Author Monique Polak visited Vancouver Island not long ago and I was lucky enough to hear her speak. Polak, who is also a college teacher, is the talented author of 17 books for teens, an active freelance journalist, and she’s a dynamic presenter too. The night she spoke to the Victoria Literature Roundtable, she focused on writing for teens. She shared with us how she began her journey, some of the challenges she faced, and what it takes to get to the final draft. Much of what she said resonated deeply. I wasn’t the only author in the audience and most of us nodded our heads more than once.
And when she mentioned the tingle, there was a collective nod from every writer there.
She was talking about the tingle that comes after hearing or seeing something and then asking: ‘what if?’ Like the time Monique heard a local mayor angrily stating that they’d find the person responsible for the acts of arson plaguing their community no matter what it took and ‘that person would pay dearly.’ Hearing that, Monique immediately thought ‘what if the arsonist is his son?’ That’s when she felt the tingle. And the goosebumps rising on her arms or the shiver going down her spine is Monique’s signal that there’s a story to be told. A story she has to tell. It may not be what the publishers are looking for or a topic that’s particularly in vogue, but it’s the starting gate that she’s meant to walk through on her next writing adventure. That incident, by the way, led Monique to write Pyro.
When it comes to the tingle, I’m exactly the same. Whether it’s a conversation I overhear while I’m at the dentist, a piece of trivia I read on a sign outside a provincial park, a few lines in a newspaper story, or even the sight of an owl perching in my pear tree at dusk when I let the dogs out after dinner, the creative wheel starts to turn. If I feel the tingle, I know I have a story idea.
That tingle is more than a clue. It’s an ignition switch, if you will. Kindling to kick start the process. Properly fed and fanned and stoked, that tingle will, with luck, build to a flame that will burn as long as it takes to get the story down, and revise, and revise again.
It takes enthusiasm and optimism to start a novel. It takes a great deal of sustained energy to finish one. And when you start with the tingle, you have much better odds of making it to the end.