Monday, October 24, 2011

My too-small book idea

Don't forget - writing prompts are due this Wednesday. Click here for details.

If you missed Friday's post, pulled out a manuscript of mine from high school and identified what my problem areas were as a teenage writer.

The manuscript is called Grass and Dandelion Bouquets, which is a horrendous title. You can tell this is going to be a sappy book, can’t you? Blech. I don’t want to have to keep typing it out, so I’ll just refer to it as the dandelion story, okay?

The dandelion story is one I wrote and rewrote and plotted and revised and scrapped and rewrote about 500 times before I finally burned out and abandoned it altogether. Even with all that expended energy, I only managed to write about 10,000 words. 

The dandelion story is about a girl named Paige who had spent all her life living as a tomboy. When Paige is a junior (I think) she moves halfway across the country, leaving behind a close group of friends, and a very, very serious boyfriend. Who’s so ticked with her for moving, he refuses to talk to her after she tells him she’s leaving. (I’ve already told you I had some issues with character believability…) So Paige moves to her new home in suburban St. Louis, where she completely transforms herself. She doesn’t keep in touch with any of her old friends, she becomes a complete girly-girl, and even dates a new guy. Then for some reason I can’t remember, Paige’s family gets sent back to her original home a year later.

Maybe I’m biased, but I still believe it's an okay idea, that this is a story idea that could work. There are some serious holes in it—I’m pretty skeptical of any story concept that involves phrases like, “and these two people who were super-duper close stop talking to each other for a year”—but it’s not a bad story idea.

Here’s the thing I want to draw your attention to—everything in that description is back story. The story opens on Paige’s first day back at her old school. She’s just walked into the classroom in her transformed state, and she’s seeing her friends after having ignored them for a year. Which means my concept for this novel was all backstory, it wasn’t the actual story. And that’s because I lacked the understanding of what made a good story. Sure, I had read lots of great books and seen lots of great movies, but I hadn’t yet figured out how to do it myself.

Even now, that’s the way my story ideas come to me, as the main character’s backstory. It took me a while to figure out that, as enriching as the backstory was, what I really needed to know was “everything else.” The stuff between Once upon a time and The End.

In his book Plot and Structure, James Scott Bell puts it so simply with his LOCK system. Your book needs a lead character who is interesting to watch, and who has an objective or goal to chase after. While they pursue their objective, there should be obstacles or confrontations that prevent them from achieving their goals. And then there should be a knockout ending. Something that satisfied the readers.

That’s story structure stated in such basic verbiage, even I can understand it. Were I to write the dandelion story again, I would start by asking what Paige was trying to achieve over the course of the story, what stood in her way, and how the ending would satisfy.

What about you? When you come up with a story idea, what (usually) comes to you first? Is it the main character’s back story? Is it the plot of the book? Is it the theme?


  1. Backstory, totally. No surprise to my critique partner, who often hears me rambling about a new character idea, followed by "And then, you know, plot stuff happens. Romance ensues. That sort of thing. The end." =)

  2. Usually, for me, the plot comes first. I'm brainstorming and I think in my head, "What if a brother and sister were to be separated by their parents' divorce?" or something like that. Then I come up with characters. Usually names, then looks, then personality.

  3. For almost every story that I've written, or dreamed about it always starts out with a scene I know I just HAVE to write. Something in me almost goes crazy until I write it out, or at least explore it's possibilities. With that one simple scene I can see characters and their looks, and I hear their voices right away. That's when I do some digging, making sure that their good enough to have a great story. Sometimes, that first scene doesn't even make it into the final cut. It sometimes just acts as the spark to an explosive story just waiting to burst.
    It's a very interesting way to come up with stories, I know, but it oddly works. :)

  4. I really haven't figured out where ideas come from. I used to think I never had any ideas and then I started making a real habit of when I saw an idea I liked in something (whether a book, song, movie, anything) to ask why? And what spin I could put on it?  From there I come up with little pieces I write down. When I need a new idea I look over all those pieces and tend to find trends that I can put together. It's like a puzzle!

    I still have struggles fully developing and writing a story though 

    The dandelion story isn't bad, I think there's lots of parts that can be used. Walking back into a situation after your been away for awhile,  especially when you've changed is SUPER awkward. That could cause a lot of conflict

  5. Actually, I really like the concept for this story. Maybe it's just that the theme in a lot of my books focus on facing fears/reuniting, but I really do like this concept. Yeah, it needs work, but what story doesn't? Heck, I've read books that everyone says are spectacular, and there are holes in the plot big enough to drive a semi through. :D

    My biggest problem, I think, is that in my first draft I concentrate so hard on making sure my plot is flawless that my characters get sadly neglected. :(

  6. This book actually sounds pretty good. Perhaps one day, when you're sixty-five and in need of a new project, Steph -- we'll see it in print! Or maybe in three years. Who knows. :D

    Hmm. I don't know what comes to me first. The theme, maybe? The character, possibly.

  7. Your MC has the same name as me :D

    I usually just find a small idea, then expand it. I write the whole plot down first and then go back and create characters. The problem with that is my characters don't work very well without a LOT of work most of the time.

    - Paige

  8. I always start out with one tincy, wincy idea...and it always makes me wonder how people write 100,000 word books. At least I've reached the point where I can have a 75,000 word book...instead of 20,000 words like my first one.

  9. The thing that I think happens most often for me, is that I come up with a a single scene that I think is really great, usually not even with [what will one day be] main characters. And I tend to come up with a theme and characters to revolve around that scene, and expand, and expand, until the whole thing has become a plan for a book. The funny thing is, so far, every time that has happened, I ended up scrapping the original scene and planning not to use it.

    The other thing that happens is that I come up with a theme. Like, "I want to write a book where the government has made it illegal to save lives, (due to a massive population) and a group of rebels start vaccinating people and generally trying to help." And when that happens, usually the next thing I do is dream up a bunch of characters.

    Sometimes I'll take something really simple that I like--say, chemistry, dealing with atoms and compounds--and build some complex idea for a book out of it. (What happens if people can change the number of electrons/protons/nuetron in an atom? They could change any element to any other element, like gold. What sort of enemies could they have? How could I encorporate that theme into a modern thing for teens?) (Sorry about my random geeky ramblings.) Anyway, I tend to take even the most basic theme and expand upon it!

  10. Hey Jessica! Oh my gosh, that is almost exactly what I do!!!! What I usually do, though, is start with a conversation that I randomly made up, then pick names, then start figuring out why the heck my characters are HAVING this conversation.

  11. I've been loving all the comments today, but just haven't been able to get back to my computer. Which is the downside of my office being sequestered to a corner of the house.


    Roseanna, maybe that makes us bad critique partners, that we create stories the same way. Huh. No trading me in, though, okay?

    Abbie, I wish, wish, wish I were like you and came up with the plot first.

    Paige, that's because I love your name :)

    Clarebear, Becki, and Jessica, I think it's so funny you guys all mentioned the "scene idea" and I had never heard of that.

    And, Jessica, your "theme" story sounds incredible. Tell me that's a real project of yours.

    Sananora, I definitely think it takes practice to write long books. It did for me, anyway. Took me awhile to figure out what ideas held up for 75k and what ideas fizzled after 25.

    Tonya, Becki, Emii - if it gets revitalized, I will credit you three for recognizing its potential :)

  12. Alright, so I'm not so odd. My stories usually start with a scene as well.Unfortunately for me, I'll often get the idea in the middle of the night. This requires me to trust that I'll either remember it or get out of bed and write notes in the dark (who wants to turn on the light when you're almost asleep?) I have to say though, one story just started with a name-which I ended up changing half of since it was too confusing :)

  13. Stephanie, just reading your comment the song "what can I say?" by Carrie Underwood started playing on my Pandora and it sort of reminded me of the dandelion story :)

  14. Clare, I love your comment. :-)

    Stephanie, horrendous title? Don't worry, I've seen/written worse. :-) I had a bit of an infatuation with the dictionary during middle school. I'll never forget taking a short story to my dad. He looked at it and asked, "So what does this word mean?"

    To me, what comes first is usually the name. Either the name of the main character or the title (which totally explains that last paragraph, right?). An exception would be the 100 words I submitted for the last writing prompt contest. I'm toying with the idea of writing a whole novel about it and have almost finished the first chapter. The name of that main character was so hard to decide on!!!

    Also, Jessica, I'm taking chemistry this semester and WOWZA! That story idea sounds so neat!!

  15. I get an idea and I play around with how it could work. I guess I kinda look at the big picture and different ways it could work. Then if I think I could make it work and I get really pumped about it I start writing. So plot/theme-ish. Sierra
    Keep Growing Beautiful♥ (Cause You Are!)

  16. Rachelle, that's hilarious! Yeah, I love dictionaries, and I haunt when I'm writing, to see if I can come up with any more exciting words.

  17. My writing is completely theme-driven. The main problem with this is sounding preachy. Next come characters, and setting. Lastly...the plot. Therefore, my stories tend to have lousy plots. Oh well, at least I know what I need to work on!


  18. I will think of a problem or if I hear something on the news, I'll be like "huh what if..." and then I start planning for a story
    I have tons of ideas...but I barely get past chapter 5!!! I have a problem with making sure everything is perfect and don't feel like my idea is good enough. But I'm working on that and, Stephanie, you're writing prompts are really helping! I get tons of ideas from them..

  19. There are ample place to pull an idea for a story for :) All you have to do is put your mind to it and think of creative ways to make an exciting and riveting story.

    I think the story could use some work personally, (the Dandelion story) But like someone else said above me every story needs work. :)

  20. Rachelle- Thanks! <3 I'm so jealous that you get chemistry this year...I have to rely on what I learned about it from physical science last year. Chemistry is totally my geeky obsession! xD

    And Becky, high-five! I do the conversasion thing too, but more often, it's like a scene or...actually, I guess I do do the conversasion thing more often than I thought!

    And Stephanie, thanks about my theme idea! I actually just sort of came up with it on the spot, because I think of physcology/chemistry/quantum mechanics and stuff like that like, constantly. Some of them just pop up all of the sudden like, "Woah! Story idea!" I've got SO many projects, but it's on my list now. :)

  21. Jessica, earlier this semester I would have choked when I read that, but it turns out chemistry isn't as intimidating as it at first seemed. Me and my GPA are Thankful for that! I admire your geeky obsession. Your writing must be totally cool ~ all scientificy! :)