The Lightbulb Moment: Turning an Idea Into a Novel
M.T. Ellis is a Brisbane-based crime thriller author. She has just published her debut novel, Azrael, which was inspired by a nightmare she had in 2014. In this article, M.T. talks about the so-called “lightbulb” moment — the moment an author strikes plot-gold. Writers, she explains, can have many lightbulb moments. They don’t each turn into full-fledged novels, but that doesn’t mean they belong in the recycle bin. M.T. is currently writing the second novel in her Detective Allira Rose series.
Before writing the novel that ultimately became Azrael, I had spent several months trying to think of “the one” — the storyline that would amount to more than just random ideas jotted on my phone and a half-finished manuscript. The one that would actualize into a fully developed story. But the ideas that came to me felt more like blips: singular scenes, lines of dialogue, or character traits. For example, I had realized I wanted to write a crime novel with a strong female detective. I knew her nemesis would be male, equally as strong, but morally corrupt with no empathy. Ideas would pop into my head at random, like when I’d spot someone interesting on the street and make up a backstory for them. Wisps of crime scenes that my detective could solve would pass through my mind, but when I’d try to encapsulate them on paper, I’d reach a dead-end.
The lightbulb moment
One night, I had a nightmare where I was being chased through the outback (I live in Australia), and then held captive in an old house. When I woke up, I immediately wrote down the scenes I had just imagined. As I wrote, a lightbulb flickered on, and I realized that my dream, a wild chase through the bush, would be the central theme of my thriller. Of course, I needed more ideas to bulk out the story and to add dimension. That’s when I remembered all of those “deads-ends” jotted on my phone. I read through them and found a number of storylines that could tie in with my nightmare-inspired novel plot.
Turning a nightmare into a novel
Putting my ducks in a row
Being an aspiring author is hard when you’re still searching for the right idea. That being said, when they all start coming to you, things can get challenging again. To keep myself organized and to make sure that I can fill in plot holes and gaps, I add a comment bubble at the start of each scene I write, with a sentence or two describing the scene and the character’s point-of-view. That way I can scroll through all the comments I’ve left for myself and get an overview of what scenes need to go where.
Getting out of my own way
After writing about 20,000 words, I was forced to abandon my manuscript for about eighteen months because I became busy with my day job. During this time, I occasionally wrote notes but it wasn't until that project finished that I was able to write the rest of the manuscript, which took about six months.
During those six months, there were times when I couldn’t even look at the manuscript because I had developed such a fear of failure and a loss of confidence in the story. Conflictingly, I had also developed a fear of the book actually doing well and the potential of the ensuing attention. It was a strange struggle, which I eventually got over with the encouragement (and nagging!) of my family and friends.
Turning to professionals
After I wrote the first draft of Azrael, I took the first 20 pages and the synopsis to the 20 Pages in 20 Minutes session at the Brisbane Writers Festival where I was able to sit down with award-winning author Midge Raymond, and discuss the manuscript. Midge pointed out that my novel’s antagonist was too overbearing and unlikable. So for my first big rewrite, I incorporated parts of the antagonist's past into the story so that readers would be able to understand why he came to be a “villain.”
Once my next draft of Azrael was ready for an edit, I turned to Reedsy and hired Allister Thompson for a structural edit and a copy edit. Allister was great; he pointed out the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript and went through the text with a fine-toothed comb, offering suggestions on how to make the story more psychologically sound and more enticing to the reader.
Tom Vowler was the final editor I used to complete my manuscript. I found him via Reedsy as well and he did a thorough proofread of the manuscript. Tom taught me a lot: I was able to address the spelling and grammar mistakes I was constantly making while learning how to keep my writing consistent throughout the novel.
My advice to fellow authors
What to do with all of those “dead-end” ideas? In short, keep them. Write them down and save them — all of them. While writing Azrael, when I thought of ideas that didn't quite fit, I’d put them in a folder called “Book 2.” Now that I have started writing the second book of my thriller series, some of the work will already be done because I’ve acquired a wealth of inspiration from unused scenes in the first novel.
So don't see unused ideas as a waste of time because even if you feel like they don’t go anywhere in the moment, they may serve a purpose further down the road.
For more information, visit M.T's website!
Please share your thoughts, experiences, or any questions for M.T, in the comments below!