Where do you come up with it?

Writing novels is a growing phenomenon and is quickly becoming one of our nation's pastimes. The chance to sign a publishing contract entices millions of people to forgo their regularly scheduled evening activities in pursuit of the next bestseller on their computers.

I've been asked by some of my readers and friends in general, where I come up with ideas for my books. And although I think it's essential you grasp the basic concepts of how to create a story and all the grammatical stuff that goes along with it, the "idea" is the most important element of writing a book. This is my opinion only, but a good idea will carry your writing a lot further than your actual writing ability. I think that works for publishers and agents alike. They're looking for an idea people will be interested in from the get go; from the moment they look at the back cover of a book. If you have that idea, you'll have a much greater shot of selling your novel. The rest can be worked on over time and will improve. But there in lies the problem.

Where do these ideas come from? And how do you create something new and exciting? Tough stuff, but honestly its the most exciting part of writing. Unless you've felt it for yourself, it's difficult to explain the feeling that comes over you when the perfect idea hits you from out of nowhere. For me, I enter a state of euphoria. Angels sing. Outside, animals howl in unison. It is beautiful and eerie and awesome. But how do you know and what can you do to prepare yourself to feel that moment of jubilation.

1. Change your mindset. Open yourself up for a chance to be inspired. Writers will agree with me, we're always in "info" mode. Meaning, it doesn't matter where we are. We could be at work, in the car driving, outside with the family at the park. We could be shopping at Wal-mart, or watching cartoons with the kids. We could be mowing the lawn or running a hideous, overflowing, dirty diaper out to the dumpster while barefoot. But wherever we are, are minds are processing everything with the off chance we will see something, some event, some human reaction, or even hear certain dialogue, that could be used as material in a future book. It happens all the time. Someone, a friend or even a random acquaintance, will say something or do something either heroic or incredibly foolish, and suddenly I'm hit with an idea. Most of the time, it involves the action I just witnessed, but sometimes complete off the wall ideas will spawn from an unrelated event.

For example: Let's say I see a friend stumble over the curb and clumsily topple into the yard. Funny? Sure. I'll probably laugh, but if I'm in "info" mode, anything is possible. That clumsy stagger could quite possibly become a scene in a future book where a victim feeling the onset of some deadly poison, stumbles over in the yard while his friends stare on in helpless horror. I know it sounds a little gruesome and no, this particular event has never happened. So any friends out there, don't worry. All I'm saying is, a clumsy gesture can quickly turn into a climactic scene in a novel. The emotions, the facial expressions, the body movements, all of it can be used as we witness it. "Info" mode is that perceptive. That's how these things work sometimes. Writers out there, correct me if I'm wrong. So beware, your interactions with writers are almost always mentally recorded and if you're caught in those moments, your embarrassing actions could be in our next book. If we see it and it's good, we'll use it. And chances are, we'll never tell you where we got the idea. So, first things first, change your mindset. Allow yourself an opportunity to observe everything around you. Enter "info" mode.

2. Pick a genre and then "Gobble". I have an interesting story about a turkey, but I won't go into it right now, because this isn't about turkeys, people. Gosh. Stick with me! Gobble means to eat. Right? Anyways. I used to like writing horror. I loved scaring people especially my older sister. If I could creep her out, I felt I wrote something noteworthy. She had a real kit for warding off vampires back in the 80's for Edward's Sake! I still like to scare people. Halloween is one of my favorites and I have an extensive collection of horror masks that I'll randomly wear around the house on any given day. But writing horror was too deep for me. Too dark. Too gruesome. I needed something lighter. We'll get to that in a second. The horror writing stemmed from my obsession with Stephen King novels. I read tons of them in high school. Tons! It was all I knew to read and they were good. Terrifying, well-written, thought-provoking masterpieces. So naturally, since that was what I "gobbled", it filtered in through my writing. Do you see where I'm going with this? I feel very strongly, had I continued to read nothing but Stephen King novels, my writing would've progressively become better in the horror genre. I would've come up with newer ideas dealing with terrifying circumstances. Good enough to be published? Who knows? Probably not. But still, even at a young age writing scary scenes, my style started to improve. That happens when you're constantly writing and reading material dealing with your genre and style of writing. You'll naturally improve your ability and what you're reading will generate similar ideas.

Well, in 2001 I decided to write for kids. This desire came to me when I changed my choice of reading. I now love "gobbling" up middle reader books. They're amazing and they definitely don't short change your experience. Some people think, "Oh I don't want to read kids books because I want to improve my education by reading nothing but adult books." What a bunch of Maloney! Yeah, I kinda made that word up just now because I hate bologna. It has to be my least favorite lunchmeat next to olive loaf, which is like bologna with olives or something. Yuck. Middle Grade authors are brilliant. And kids these days, even at a young age (my son's 8), are able to handle deep, inspired writing far greater than most adults. They just don't necessarily want to deal with all of the adult subject matter. So, please believe me. Middle grade books are fantastic. Sorry, that was a little step onto my soapbox.

Because of my change in genres for reading, my writing style and my writing ideas, for that matter, changed as well. Since 2001, I think my writing has improved because I continue to read those books from great authors. I credit most if not all of my ideas from reading tons of books. That's the beauty of reading. I'm not copying ideas, on the contrary, reading books opens the door for greater inspiration particularly in my chosen genre. Again, this is only my opinion but on this matter I think it's accurate, you can't expect to be a great writer if you're not a great reader first. And to further that, you can't expect to cultivate great ideas into future books unless you read the great ideas from authors first. Sure, you might be inspired and come up with something extraordinary, but you'll never know how to formulate that into a novel, unless you've read how it's done.

3. Go "1 up" on the competition. This is hard. Real hard. What does it mean exactly? Well, if I'm currently writing a novel about romantic vampires or kids fighting each other or something in an arena, or struggling in some dystopian future I'm too late. I'm way behind the times. Those books are out in stores right now, enjoying their successes, thrilling their audiences, and basically shutting the door on any of our similar ideas. Chances are, if that's where my thoughts are right now, I'm 2 or 3 ideas behind the times. Publishers are like fortune tellers. They've already seen the future bestsellers and are searching for the authors willing to write about them. If you have read an awesome story or are reading about it right now, you're going to have a tough time writing about the same idea and getting it sold. Yeah, it happens for some really good writers and for some really lucky ones, but for us, normal, struggling authors, it won't happen.

And I know what you'll say. But have you seen how many romantic vampire novels there are out in stores right now? Of course I have, but it's not the point. Oh, but I could've written this so much better and my idea will scare people more or shock them far greater than... It doesn't matter. We (okay I can't speak for you so I'll just say "I") I'm not that lucky. My idea will get rejected if I fall victim to writing a novel about material that's already flooding the bookstore shelves. So, the sooner you (I) can accept this fact, the better you(I)'ll be. But it's not easy. Because rule number one (yeah, I know I already wrote a rule number one on this post, but I'm talking about something else right now) you have to write for yourself. Right something that will make you happy. If that happens to be a book about Greek Gods with half-breed kids that go to school, you shouldn't shut out the idea entirely. Just don't plagiarize and don't expect to get published anytime soon.

Man! That sounds harsh. Maybe, I need to clarify. This post could very well be for my own benefit because I break all these rules almost daily. My ideas get rejected all the time, but the fact still remains, we have to find the next best thing. This requires hours of brainstorming. I recommend a good writing group and going into those groups with the intent of not leaving until a unique idea has hit you. Sometimes it won't happen during one session or several. Sometimes it takes weeks or months. I've had literally dozens of what I thought were great ideas come to me over the past year. You know what, probably over one hundred ideas. A couple of them made it through the initial brainstorm, but most were trashed. One of the best ways to know whether an idea is good or garbage is to tell somebody else your idea. Someone not in your group, preferably someone not in your close-knit circle of friends or family. Tell it to someone you know and you know likes to read. Watch their reaction. If they have no reaction, like a blank stare or if they immediately change the subject, or if they outright tell you it's worthless, that's pretty good feedback. Sometimes they'll try to sugarcoat it, but you can usually sift through that as well. If they fake an "Ah" moment. Like you tell them your idea and after a moment's pause they smile and say "Ah, I get it." Yep, that's garbage.

Right now, I'm about 25,000 words into a brand new novel. It does have some elements that are currently popular, but there's a definite uniqueness about the story. I'm hoping that uniqueness we'll be enough to sell the idea. I could be wrong and have been before. But this idea came to me while trying to "1 up" the competition. To go beyond what's currently out there. Maybe put a new spin on an old idea. I'm maybe too late as well. Because remember, publishers work far ahead into the future. But I followed the process and I'm trusting my instinct a little to put me in a good position.

I honestly don't know why I suddenly decided to write about this topic. But I think I'm going to continue in future posts. Maybe it won't be worth your time. Maybe you'll think I'm not telling you anything you haven't already heard, or maybe you don't consider me a worthy advisor on the matter. That's okay with me. What I hope to accomplish from this and future topics is to create something of value for anyone out there seriously interested in diving into the writing world. Someone (or many someones) offered me sound advice years ago when I got started and I'm forever grateful for it. Now, I guess it's time to pay it forward.

1 comment:

Kate said...

This was a fun and helpful post. I enjoyed reading it.