How to get the idea for a novel

Jul 09, 2017

When I was living in New York in the late 1990's, in my early twenties, I wanted to be a writer. I was writing short stories and poems and thinking about writing a novel. I decided to learn as much as I could about the craft from writers themselves so when a great writer was in town, I was there. In those days everything was possible. I used to sit on the sidewalk downtown with my notebook and sketch in words what I saw passing me by which in New York was varied and bizarre enough to fill notebooks. A man riding a bike with an elephant trunk strapped to his face. A large black woman who has roughly whitewashed her body. These things moved me terribly.

Seamus Heaney came to read from his work and after the talk he gave I jogged up to him and asked him in my naive way - I was twenty five then - what it was all about, writing? He had kind eyes and a wry, bemused avuncular manner and he said to me 'It's all about starting and stopping and starting again.'  I went to hear Annie Proulx read and was breathless in the audience as she read from The Shipping News.

When I was living in Park Slope in Brooklyn, a mother by then in my late twenties, Ian McEwan came to speak at the large church there. The Pastor was Wilbur Washington who had been a figure in the civil rights movement and his services were so brimful of humanity, wit and humour he made a temporary Christian of me. So, naturally, when the big writer was in town, I was there in the pews. The church was filled. Casually, in a crumpled linen jacket, he talked about writing and I sat in awe. When the session was opened up to the audience for questions, I put my hand in the air. 

'Mr McEwan where do you get your ideas from?'

He smiled on one side of his face. 'I asked my friend Steve Martin what he says when people ask him this question, as people always do, and he said to me, I say to them 'Where do you get your ideas from?'

The audience laughed and a few people turned to look at me for my reaction. I reddened. I was confused. I didn't know it was a stupid question and I wasn't sure if he meant 'where the hell do you get your dumbass ideas from' or quite what he meant by it at all. It certainly didn't answer the question. I felt too that he set himself alongside Steve Martin and way beyond the reach of someone like me. I'd been from grammar school to Cambridge so I knew a bit about this kind of 'not for you' stuff, or at least more probably I was sensitive to it. Perhaps Mr McEwan meant it not unkindly at all.

I was crushed. I went home to my baby son and as I walked home I felt at first foolish and by the time I got to my door angry, and I had an idea there and then at the door. I thought - one day I will be on the Booker list with you Mr McEwan and I will kick your ass.

Well I was on it just three or four years later but he was not on it that year and I haven't yet kicked his ass and it is no longer important to me, except for that lingering sense of exclusion, that writers were not people like me, they were people like him in crumpled linen jackets with important celebrity connections.

The most thrusting part of Kritikme as a community of serious writers is to destroy that wall between published writers and those working hard to be published and last night in London we met with half of the Kritikme 'Krew' published and half not and there was a great deal of raucous laughter and sharing of truths and tips for writing novels. It made my heart glad.

But let me answer you how to get your idea for a novel since I like to debunk and deliver and do so for ninety curious days on The Ninety Day Plan with Kritikme. (You can learn to write better and you will benefit from camaraderie with other writers at work.)

Here's how to have an idea for a novel:

You must always have with you a way of taking notes whether it is a notebook or your notes programme on your phone. 

1. Emotion. You will find yourself in any day at some point in a heightened state of emotion, probably several times. These are your idea-picking moments. Emotions like sorrow and regret and nostalgia or embarrassment - in other words the emotions we tend to consider negative (wrongly) are ripest since they are a faster route to truth. Stay in that state longer than comfortable and explore it ruefully then ruthlessly. 

2. Turn on a song of meaning which hurts you or has a lyric you find breathtaking. Or turn to a book of poetry whose purpose is plainly revelatory such as Larkin's. If you're stuck put on Moby's 'In This World'. That stings. Or 'Dead Can Dance 'Amercian Dreaming'. Or The Sundays 'When I'm thinking about you.'

3. Think what if...and allow that thought to develop the way we used to watch Polaroids develop. Think what if I....consider some aspect of yourself you don't like, ascribe it to someone not like you at all, and see them in your mind's eye. Maybe look at someone opposite you on the train or wherever you are and think 'what if they felt this' because they knew that or had done that. Find your secret, give it to someone else to sort out.

4. Paradox. Now take that thought and turn it round to find it's moral polar opposite. So, with many novels we find a rich man is poor, a dying man finds life, the blind see more clearly, a pretty girl feels ugly, success is failure or the reverse and so on. In the expanse of space from one pole to the other lies the moral dimension, or the journey of your novel.

5. Sentence. Write just one sentence that puts this problem as a paradox quite succinctly. With my first novel the idea was that a dying man found life and my first sentence was 'Before he'd had cancer, he'd been bored with life.' Thus I nailed my colours to the mast. A novel begins sometimes with someone's favourite delusion too, thus in Coetzee's Disgrace, the novel begins with the protagonaist considering that he has to his mind solved the problem of sex rather well. (The paradox is that it is sex that almost destroys that which he holds dear, not once but twice and with increasing violence.) This first sentence will compromise you, possibly, and you will ascribe your secret, your failing, your flaw or worry to another person in another time and place and have them deal with it. (Graham Greene described the purpose of fiction as finding 'ways of hiding'.) At the beginning of the novel you equivocate because you don't have the answer. The novel solves it.

6. Will. Just as the moment of conception is not in itself a human life, so your conception will take bodily shape thanks to the many decisions you make which add flesh to it and the care and time and love you give it. Your idea will happen because you have the will to make it happen. You will need a love of the craft and a willingness to study it closely, the novel idea will have a burning emotional meaning to you which will keep you working at it (it is the hidden story of your life and your existence demands it be resolved in your lifetime) and to maintain the will to write it you might dedicate it, again in secret, to someone you love.

You will find it easiest to deliver when you make a commitment to do so, and Kritikme is here for that purpose, and will give you a deeper, fresh understanding of craft whilst working alongside you, the way a runner has a running mate, to write the novel. You will find camaraderie and support at Kritikme with fellow writers sharing a fairly universal journey that is the novel writing process openly and warmly and generously. Last night my published writers and novices agreed that Kritikme was their best chance of writing a novel they needed to write.

I salute you writers. No question is silly, no sorrow unimportant, no work anything less than vital to you and your lifetime. Find your safe place here with Kritikme. Start fruitful work amongst friends sooner rather than later.

 

(Our writers, some published, some soon to be published, celebrating their writing at our summer cocktails in Waterstones Piccadilly, The View.)

 

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