Pen & Globe

The Great Idea Machine

Place: Gaziantep, Turkey |

Drink: salep |

So, how did you come up with the idea for your first novel, A Simple Game?  A great question, which I get a lot these days, especially now that the dang thing is finally done.

Sitting human-192607_1280in a café in Gaziantep, just 40 miles north of the Syrian border, sipping a mug of salep – an Ottoman Empire concoction made of skimmed milk, cinnamon, and flour from wild orchid tubers (I kid you not), which, when consumed warm on a chilly day, gives eggnog a nice run for its money – I think back to how it all started.

I wish I could tell you there’s this giant machine chugging away somewhere with all these dials and belts and knobs, like something out of Edison’s laboratory, spitting out a bunch of great ideas for the next bestseller.  And, maybe if your name is Clancy or Grisham or Rowling you’ve got one of these gadgets tucked away in the basement of your mansion.  For the rest of us (and I’m pretty sure for them, too), it’s not that simple.  But fear not: there are still plenty of great ideas out there.

One of the best ways I’ve found to find one is what Hollywood “script doctor” John Truby, in The Anatomy of a Story, calls the “What if…?” question.  “What if you turn a simple crime story into a dark American epic,” Truby writes, where you make the head of a mafia family a “kind of king in America.”  The Godfather.  Or what if you take a thriller, in which a boy witnesses a murder, “and what if you bring violence into the heart of pacifism?”  Witness.  “The point here is to let your mind go free,” Truby advises.  “Don’t censor or judge yourself” as you explore ideas that might lead to a creative breakthrough.

As it turns out, I used this technique well before ever reading Truby’s handy book.  One day, probably during a run (when I tend to do my best creative thinking, really letting my mind go free), I had an idea: “What if someone started killing the world’s best athletes?”  An intriguing notion for a crime thriller, I thought, especially as a former sportswriter desperate to write a novel.  But then I took it a step further with another question: “What if the villains in this story are bent on changing the world, no matter what the cost?”

And, with that, in this time of terrorism, I felt I had what I would later learn Truby calls “the most valuable piece of advice you’ll ever get as a writer – write something that may change your life.”  Now, there’s a great idea!


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