, I’ve come to learn, is when you really have to trust your gut.

Questions posed are just that. Questions posed. And the answers are going to be as individual as we are as writers. Now that I’d written those first several chapters, now that the story was alive in my head, heart, mind, and soul, I knew the answer to my friend’s question was: I sure as hell hope so. Because this is the story I want to tell. The way I want to tell it. And that’s what matters.

PhotobucketI’ve been thinking a lot lately about inspiration, since it’s always a question writers are asked. Inspiration, to me, is a light—from the barest flicker to full out fire. What inspires you can be as wispy as a vague memory, a feeling, a mood, to something you see that sends you racing for your writer’s notebook, the back of an envelope, your laptop. It means something to you, gets you excited, and there’s a story inside it, a story to grow from it. I love the millions of possibilities for inspiration—as varied as writers are. Two writers will look at a child’s balloon floating up and away and see two very different stories in it. But many times, in writers groups I’ve belonged to over the years, I’ve heard/read a writer say to another: “Yeah, but, will that idea/plot/structure really attract an agent/editor/readers?”

The way my friend (who meant well) deflated me at just a two-line description of my own inspiration for a novel and then (almost) again when I mentioned I’d written fifty pages, I wonder how many other writers are discouraged from pursuing what inspires them. Too quiet. Too gimmicky. Too outrageous. Too sad. Not realistic. Too realistic. And on and on. Because there’s only one person who can judge whether your inspiration is truly novel-worthy: you.

Have you ever been discouraged by well-meaning friends/family about your ideas for your work with a “yeah, but?” Has it kept you from pursuing a particular idea, or have you forged ahead?

Readers, you can learn more about Mia and her debut, The Meryl Streep Movie Club, on her website, and by following her on Twitter and Facebook. Write on!

Photo courtesy Flickr’s egor.gribanov

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Comments

  1. says

    Mia, your excellent post (about your excellent-sounding book) twanged a resonate string with me. Full disclosure: I have had serious disappointment with ‘writers’ groups’, the kind that lets you read a sample and then elicits comment. I have found the comments mostly driven by perceived need to contribute — mostly with either line editing or half-baked suggestions for disruptive change — with little forethought. They are, by nature, snap judgements. I have concluded that the correct response is to say, ‘um, that’s interesting, let me think about that’, make a note and give it serious thought later. Here is where you must consult your ‘gut’. Will the suggestion improve the story I am trying to put across or just change it?

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    • says

      Thank you, Alex! I completely agree that the “um, that’s interesting, let me think about that,” is THE perfect answer–to just about everything, solicited or unsolicited advice.

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  2. says

    Love this, Mia. My book club just had the pleasure of having Erik Larson over to dinner (to discuss his book, In the Garden of Beasts). He told us that he never, never, never shares the idea of his WIP, for the very reason you mention: people’s reactions can deflate us.

    Heck, even Erik Larson can feel deflated by the comment of another! So he has figured out that if he trusts his gut and his passion and his curiosity, things will turn out OK. And so far, I’d say he’s right!

    Thanks for reminding us that there’s a time to listen to others and a time to trust our guts.

    Congrats on the wild success of your gut!

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    • says

      Oooh, Sarah, I’m glad you reminded me that I’ve been meaning and meaning to read In The Garden of Beasts. I’ve had that on my radar for the longest time.

      It took me so long to trust my gut, but I’ve come to realize it’s the best way for me to make a decision if there’s wobblyness (read: dissenting comments from others) involved. :)

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  3. says

    Not only do I want to read the book, Mia, I want to follow your advice. Well-meaning friends and associates can deflate our inspiration in a heartbeat. Thanks for sharing your view of that. Congratulations on your success! I look forward to The Meryl Streep Movie Club.

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  4. ABE says

    Not so much discouragement, but a distinct and notable lack of enthusiasm from the writing partner as the pages accumulated, over YEARS, into a story.

    A sense that the subject matter, an obsession, was somehow not worthy of being written about.

    The result: a very strong desire to publish under a pseudonym – because the story will not be denied, but what will people think?

    And a very active doubt that creeps back in and has to be periodically rooted out when it stops progress.

    The solution has been to go back and read said pages – I never fail to get re-enthused and dragged back into the story.

    But enthusiasm from those whose opinions matter would have been nice.

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    • says

      ABE, that’s the toughest–when the person’s opinion really matters to you, and you get deflated. I think Keith’s response below speaks beautifully to this: that READERS more than WRITERS might be helpful to bounce ideas/pages off of. It’s such a good point that a writer will focus on “this/thats” in terms of feedback when a reader likely would not. I do hope you find your way back to your story!!

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      • ABE says

        Thanks!
        My beta readers (non-writer types) have a disconcerting habit of disappearing – they roll along for a while, giving occasional feedback (quite useful), and then claim that LIFE interferes, and they’ll get back to it… Or they will start reading once they have a minute…
        I know that slogging along, toiling in obscurity with the mainstream novel is practically a cliche. And meanwhile, the short stories get finished, and the play goes out, articles get written, and revisions to the mystery novel get added to the notebooks.
        The next plan is to put IT out, serialized, on a website – and see what comments it attracts – as each chapter gets its final polish (final – ha!). Which requires mastering the art of running a website and allowing comments (all doable in good time).
        I’m not really deterred – the friends and family, and even the writing partner, don’t read mainstream as their first preference. I need to find my tribe – maybe the web is the way to find those who think like me.
        A little courage, and a little research to create a website and/or blog which won’t distract by being hacked – and voila.
        This will get finished, even if there is only a single copy, bound in leather, for the author.

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  5. says

    I think you created an awesome construct for your novel, and clearly your readers agree. I notice that in this case, your “yeah, but” came from a writer. Not a typical reader.

    That’s why I find it crucial to also bounce my stuff off people who simply like to read good books, who aren’t aware of – and thus hung up on – the things that “serious” writers worry about, like tense, high-concept, loglines, adverbs, platform, POV, or whatever. These readers simply want a good story.

    Sounds like you’ve got a great story on your hands – kudos for rising above the “yeah, but!” And frankly I’d be surprised if any “civilians” (i.e., non-writers) thought your construct was gimmicky. Instead, it would give them an instant frame of reference. Hell, to me your construct is one of those “why didn’t *I* think of that?” concepts, which makes me more envious than skeptical. :)

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    • says

      LOL, thank you, Keith! Your is such a good point about the difference between how writers and “civilians” might approach feedback. I didn’t even think of that. I always bounce stuff off my writer friends and NEVER my non-writer friends/family, when I have huge, diverse readers around me. You opened my eyes!

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  6. says

    I have definitely learned that you never, never, never want to talk about the idea for a novel before you write it. It’s so fragile at that stage, like a tiny dandelion seed that the slightest gust of wind can blow away. And as Winnie the Pooh once wisely said, “A thing that seems very thing-ish inside you seems quite different when it’s out in the open and other people are looking at it.”

    Congrats on your debut, Mia! Can’t wait to check out your book, it sounds amazing!

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  7. says

    A potent reminder! I’ve been sidetracked far too many times after sharing ideas with friends and family — and what’s even harder is THEN hearing about a wildly successful book that was extremely similar to the idea I never pursued. As you say, there’s only one person who can truly decide if an idea is worth pursuing. That said, your idea sounds amazing–as does your book!–and I can’t wait to read it!

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    • says

      I know just what you mean about hearing about a bestseller with a similar idea to one you didn’t pursue for this or that reason. Now that I’m revising my next book, I’ve discovered that I’m giving myself much more freedom to do what I want, to heck with the “rules” or what I might have nixed as too this or that before.

      Thanks, Julia!

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  8. says

    I hate that the “yeah, but” seems to always come from within. And I tend to listen. I hate it, because I am beginning to sense how it has held me back all these years.

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    • says

      Yup, Justin, I think we can be our own worst “yeah, butters.” I’m working on that double-time now, trying to turn off the inner critic. It’s hard, though!

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  9. says

    This part – okay, one of many parts of this post! – resonated with me – “Questions posed are just that. Questions posed.” It doesn’t mean I have to change my idea or even to defend it to the death. I should just use the questions that come up to think, to consider, to look at the idea from another angle. The questions themselves aren’t good or bad – they just are. It’s my response, my reaction to them, and then what I do with my idea that’s important. :)

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    • says

      Madeline, it’s taken me so long to realize that about the questions just being questions. Food for thought (or junk food, sometimes), something to think about, or not. When I was trying to write in my 20s, I had so much trouble understanding that the questions didn’t always need or warrant answers!

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  10. says

    Love this! I’ve done the movie-marathon-after-a-breakup thing (haven’t we all?) so I definitely want to read your book. I’ve also had ideas that I’ve dismissed as gimicky without following through to find the story there. Good on you for following through!

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  11. says

    I shared the idea for my latest book with someone and although she was wisely supportive of it, I began to doubt myself. I am my own worst critic. It has been hard to revive the spark and find direction. I still believe the idea has merit but it’s a case of trying to feel the passion once again, now that I have exposed it to scrutiny.

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    • says

      Leanne, I’ve definitely learned that I can’t show my work to anyone until it’s finished or I can be derailed for weeks. Maybe a week or two away and reading your WIP with your own fresh eyes will help? I hope so!

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  12. says

    Mia!

    What a great post. It is so easy to squash those budding ideas. I agree with Keith — why didn’t I think of that idea? But I’m glad you did and were able to execute it. I do have to share with you how close this premise is to me. My mother died in October and ever since I’ve been Netflixing the whole catalog of the sitcom Frasier. Thank goodness there are so many episodes. I’m on the last year of episodes and I finally feel better about facing the world. Kudos to you for sticking with your gut. I would never be published if I listened to the critics!

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    • says

      Letty, I’m so sorry about your loss. Isn’t it amazing how we can find solace and comfort in a particular show/movie? When I was very young I used to watch reruns of The Honeymooners with my grandmother, and when she passed away, I did a Honeymooners marathon and it felt like a tribute somehow.

      And thanks for your kind comments!

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  13. says

    Oh such a helpful blog and all the comments as well. I am doing a creative writing PhD and my story has gone through about seven drastic changes because of comments from supervisors and annual progress review panel members. I have stopped writing completely while I try to figure out if changing a baddie to a goodie and removing a murder plot (as suggested by two of these) will improve or flatten my next draft!

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    • says

      Oh Alison, that must be hard–so many different voices! Sounds like you have a great handle on stepping back and deciding what’s right for your work. Good luck!!

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  14. says

    Great timing for me, Mia! I have two new ideas for novels, have latched onto one and am just going to GO FOR IT. I’ve found that our ideas evolve and change, and therefore, so do our stories. For me, I have a seeds and until they really start sprouting, I don’t really know if I’ll end up with a flower or a weed. And I think that sometimes those wildflowers we see are actually weeds, aren’t they?

    I’m always eager to share my WIP ideas but don’t do it, except for one or two people. I do like to brainstorm, and that’s always easier if I’m not just talking to myself. ;-)

    Happy to read another great Mia post!!

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    • says

      Thank you, dear Amy!

      I’ve found that I love brainstorming with my agent and that she really enjoys that process too (which saves me a lot of grief/work down the road since she’s there from the get-go). She’s a great weeder for me!

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  15. says

    I really enjoyed this post. I’ve learned the hard way to follow Stephen King’s advice to write with the door shut.

    I admire you for staying determined and loyal to your vision of the story. Best of luck with your release–though it doesn’t sound like you need it!

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    • says

      Thanks, Sheri! I need all the good wishes I can possibly get. :) P.S. I love Stephen King’s On Writing book. I reread it at least once a year.

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  16. says

    You wouldn’t believe how timely this post is for me. I just received developmental edits and comments on my YA novel manuscript. The story is set in 1992. It’s what I wanted to write and what inspired me. But if I don’t set it in modern times, I risk not attracting agents/publishers/captive readers. I really don’t know what to do, but I know that at the moment, I cringe at the thought of setting it in modern times. Thanks for this post.

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  17. Kim M says

    Your book just made it to the TOP of my Reading List!

    Your post is so inspirational! I am currently working through the editing of my first novel and ‘yeah, but’ is sometimes all I think I hear! But, you are so right! You have to stay true to yourself, to your story, to your characters and the rest will follow.

    When I read your synopsis I felt that pange in my gut. The pange I get when I really want to read a book. My eyes welled with little tears! I already care about those women and I’ve yet to meet them!

    Thank you so much! I can’t wait to read your book!

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  18. says

    I loved this post.

    Some instinct always made me refrain from sharing novel ideas too early – except for my mother, who has this knack of saying (instead of “yeah, but…”) “yes, and do you know what I love best in this?” And this is great feedback, because it doesn’t deflate anything and, at the same time, points me towards strong points – and conversely, potential weak points.

    It is unvaluable to me, because I have been known to get carried away by the fire of first enthusiasm and a weakness for historical and literary complications…

    With very rare exceptions, Mother offers just the right amount of sane perspective, with no “yeah, but…” moments.

    I guess I am very lucky…

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