Book ideas don’t often come to you whole and complete, writes founder of The Novelry, Louise Dean. But that doesn’t mean fretting over story ideas should be an obstacle to starting to write a book! Nor do you need to resort to generic writing prompts to find your story idea.
With just a few ideas that you pick up from your surroundings, you can often start writing an amazing novel. In this blog post, you can read about how Louise Dean has found some of her novel ideas in everyday life and how she begins her writing process.
Book ideas might take you by surprise
Sometimes the genre you’re writing in affects where you find book ideas.
If you’re writing historical fiction then you might find story ideas come to you unexpectedly, and not always inspired by historical events.
In fact, a new idea for a full length novel hit me just as I was going about my daily life. The story behind This Human Season, which is set in Northern Ireland in 1980 and 1981, came to me on the platform of Clapham North tube station in 2003. I watched a few trains come and go as it dawned on me.
But the book ideas behind my other three novels came to life in stages.
Story ideas often develop after you start writing
Usually, the final novel is the result of an idea that was always worth writing, but that has grown and acquired more substance like the proverbial rolling stone as you work at it.
It seems to me, though, that there are elements to the idea which remain in place through the multiple drafts you will write. The details shift and change as you feel for what’s most moving, most provoking, most important. You ensure the story is populated with interesting people, and that the main character makes decisions detrimental to their best interests.
There are elements to the idea which remain in place through the multiple drafts you will write. The details shift and change as you feel for what’s most moving, most provoking, most important.
Editing is a big part of turning story ideas into novels
Turning a book idea into a novel is a long struggle. It’s good, necessary even, to get a first draft down in a season as we do in The Ninety Day Novel Class. Turn that story idea into something tangible. Start writing as soon as possible.
Of course, you will return to it at second draft and amend it not only in terms of your writing style, but in response to new realities and truths that will emerge. The Novel Development course helps you see these. In the meantime, here are the key elements which you should seek, the essentials to your novel. Knowing them might help you originate your own book ideas.
Elizabeth Strout has spoken of working in scenes rather than continuity and while I advise my writers to write the first draft story from A-Z to get to know it all, the truth is we have scenes which remain from the first draft to last and we re-jig what’s around them. The crucial scenes expose the lie, and the truth, eventually, which are both vital to the novel form.
Almost always I will start by writing a scene or a piece of a scene. I have learned over the years to take anything that is most pressing to me – it may be as mundane as a concern about upcoming dental work, or as serious as worrying about the safety of my child – and to transpose that emotion into a character. This will give the scene life, as opposed to having it wooden. I am a very messy worker – I push these scenes around our table. It is a big table, and over time I realise which scenes are connected. I have never written anything from beginning to end, not a story or a novel. I just collect different scenes, and the ones that aren’t any good to me, get slipped on to the floor and eventually into the wastebasket. (There are many of those.)
What I know about book ideas before I start writing
Writing prompts don’t provide the basis of my book ideas, but there is definitely a foundation before I start to write.
I will have an idea of my theme before I put pen to paper. This theme is the garden of my novel in a way.
I also know about the setting and time period for my story; whether it takes place contemporaneously or in the past. The setting is informed by the thing that is making me restless or angry and feels important to prove as a thesis or argument.
As I begin to write my opening, I am very careful not to expose my ‘thesis’, but to conceal it. I build a case based on the personal, evidenced through a life or lives, and make sure I never put my bias into words in the novel. It must be invisible in order to operate subconsciously.
Many of you will know my advice not to preach to the reader who is smarter than you. (If you don’t think he or she is smarter than you, please don’t bother us with your book, thank you.)
Think of the novel as a necklace of five beads
1. The main character
Either as narrator (first person) or observed by a third person. I choose mutable people, which is to say, lesser-gendered: women with typically male characteristics or men with more typically female characteristics.
This is because I want them dimorphous and diaphanous; shining, floating and alive to change.
The novel is the liberal art form which at its heart believes in the possibility that human beings can change. A novel is a moral journey and your character goes on an adventure within their own life, often unwanted, to see the world differently. Some form of personal growth. After all, character development is at the heart of any great story idea.
What’s more, this character has a blind spot. One hell of a blind spot.
2. The problem
Oh yes, almost immediately he or she is presented with a problem to solve, or a dilemma. But that’s not it. That’s a red herring.
3. Raining stones
In fact, things are worse than they seem and you add here a volley of stones that rain down on your character, problem after problem, conflict after conflict.
Here’s where you need to choose an antagonist – a person usually.
4. The sweet spot
This is the bleeding heart of your novel. Everything else may change or shift but this insight of yours is the bedrock of the novel and comes 4/5 of the way through the narrative.
This is something which has greatly touched you in the last year or two. Often it’s metaphorical. The sight, sound or smell of our common suffering.
The only quote I have above my writing desk is T.S. Eliot’s.
I am moved by fancies that are curled,
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle,
Infinitely suffering thing.
You want something from which you can continue to draw inspiration throughout the long, winding road of writing a novel. And writing prompts just won’t cut it.
5. The dénouement
This is the moment that the protagonist returns to reality, but now without their blindspot.
I reserve the ending somewhat to my own discovery throughout the writing. I like to have a plan though – I plan for the main character to be here or there, dead or alive, happy or sad after a major event.
I do allow myself to worry this bead in my hot writer’s hands as we progress. It’s the final treasure and I’m allowed to handle it. It’s my gift to myself and I want a Christmas surprise.
I reserve the ending somewhat to my own discovery throughout the writing.
When testing an idea ask yourself – is this something only I can write and only I will write?
In terms of writing process, get a first draft down to find the story out.
Then I take a step back after the gallop of the first draft to assess the damage and think again.
At second draft, I will look at some wild possibilities, a change of gender for the main character and so on, as I seek to create maximum impact on the reader.
Once the first draft is done, when you’ve written your book for you and sussed out the book idea, you can start to consider the work as a reader. As I tell my writers, it’s at the second draft you get to look smart, and here you go from writer to author.
Get your story down. That Stephen King knows a thing or two about writing.
The first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months, the length of a season. If you spend too long on your piece, the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel.
You won’t know yourself when you've got that manuscript on your desk in 3 months’ time. Because this is what we do at The Novelry, this is our mission; we get novels done. We turn book ideas into the finished thing.
We will inspire you, delight you, coax you, encourage you, and push you through that first draft fast. Because all the art’s in the second draft, and guess what? We’ve got that covered too.
Whether you think you already have a book idea worth writing or not, we’ll see you through, keeping the joy of writing a book front and centre throughout. We revel in creativity over generic writing prompts and help writers find their best book ideas.