Your Novel in 13 Weeks, Part 2: First You Catch Your Idea

Writing A Novel In Thirteen Weeks:

If you’re going to write a novel, you have, of course, to start with an idea. Just like if you’re going to make a shepherd’s pie, first you have to catch your shepherd.

One of the questions I always get — in every panel, in every interview, at every con — is: “How do you get your ideas?”

The normal answer is: “I get them from [insert random, remote/small town].”  I use: “Hays, Kansas. But it will cost you a dime, and you have to send a SASE.”

The sad thing is that I could possibly sell ideas and never reach a point where I have none to sell. Like with everything else, ideas are something you train yourself to have, and once you start having them, you have them all the time. You’ll be Standing On the Corner, Minding your  Own Business (the infamous SOCMOB that guarantees you’ll be jumped by “two bad dudes”) when an idea will jump out of  a nearby dumpster, and there you have it.

For instance, the other day in my blog comments, commenter CACS mistyped “High School Cemetery” instead of “High School Chemistry,” and there was immediately a boarding school for vampires (children with special needs) in my head.

So, was that idea enough to write a novel?

Probably not, because it doesn’t interest me enough – but what you also have to understand is that the boarding school for vampires is not an idea for a story. It is an idea for a setting. I still don’t have an idea – and it is the idea that determines whether it’s a novel, a short story, or just a passing, throw-away detail in another story.

Let me explain: What you have there has no characters, no conflict, no… story. It’s at best a spark of a story, even if for a fantasy reader (or writer) it comes freighted with all sorts of implied problems like “do they have classes at night?”  “What do they do for the cafeteria — a blood bank?”  etc.

Don Quixote, Walter Crane, 1880

It’s still not an idea.

The problem I run into most often with beginning writers or, heaven help us, people who try to give me their ideas, is that they are not ideas – not complete ideas. Say you approach me and say: “I have this idea for a story. There is a magical shop around the corner, and it disappears.” I’ll say, “Yes?” Why? Because that’s not an idea. It’s at best a seed.

In the same way – and this happens just as often – if you come to me and say “there is this girl and this boy, and they fight over the boat he’s taking,” it’s not an idea. Not even if you then add in a revelatory tone: “It’s the Titanic.” (Though that last one comes close, and I could probably start with that and write a pretty good romance or paranormal mystery short story.)

If you think J.K. Rowling’s idea for Harry Potter can be summed up with “there is a magical school” or “there is a boy and he lived,” then you will have to think again.

To make sure you have a story idea, you need to count the elements:

a) You must have a genre-appropriate spark. (That vampire-school idea is a genre-appropriate spark. That is, if I wrote it it would fit in either vamp lit or YA vamp lit. A spark for a mystery might be: “Man killed by shark. It’s murder.”  It’s a spark because before you write, you have to figure out how to engineer a shark attack on command of the murderer.)

b) You must have a character, and there must be a reason why we – or at least you – give a hang about this character. This partly implies …

c) conflict, or a hint of danger or something the character desperately wants. (“There is Bob, and he’s happy and nothing happens” might be a nice thing for Bob, but it’s not a story idea.)

Note that the spark can be a setting or a twist on an old story.

So J. K. Rowling’s idea was: “There is a magical school. It coexists side by side with our reality. A boy educated in our reality is admitted to it. He turns out to be a pivotal figure in keeping the world from being taken over by the dark powers, who will actively try to subvert him/do away with him.” That’s an idea, and from it you can build not just a novel, but a series of novels — because the stakes are the world.

Anyway, one thing to remember is that the idea isn’t copyrightable. You can absolutely do “like Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library but in space” or “like Podkayne of Mars, but the main character is a rejuvenated grandma and the “Clark” character is her grandson.”

That is fine, provided that you also remember an idea is not a plot. If you stay true to your idea, you’ll find that the idea itself dictates changes in the plot. For instance, if your characters are in space, they are not in an English village – you’ll have to create a society there, and that will influence the plotting and how it goes, even if you hit all the same points.

But you can write the idea and never come close to the same story, in the same way that Fiddler on the Roof is built on the general lines of Pride and Prejudice, but the fact that it’s dealing with Jewish tradition and life in a village in Russia makes it all different.

Sometimes for a beginning writer it is comforting and reassuring to borrow someone else’s general idea. For instance, my first published book was Tam Lin, with Will Shakespeare as the main character and the fairy nursemaid legends mixed in.

And my idea for the novel I’ll be writing in the next thirteen weeks (Through Fire, the Second Book Of the French Revolution) is

The French revolution, in the future, if the queen of France were an import from a libertarian planet and her husband were a revolutionary who sets off the whole mess.  Zen Sienna doesn’t even fully understand Earth, but she must do everything she can to save the man she loves from an untimely end.

Now it’s your turn.

Remember that for a novel it must interest you enough to write however many words about this character, this problem, this twist, this situation.

So … what’s your idea?


image courtesy shutterstock / MJTH