Inspiration – What Makes A Novel Idea?

So, you want to write a novel.

Do you wake up each morning, imagination brimming with a host of ideas? Do you love words – all types of words, like ‘conundrum’, ‘malarkey’ or even plain old ‘doozy’?

Do you think you’ll still love them once you’ve been consistently writing thousands of them every day, for months? If you have answered all these questions with an emphatic “YES!” but you don’t have any idea where to begin, this blog series is for you.

This post is the first in a series about Morgan.

Morgan is a figment of my imagination and the novel she wants to write is also a fabrication. Morgan is gender fluid, non-binary, and he prefers not use a fixed pronoun. For this reason, where a pronoun becomes necessary, I will randomly assign him one as I see fit (as I have already done quite arbitrarily in this paragraph).

Morgan has a zillion ideas for a novel. He is pretty sure, whichever one he picks, is going to be the next Harry Potter or Twilight. He knows nothing about writing, editing, publishing or marketing. But does he let that get him down? No, he does not.

Morgan is a methodical bloke. He has decided to start right at the beginning and finish at the very end. That end being the moment he has a shiny new published paperback clutched in his oversized cartoon hands.

Along the way, Morgan plans to present a series of 9 or 10 blogs covering: how he selected an idea; outlined the plot; wrote the first draft; made the most of beta readers; edited and proofread his manuscript. Later blogs will deal with cover design; manuscript layout; and deciding between print or e-publishing.

To reward us for our persistence, Morgan plans, at the end of the series, to bless us all with some of the marketing tips and tricks she has learned.

Sound ambitious for a wholly invented character with no writing experience? Well, let’s see how she does.

This is a must read blog series for those budding novelists among you. Now, let me hand over to Morgan.

Morgan

Hi, I’m Morgan.

I’ve just completed a degree in Surf Science and Technology at Plymouth Uni. Before you pour scorn on my poor choice of study, I’ll just say that when the careers guy asked me what I liked to do, I answered honestly. It wasn’t my finest career building moment, and now I’m working part-time in Waitrose.

I grew up in a boringly middle-class home with a maths teacher for a father and a florist for a mother. I can only assume my creativity came from the florist. As far as I can tell, they have never done one single thing of any significance in their entire lives; they don’t even go abroad on holiday.

Without the wherewithal to strike out on my own, I wake each morning, in my childhood bedroom, with a head full of characters and stories. I’m the kind of guy who sees faces in clouds and intrigue in the mundane. With little prompting my mind morphs into a flurry of activity.

I don’t have much. But I have imagination.

Sitting at the breakfast table, this morning, cold toast on a plate in front of me, I decided to write a novel. Not just any old novel: it will, without a doubt, be the best-selling novel of 2018 – or perhaps 2019.

There are two ways of beginning. I could choose my genre, audience and theme first; then start generating ideas. Or I could sift through your existing ideas to see if any of them fit into a marketable genre. They amount to the same thing really. So, being a methodical guy, I’ve decided to cover each in the order I undertook them.

Have Loads of Ideas

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I have loads of ideas.

This is great news if you want to be a writer. In fact, rule one for writers is to jot down every idea you have: good, bad, or indifferent. The chances are you won’t fall in love with every idea right away but, looking back through my journal, there are definitely a few with real promise. And I’ve noticed that combining a couple can produce something way better than the original.

Like me, you should get into the habit of coming up with and recording ideas. I don’t think it matters how you do this, each of us is unique and I imagine there are thousands of ways to coax out our creativity.

Some of the better known, tried and tested, ways of developing and recording ideas are: –

Daily journaling – set a timer and write whatever comes into your head, without thinking about it. This exercise is known variously as ‘morning pages’, free-writing, timed-writing and automatic writing.

I’m a little freaked by the idea of automatic writing, which sounds supernatural, but it is very much like the others, in that you take a fresh sheet or pad of paper – or open a new document on the computer – and write whatever comes into your head. You might start with a question or a prompt. I will discuss that a little later.

Many ideas come from this free-writing technique.

Keep a notebook with you – if you are in the creative mindset, ideas will come to you at any time – day or night. Keep a notebook in your bag or take a small pocket journal with you and write down any ideas you have.

I was once driving past a hotel and saw a keycard lying on the pavement. I didn’t stop but it did spark an intriguing story idea: someone finds a hotel keycard in the glovebox of a hire car. They can’t resist visiting the room to ‘return the key to the occupant’ – that’s their story – and when they arrive, they discover the body of an elderly lady. Her left hand was missing.

Write what you know – if you are an architect, write about the secret passageway in an Elizabethan rectory. If you are a doctor, write about the old man with gout you see posting five-pound notes through every letterbox along Jail Lane. And if you are a teacher, tell the tale of the teenage lovebirds who pass notes at the back of your classroom. They each have a fascinating story to tell. Help them!

Rewrite the news – I once wrote a short story about a Croatian war criminal who had been hiding out on a farm for ten years. The idea came to me while watching the ten o’clock news.

Ask questions – another idea is to fill out a character questionnaire for an imagined protagonist and see if he has a story he wants to tell. Just google character questionnaire and get writing.

Mind mapping – write a prompt, question or even a theme, such as ‘disillusionment’, in the centre of a mind map. Then add every word or phrase you can think of, as a branch on the map. Keep adding branches until you connect with an idea you would like to write.

Use an ideas book or website – if ideas don’t come easily to you, you might try picking an idea from one of the many books or websites listing writing prompts and ideas. Or you could just click or flip randomly through a photo book or website and write the first lines of a story about what you see in the photograph.

Use a prop – my Buddhist writing coach used to give us an item out of a hessian bag and ask us to write a story about it or from its point of view. He once asked me to write on the prompt ‘what time is it in the bag’ and I wrote a transformational piece about it being time to move on.

Use a plot generation website – there are certainly enough of them. Here’s a few I found on my first google search: –

https://www.plot-generator.org.uk/story/

https://thejohnfox.com/2016/05/story-idea-generator/

http://writingexercises.co.uk/plotgenerator.php

Rewrite a book or movie – can you think of a movie or book where the writer got it all wrong? I can. In fact, I can think of five without even trying. Why not change the setting and characters and rewrite it in a way you would have preferred.

Find a way to be bored – allow your mobile phone battery to die, take a device-less walk, or find an isolated place to sit. Left alone long enough, if you are any kind of a writer at all, you will begin to entertain yourself with a story. I’m told that J.K. Rowling came up with Harry Potter on a tedious four-hour train ride.

One of the best websites I found for ideas generation was this one: –

https://www.creativelive.com/blog/book-ideas/

Once you have your ideas, treasure them. Store them in one place – you don’t want to lose them, after all that hard work. My journal must have 100 ideas in it by now so I think I’m ready to make a selection.

Choose Your Genre

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Not to be obvious, but even I know I can’t just write any old book and expect it to sell. I need to write a book that WILL sell, or I’ll be serving at a Waitrose check-out for the rest of my working life.

So, having developed loads of spectacular ideas – though I say so myself – now is the time to pick one which is likely to catch the imagination of a wide audience of profligate readers.

Already, this morning, I’ve been researching on the internet – I’m not bad at research after studying for the past three years at Uni – and have established the five top-selling genres: –

  1. Romance
  2. Crime & Mystery
  3. Religion & Spiritual
  4. Fantasy & Sci-Fi
  5. Horror

They may be interchangeable, but these are reliably the best-selling genres, year after year.

There are, of course, numerous sub-genres within these five.  For example, the Crime genre has sub-genres which include: detective, whodunit, mystery and police procedural.

Most of my ideas come under the headings of Crime or Sci-Fi, and I mostly read mysteries, so I have decided to write a mystery novel.

By the way, to be a novelist you need to read. To paraphrase Stephen King – if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write. So, if you don’t like to read, I suspect you will not have the patience to write a novel of 70,000-100,000 words.

So far, this blog has been around 1600 words. That’s about 2% of the length of a novel – so if you have checked your email and Facebook more than once since beginning to read, novel writing is not for you.

Identify Your Audience

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After deciding on your genre, before you can begin writing your novel, you must identify your audience. Are they children, young adults, new adults or just plain adults

Sometimes, having decided on the genre, you have no choice on the audience. For example, erotica is always for an adult audience – if you are thinking of writing young-adult erotica – think again!

Having settled on a crime fiction and plumped for a mystery, the audience I choose will begin to inform the content of the story. I’m a new adult and I read mainly adult mystery novels. By deciding the target audience, I will not only be determining the age-appropriateness of the content, this decision will influence the tone and theme.  For example, I can write my mystery novel for children if I want but, in that case, I will have to avoid including plot points relating to sex and drugs.

At this stage, I should point out that some people follow this process in reverse. So, they might come up with an idea and then decide who the target audience is first. For example, they may identify a niche reader, such as a history buff or a Francophile, and then come up with an idea for a Dan Brown-esqe breadcrumb-chasing romp through Paris, to meet the needs of that audience.

If the niche of readers is large enough and has a literary reading budget sufficiently extravagant to justify their novel-writing time, they will, no doubt, begin writing immediately.

Pick Your Theme

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What! I’ve chosen a genre, a sub-genre and an audience and I still have more decisions to make?

I hear the average person has a limited number of decisions they can or will make in a day. I can’t afford to waste any more, I hear you scream.

That’s what I thought too. But then I found out that deciding on the theme is an extremely practical and useful thing to do at an early stage.

Your theme is the overarching concept for the entire book. Like, good versus evil, coming of age, love fading or love sustaining. You may have a genre, a story, and an audience but your theme is the underlying message you are sending your audience. Here are 101 common book themes for you to choose from and here are some more.

I decided on ‘manipulation’ which felt appropriate for my mystery genre and adult audience. As soon as I made the decision I changed my mind on which of my story ideas I would choose.

Choosing my idea, through this process, took me three days. I trawled through my ideas journal for what felt like an eternity before alighting on one. I’ll tell you all about it next time.

***

Having tackled the topic of inspiration, Morgan’s next blog will be on the subject of the Outline. Look out for it in July.

Here is a teaser image of what Morgan is looking at, as part of his research for the next topic: –

story_arc_diagram_by_illuminara-d7z3erh

Image by Illuminara

Follow my blog if you would like to hear more about Morgan’s journey.

 

 

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