The other day I met up for coffee with one of my “beta readers” — a term which means little more than a generous soul willing to read a book of mine, answer a fairly long list of questions about the book, and then sit with me to have a further conversation about the book and my posed questions.
It took a while for me to realize that asking people to read for me — and then giving them no guidance as to what I was looking for — usually resulted in a reader’s broad statement of “I like it” or “This isn’t my style of book.” (That was back several books ago, but now I think this “beta reader” idea –Thanks, Writer’s Digest — works better for both reader and writer.)
So, this lovely beta reader of My Plus One, said to me, “How do you come up with these ideas?” and then listed some of the vignettes from the book. You know what? I had no idea how to answer her.
I spent the weekend thinking it over and I do believe I have figured it out.
When I write, I consistently am asking myself, “What if ____________?”
For instance, in My Plus One, two longtime friends, Ray and Callie, are forced to change their travel plans from spending the month of August in Tanzania to spending it on the road to get from one side of the US to Ray’s sister’s wedding in Portland, Oregon. Along the way, they meet a stray dog outside a convenience store and decide to adopt him. When Ray and Callie decide they are going to fly home instead of drive Ray’s vintage Saab SPG back across middle America, they have to consider what to do with the dog.
Ray and Callie aren’t going to leave him behind. And there’s no way he’s going to ride underneath in the cargo bay. So, the only way to get him to ride up top, with his human family, is to make him a working dog. Right?
Well, Ray and Callie are able-bodied and believe feigning a physical disability would be in poor taste. So, they have a problem. They want to dog on the plane with them but they don’t want to lie.
So . . . here comes the “what if.”
“What if Ray and Callie can find a way to get the dog into the passenger compartment with them?”
So, as the writer, I try to find a way to answer that “what if.”
Here’s what I did:
Callie concocts the scenario where Ray needs the dog for emotional support. Without the dog, Ray can’t fly due to his fear; of course, were Ray to be separated from his emotional-support animal, he’d be a wreck for the cross-country flight and a nuisance to the other passengers. Since she’s a psychologist, Callie writes a “prescription” for the dog to alleviate Ray’s anxiety.
Now, this doesn’t mean the scheme goes off without a hitch, but it injected the story with a scene which I hope readers will find memorable.
It came from asking — and answering — a simple question.
And I think, anyone who wants to can create a story of his or her own by asking “what if?”