Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

The Story of Powerless, Part I

Several weeks back, I received a pretty good (4 star) review on Literary Titan. When Lisa sent me the copy of the review, she also told me they were interested in doing an interview, would I like to answer a few questions? My, “Hell, YEAH!” could probably be heard all across the county.

The interview ran on Monday. You can read it here. The hardest part was not the questions, really, it was not going overboard and giving them multi- multi-paragraph answers. Probably the hardest to keep short was the first: “What was the inspiration for the setup of your story?” Somehow, I managed to keep it to two paragraphs. That means it’s a bit glossed over. The blog, however, gives me the opportunity to expound a bit, so here goes:

The basic answer is true: I was playing chauffeur in a hurricane and a thought came to me: “What if I couldn’t get my daughter?” This question was followed almost immediately by two others:

                        “Oh, that would be horrible!”

                        “OH! That would make a great story!”

(Note these thoughts were so close together they were almost a blur, and I’m still not sure if they came from two separate areas of my brain or from the same place)

The thought, “What if I couldn’t get my daughter?” was both horrible and compelling: Horrible should it become reality, compelling so long as it stayed in the world of fiction. It made me want to go home and write, though by the time I got home the power was out and we may or may not have been checking our basement for flooding (our basement generally stays dry, though it’s never been quite the same after the flood of 2006), so there was no immediate writing to be done.

There were two other issues that kept me from working on what eventually became Powerless right away. The first was that I was chin deep in another project, one that I naively believed was my debut novel/first bestseller. Let it be said that while I can walk and chew gum at the same time with the best of them, I have yet to figure out how to chew two pieces of gum at the same time without having them end up in one big, jawbreaking mess. Out of necessity, the shiny new thing was relegated to the back room. Once in a while, when I had put the “debut bestseller” to sleep for the day I would let the shiny new idea into the front room and consider it. No writing, mind you, I would just sort of hold it up to the light and turn it this way and that, mainly to get the sense of it. And that led to the second problem that I mentioned in the interview: I just didn’t like it. All I could ever really see of the story was my main character swashbuckling like Indiana Jones through a flood-ravaged community: paddling the waters in an ersatz canoe, swinging across roaring chasms on dead power lines, running on rooftops. Compelling imagery, and the basic idea still grabbed me, but it just wasn’t me.

Brief digression time: writers in the room will recognize this bit of writerly advice that is freely dispensed in the books, blogs and forums by other writers: “Write the story you want to read.” I’d been hearing that for a while and I’ll be honest, it always kind of confused me. I’m a person who likes to read just about everything. Horror? Check. “Fine literature”? Check. Thrillers? Fantasy? Crime? Check, check, check. How do you write the story you want to read when you want to read just about everything? End digression.

A few weeks after I finished my “debut bestseller” I had invited the shiny new idea full-time into the front room and was still frustrated. On one Sunday afternoon I was picturing this family at their dinner table. I could see them, husband and wife, and I could see the empty place setting where their daughter should have been. They missed her. They were frightened. They wondered if she was okay and what was happening at the home where their daughter was—and there it was, the story I wanted to read. Not an action-packed adventure tale, no. The story I wanted to read was about the family that was facing some grave crisis. A crisis that changed their lives and forced them to scrape and claw for their very survival—and they had an extra mouth to feed. What would that do to the family dynamic? Thatwas the story I wanted to read, and that was the story I wanted to write, and for the first time, I really understood “Write the story you want to read.”

I am such a messy writer!

In the interview for Literary Titan, I said, “and the story took off from there.” Strictly speaking, that’s true, but that’s a gross oversimplification on my part born out of the knowledge that I only had so many paragraphs at my disposal. It’s true, the story really did take off from there: I wrote my first words for Powerless that very afternoon, at my writing group, but that’s only part of the story.

Thomas Edison famously said invention was 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. For me, the inspiration to perspiration might be slightly higher, though by how much, it’s hard to say. What I do know is I’ve already written a much longer essay on this subject than I should have, so I’ll leave off for now. I’ll come back another time (maybe next week, but maybe not for a few, we’ll see, I’m about as good a planner at this blog as I am at my novels) and talk more about how Powerless went from an idea to an IDEA to an actual, finished product. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share stories of your own bolts of inspiration below. I love origin stories!

5 Responses

  1. Nice! I love when those ideas just Wham into us!
    I need to have my stories sit in my brain for a long time before I ever put down words. Mine tend to start with an emotion (usually from the climax scene) and then a character who is feeling that emotion (fear, betrayal???). Then her/his past trickles in. Then the other MC (I write romance so there are always 2 points of view for me). Eventually, I know how they’re both broken and how they need to fix themselves. Then a story builds from there – sometimes 🙂

  2. Great to be here, Jeff! It’s been a while. Nice to connect on Twitter recently.

    Thanks for the insights. I think that what this tells us is your story breaks down to human emotions and heartache – the disasters and explosions are all well and good, but it’s how they impact people that matters. That’s the sort of story most people want to read.

  3. Jemi: It’s fun, isn’t it? More than fun. It’s like a bolt of electricity or something, a total charge-up. How long something sits with me depends on a lot of factors. I think this one was kicking around longer than most, at least in part because I couldn’t work on it right away.

    Nick: Thanks for joining the fun! I think I’ve figured out finally that I’m really interested more in the fallout of events rather than the events themselves, and I sure am hoping that’s what most people want to read!

  4. It’s fascinating how a story idea can morph. I had one once after I had lasik. After the surgery, you have this glow that you have from lights. One evening, when I was leaving a city council meeting and experienced it, I wondered what would happen if a person having this was able to see into an alternate universe to their doppelgänger. I’ve written two books in that world. Eventually, I’ll probably publish them on Kindle Vella under a pen name.

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