The Big Idea: Alaya Dawn Johnson
Writers know that sometimes there is the writing you are supposed to be doing, and then there’s the writing you want to be doing. Prudence dictates doing the former over the latter. But sometimes, as Alaya Dawn Johnson found in writing The Summer Prince, there might be something to telling prudence to take a hike.
ALAYA DAWN JOHNSON:
I tend to write my novels the way other people quilt, in a somewhat-ordered patchwork of varied materials that have arrested my interest. Which means that whenever I discuss my inspiration for The Summer Prince I end up babbling about matriarchies and fame and what a non-heteronormative society might look like when projected into the future of African diaspora culture in Brazil, plus music and art and human sacrifice (I thought about including reincarnation, but that seemed like overkill).
But since this series is called “The Big Idea” and not “a dozen or so somewhat large ideas,” I’ve had a long, hard think about the one idea that really made this book work.
And I finally realized: it wasn’t any of those good ideas I babble about. The catalyzing ingredient was, in fact, a very bad idea.
Namely, writing it.
What The Summer Prince taught me is that some bad ideas are very, very good. Of course, most are very, very bad and figuring out the distinction is not for those with a surfeit of common sense (luckily I’m a writer). But The Summer Prince turned out to be the best bad idea that I’ve ever had. When I described this novel to friends, they would paper their shock with kindly smiles and tell me that they were sure I’d figure it out. My sister told me to write out the idea, then put it in a drawer and get back to it when I finished that pesky novel I had under contract. You know, the one that would give me money to pay my rent.
Rent? I said. Sure, just as soon as I buy this train ticket to Vancouver and spend three weeks running away from home with nothing but my extensive Brazilian music collection, my computer and some coffee money.
So I traveled and I wrote what sounded like my least commercial novel ever, just because the idea gripped me so ferociously I could not help but put it to paper. This, in hindsight, was actually a great idea. Because it meant that I wrote my science fiction novel about the transformative power of art in a matriarchal society. It meant that I wrote my YA novel with characters whose fluid sexuality is neither belabored nor obfuscated, and with a romance that does not, to put it mildly, end happily ever after.
I let myself go. I freed myself from what I perceived were the expectations of the market and the genre. Heck, I even freed myself from the expectations of my landlady. I wrote that book because there was nothing else for it, and despite some months of teeth-gnashing and self-despairing, writing The Summer Prince was one of the best experiences of my life.
What I didn’t expect was that publishing it would also turn out to be one. This novel got me my current agent, one of the best in the business. It put me on the radar of Arthur A. Levine (a.k.a. the editor of one J.K. Rowling) and the wonderful team at Scholastic. They gave me unicorns and sunshine–well, okay, but they did give me the best cover of my career and the sort of promotion that I had previously thought was a fantasy from a bygone era (like, the eighties).
Putting off the writing of a contracted novel for the deliberately anti-commercial novel of your heart probably isn’t fabulous writing advice. But since no one’s paying me for fabulous writing advice, here’s what I learned:
Write what you love. Whatever that is, even if it seems like an absolutely abysmal career move. Because if it doesn’t work out, at least you wrote something you’ve always wanted. If that carefully positioned market-friendly idea you only sort of like tanks, then you’ve spent years working on something that doesn’t excite you. If something you love tanks, then at least you spent that time creating art that you know, in your heart, is worthwhile.
And it turns out that agents and editors and publicists and readers can tell when your heart is in it. So my big idea was to do myself a favor, and put it there.