Where do we start writing our novel or our short story? Firstly, we need to find an idea to drive our story forward, and can’t simply open the laptop and start writing.
If we start without an idea, a premise, a reason for writing, we’re liable to use a lot of description without a story behind it. Description is great: all writers need to be able to describe, but without a plot, a story won’t work. This is something ‘chick lit’ is often accused of: lots of sex, relationships, amusing characters, but no plot line, and, ultimately, no central idea.
Think of the last book you read. What was the author’s initial idea, do you think, based on your experience of that book? Now, think of that story again without that idea; does it still work? I doubt it does: usually the idea is what dictates the theme of the book, and generates the story that makes it enjoyable for the reader.
Also, the reader finds it easier to empathise with, or like, a character, if they are given something meaningful to do in a novel. The greatest character in the world fails to be interesting, if they have nothing to do, or no firm reason for being present. They will just be a good character on the page, they won’t be someone the reader cares about or wants to discover more about.
How do you know when you’ve got the right idea? There are a few questions you need to ask yourself before you start writing:
1) Is it a workable idea? What writing format does it suit – is it an idea that will carry a short story? A novel? A series? If it’s a series, we should be looking for some sub-ideas, so that each book has its own idea or theme.
2) Is it something you know about? If it isn’t, do you honestly have time to do the research? If you can commit only the time needed for the research, that doesn’t make you a writer. That makes you a researcher. No matter how exciting or interesting your idea, you have to have enough time to do it justice, both in terms of research and the creative writing aspect.
3) Is it a focussed idea? Is it unfocussed, or too detailed?If it’s too focussed, you’ll feel that you have to stick to that exact idea and that can allow too little room for development at the planning stage. If it’s too nebulous, you’ll have too many options and too many alleyways that you could go down. Both of these things can become overwhelming, and stop you writing. Keep an idea, like a good dog, on a shortened leash, at your side, so that you remain in control.
How do you come up with an idea? Authors have various ways they do this:
1) Hilary Mantel is said to look at the free ads in the newspaper (“Why is that double mattress for sale? Have they divorced and changing it in for two singles?”)
2) Jojo Moyes was taught during her journalism apprenticeship to walk down a street, any street, and find a story there. This same exercise can work for fiction writers. (“That gate is always open at number 17, does anyone live there? What type of person never closes their gate?”)
3) Word generation software online can be used to generate a random noun. You can then start a ‘mind map’ or brainstorm around that word, as illustrated below.
4) There are also ‘idea a day’ type books – I think these are quite handy, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll flick through until you find a workable idea that appeals to you! They do have their place, although I think they’re often more useful for shorter fiction because ideas for novels often have to be more complex. However, it’s your job as the writer to make the initial idea more complex, so you can always start with one of these more basic ideas and brainstorm it further.
5) Think outside of the box – use your imagination! We’re creative writers, we don’t have to go with the known world – self-created universes, animals, monsters, anything is acceptable as long as it’s well written. The great thing about the page is that you can live out whatever you want to be.
6) Travel is also a great thing, and just getting on the bus to somewhere new can help you generate an idea for your latest writing.
What happens if you end up with too many ideas? It can be just as overwhelming and offputting to end up with too many ideas as too few.
How to choose between them?
1) Use a die, or toss a coin! It’s simple and ruthless, but it works. Just don’t say, “Ah. It’s heads. Best of three then….”
2) Write the first paragraph of each story. You’ll usually find that by the time you reach the end of the paragraph, you will feel chomping at the bit to keep writing on one of the ideas. There you have your answer about which idea is best.
3) Writing the first sentence of each idea will enable you to see which of your choices will give you the punchiest opening. As with the first paragraph, it’s likely one of the ideas will beg you more than the others to carry on writing.
4) Ask friends and family, especially if you’re keen to develop within a certain style or genre of writing. Often the trustworthy few that are external to our own thought processes are the ones who can judge which ideas will fit into the furlough we’ve carved for ourselves previously. They will also be able to tell us if an idea is too similar to something we’ve written before.
Remember that none of the alternative ideas are wasted – you can always use them in the future.
Now you have your idea, try condensing it into a single sentence or two at the most. For example, Shakespeare would have condensed ‘Romeo and Juliet’ into:
“A man and woman, whose families dislike each other, fall in love.”
To condense your idea like this, think about whether your idea has some bits that could change at the planning or writing stages. For example, perhaps Shakespeare’s original idea for ‘Romeo and Juliet’ was:
“A man and woman meet each other, but they are from two families that dislike each other. Juliet creates a trick that will make her look like she’s dead, so that Romeo and her can run away together. Once her body is taken to the crypt for burial, Romeo arrives and she wakes up, and they run away together.”
This is very simplified, but goes to show that you cannot pin down an idea in too much detail before you enter the next stage of the process: planning, which is what we will cover in the next blog.