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Planting the Magic Beans of Story

Tonight, I watched the latest episode of Outlander.  It’s an intense, powerfully romantic story and this particular stretch is painful.  But I, along with millions and millions of others, am riveted, as deeply invested in what happens to these two as if they are my best friends. Or… really, me.

I spent the summer watching Game of Thrones. Yelling at the television, laughing too loudly, crying my eyes out. If there is a series I’ve loved better than this, I don’t know what it is.

Me, and about twenty billion other viewers and readers.

Amazing, isn’t it?  That a story, a story, has the ability to stop the actual culture, organize so very many of us into a single activity.  We forget about bills, the politics of the moment, the trouble with our parents, the annoying boss, and for a single hour, we are united and unified in our passion for this….


How does that happen?  How does a story take over everything? Everything? An entire culture?

I have no idea. I mean, I’d do it if I knew how.  All of us would.

That is not what this column is about.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Elizabeth Gilbert talk about Eat Pray Love. She had no idea, writing it, that it would become what it has. She just needed to write about the things weighing on her heart.  What happened had very little to do with her and her ideas and everything to do with a magic something that anoints a book and sets it alive in the world.  She said “I had no idea what five million readers looks like.  I still don’t, but…fly, little book, fly!”

It stuck with me. Fly little book, fly!

She didn’t do anything to make that happen.  Except one quite singular thing: she wrote the book.  She allowed the idea to come, planted the magic bean and did what she could to help it grow. She watered it with research, staked it with good craft and editing—and then she set it free into the world.

Just as Gabaldon and Martin did.

There’s nothing miraculous—and everything miraculous– about that. It’s as ordinary as oatmeal, and yet, it’s the way all great stories begin–with the writer giving space and time to an idea. It begins with you.  With me. With each of us showing up for the ideas that inflame us. Ideas that might, one day, inflame the world, stories that might still be read a hundred years from now…or five hundred.  I mean, really, Shakespeare was just a guy, this writer, who had a real knack for getting those magic bean ideas. Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  

How do you recognize such genius ideas, these magic beans?  How do you write those ideas instead of the other ones, the not-so-genius ones?

I’m sorry to say you can’t.  Much of it happens in the gestalt of the world at the moment of the book’s arrival.  The legend goes that Gabaldon’s first book, Outlander, was published to a lot of yawns—until some smart publicist got the idea of giving it away at the Romance Writer’s of America conference. A book in every bag, which wasn’t done much back then. It was the right crowd at the exact right moment, and the book caught fire.

If that had not happened, if the book had not become a sensation, would it have been less of a book? Less of a genius idea?

Of course not.

I’ve been writing a long time, and the truth is, I can’t predict, at all, which books will take off and which ones will sit over in the corner communing with a handful of devoted readers. Sometimes it’s possible to see in retrospect that a title was off or a cover, but more often, it’s a matter of timing. My first historical was a book called A Bed of Spices. [1]It’s quite a dark romantic story set in medieval Germany just before the outbreak of plague (I kinda have a thing for The Black Death—it’s just fascinating how it swept through and so completely shifted everything). I loved the book so much, was so proud of it.  I had a great quote from Susan Wiggs. It had a decent cover and—well. It maybe sold 17 copies.

But it attracted a serious group of readers. Devoted readers, who kept it just barely alive until the time, nearly two decades later, when I could publish it myself as backlist.

Where it has sold tens of thousands of copies. Tens of thousands. That’s not five million, but it’s a lot of books.

It didn’t suddenly become a better book.  The timing was right the second time around. Readers are more willing to venture afield and take a chance on a less mainstream romance.  Tastes change.

What good does that do you?  You’re probably still thinking that there must be some way you can up the chances of writing something that becomes wildly successful.   

There is one thing: write your stories. Dive all the way into your own voice, your truest stories, your most beloved themes and ideas. Madeline L’Engle says when ideas come to us, asking for our attention, asking to “be enfleshed,” we have an obligation to show up and do that. Write that story, the one that came to us.

The fact that we are writers means that we hold all those magic beans right in the center of our beings. All of us, at every moment, has the potential to change the world forever—not for the sake of ego or money or fame, although those things are really quite nice in their own way—but for the sake of the world.  How much pleasure and joy have Martin and Gabaldon given us? How many many many hours of engagement and enjoyment have been added to the sum of the world by the fact that these writers, when a book arrived to be enfleshed, simply said, “yes”?

Plant some beans, say yes, and never underestimate the possibilities that live in each story you nuture into life. Whichever idea you choose, give it all you have.  You never know which one will be the magic one.

What do you think makes a magic bean of a story? IS it predictable?  Can we increase our chances by doing something or another? 

Photo by Daniel Hjalmarsson [2] on Unsplash [3]

About Barbara O'Neal [4]

Barbara O'Neal [5] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [6], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [7].