Friday, November 13, 2015

Where Do You Get Your Ideas? A Basic Primer of a Novelist's Writing Process

One of my online students, new to writing fiction, brought up a couple of good and very important questions in class this week.

1.  How do you start writing a novel?  What are the steps?
2.  Where do you get your ideas?

In this blog I'm going to tackle the second question--about idea gathering--because it's really the first step to writing a book of any kind.  But I'd love to refer my student, and all of you, to Elizabeth George's wonderful writing-craft book, Write Away, where she details her writing process. 


George is a prolific mystery writer, with dozens of published books for adults and young adults.  She has a chapter in Write Away that takes us through her process, from idea to research to drafting.  But she seems to just have an abundance of ideas, which makes those of us who don't, feel like losers.  So here's my take on idea-gathering, if you're in that stage.

Or if you want to re-invent a book idea that's gone stale.

Getting Good Ideas
Ideas really are a dime a dozen.  They are out there, all over the place.  It's a matter of tuning your attention, really. 

I find good story ideas in overheard conversations.  Maybe I'm sitting in a cafe and listening to a couple argue, and one of them says something really weird.  Because I have my idea tuner on inside, I can take that weird comment and begin to see how it might expand into a story.

I was waiting for a flight in the airport near Boston and I picked up a sports page from a discarded newspaper.  Just scanning the ads alone gave me some story ideas.  Mostly, again, because they were weird, or didn't fit.

I use my journals too.  Stuff I'm mulling over.  For instance, a big event in my younger years was searching for something I thought I didn't have in a relationship, when it was there all the time.  That became an idea for one of my novel characters, Kate. 

Good ideas are just regular ideas that hit you funny.  That provoke some curiosity inside.  That might be built into something that makes a complete story. 

Sifting
So how do you sift through the ideas and find the good ones?

First, you have to open the faucet and let the ideas start coming into your brain.  Then you need some impetus for designing a story around the ones that have longevity.

I learned about sifting ideas in an early fiction class I took.  We had an assignment to start a writer's notebook.  We had to list ideas--the random gathering phase above--and then write two or three sentences on how a few of them might become stories.  From that, we had to write one story every week. 

It really sounded hard.  But as the instructor told us, "It's easier than you think." 

I first tried out titles from the gathered ideas.  What might work?  I came up with crazy ones, song lines and ad campaigns.  Titles can't be copyrighted, so I was safe to explore them.  Once my gathered idea became a title, I was usually off and running. 

Another way is to look at the gathered ideas and ask if they resonate with anything you're particularly interested in right now.  If you were to finish this sentence:  "I want to write about  _____________"  What might go in the blank?  And does one of the gathered ideas fit?

At one point in my writing career I was interested in odd topics like revenge.  Why do people seek revenge?  I wasn't particularly someone who did, but I was interested in the idea.  So I began gathering ideas about revenge and ended up writing about a house that becomes a prison and an unexpected rescue.

Use one of the suggestions above to start your idea list, to sift an idea into possibility, or to explore something you are curious about this week.  Have fun!