Costco isn’t just a place to pick up a 36-pack of toilet paper or to snack on free, tiny spears of sausage, it’s also a place where you might just also pick up an idea for a novel. At least, that’s what happened to Lissa Price, who found the idea for her debut novel Starters in just that location. No, she wasn’t looking for a story idea there. Let’s just say it was something of an impulse buy. Here she is to explain how she walked out of the store with this particular unexpected item.
My Big Idea was that in the future, desperate teens would rent out their bodies to rich seniors who could then enjoy being young again.
It came to me in Costco, a few years ago. Trying to get a flu shot.
The pharmaceutical companies didn’t make enough vaccine that year. So the US government had to set up a triage system. The very young and the elderly, and of course the infirm, were to get the vaccine first. It looked like a dystopian future with long lines of people in the hollow ugliness that is Costco. I didn’t fall into any of those categories so I left without the shot.
But I had the Big Idea. I thought, wow, what if this was a devastating disease and the only ones left were the weakest members of society?
It wasn’t until a few years later that I put it together and wrote it as my debut novel. I created a near-future where the only people left after the Spore Wars were the ones who were vaccinated: the elderly, called Enders; and the kids and teens, called Starters. Almost all the parents were dead, leaving a landscape of silver-haired Enders with the young Starters. I loved the contrast.
Of course there are remnants of VIP Middles — politicians, movie stars and people of power — who were able to get the vaccine and survive. But they’re not who you see every day.
This was the world, the canvas. The character I wanted to battle this oppressive system was a 16 year-old girl who had to protect her sickly 10 year-old brother as they lived on the streets for a year, fighting for food and squatting in abandoned office buildings. And when she discovers this place they call the body bank that will pay her enough money to get a home, she decides to take the risk. She allows them to plant a chip in her brain. I wanted to quickly get to the story, which was the “what went wrong” – that her renter wants to do more than just party, she plans to use the girl’s body to murder someone.
The rental place, called Prime Destinations, wasn’t stupid. They had programmed the renters’ chips so that no renter could kill. But the girl’s renter had also thought ahead, and had her tech guy alter the chip. However, in doing so, something else changed. Callie wakes up in her own body, displacing the renter. She enters the fairy tale life of her rich renter, living in a mansion, and going out with a senator’s grandson. More big twists follow, but that is the setup.
My focus is always on creating a fresh world as simply as possible that allows me to get to where I want to be, dealing with characters on different levels of reality. Some films that I like that address this are Inception and Memento, and a few books would be Never Let Me Go, Uglies, and Incarceron. I love to have two characters together in a room and at least one of them doesn’t know the truth about the other. And the reason is because it gives me this rich ground for both intellectual intrigue and also emotional depth. So while I use thriller pacing, I’ll slip in moments that I hope will resonate with the reader long after they’ve finished.
I like to follow an organic writing process, where I work back and forth from ideas to outline to pages, always drawing from and reacting to what is already there embedded in the story. This manuscript came out fairly smooth, with lots of yes moments where I saw that something I had planted early on would dovetail with later plot elements. One thing that changed was the first chapter. I tried different beginnings, thinking I should set up Callie’s life first. But one day I decided to do something that seemed so radical. I really wanted to dive in and start with her going through the doors of the body bank before you knew anything about her. And once I did that, there was no looking back.
Writers will understand my special challenges in writing this story after they’ve read it. But I don’t want to give away any spoilers here. One thing I can say is that I had to decide how much of the world and the history of the war I would explain, because I did not want to stop the thriller pacing of the narrative drive. When there was a choice between continuing the emotion, or answering what I imagined might be a question in the reader’s mind about the past, I opted to keep the emotion. It’s dystopian. It’s cautionary. But mostly, I want to take readers on a wild ride that leaves them breathless at the end, saying they never saw it coming.
When I finished writing, I got my agent in 24 hours via an email query. She sold it as a duology to Random House Children’s Books in 6 days, over a holiday weekend.
All this because I’m a Costco member.
From big-box stores come Big Ideas. Sometimes.