Friday, January 7, 2011

Making sure your idea is big enough

First of all, today's the last day to enter the writing prompt contest. Entries need to be e-mailed to me by 11:59pm Kansas City time. Click here for more details on the writing prompt contest.

I talked on Wednesday about gathering ideas for your novel. One last thought I had was listening to music. When I listen to songs, I try to come up with a story that makes sense with the lyrics. I think Muse and Foo Fighters have particularly good songs for this exercise, but I'm biased by my excellent taste in music.

Today let's talk about how to weed out novel-worthy ideas from not-novel-worthy ideas.

Honestly, sometimes this just takes trial and error. Frustrating as that may be. Sometimes you gotta write 50 pages before you realize, "Huh ... not gonna make it..." All novelists started there. It's nothing to be ashamed of.

Many of you have talked about having too many ideas, that you don't know which to pick or how to focus.

So say you've got your idea binder or folder or document open. A good place to start is by looking for the biggest idea. The one that has potential for a range of emotions, good conflict with other characters, and strong consequences (by which I mean if the main character doesn't solve the problem, bad things will happen).

Maybe a few of your ideas can be combined into something novel-worthy.

Before I wrote Me, Just Different, I'd written several drafts of a novel that explored teen pregnancy. I was completely obsessed with the subject, yet I could not get my novel to work. I wound up trashing it and moving on. (A wise move.) Then, a year or two later, when I started working on what became Me, Just Different, I saw a way to work in the teen pregnancy thing, and it really filled out Skylar's family story.

So don't be afraid to pull a couple random ideas from your file and brainstorm how they could work together.

Once I've picked an idea, the next thing I do is write what I call the blurby thing. The blurby thing is similar to back cover copy, only it's ... more experimental, I guess. Messier. It's me testing out my main character, her back story, and the journey she's about to embark on. It's usually 2 or 3 paragraphs and starts with something like this:

Madeline Mackenzie has been raised in wine country by two foodie parents. Her mother is Deb Layton-Mackenzie, daughter of Charles Layton, who owned several restaurants in San Francisco. While in the restaurant business, Deb discovered O'Neil Mackenzie, who was passionate about Mexican food after growing up in a Latino neighborhood in the California valley. Together they started "Macks" where they serve...

You get the picture. The blurby thing is not meant to be pretty or even enticing. It's just something for me to get a feel for my story, to see if it's something that's going to "flesh out" the way I'm hoping. Some of that might not even make it into the book, but that's okay. This is like the early part of shopping for jeans. Right now you're pulling every brand and every wash in your size off the rack and carrying it back to the dressing room. You'll make decisions later, but first you need to try a bunch on.

After the back story, I move onto what the character's current world looks like:

Madeline has always loved food and has never thought of doing anything outside of cooking. She enjoys doing the show, but would like to do something besides her dad's recipes.

And then I set up what launches us into the meat of the story:

Her best friend, Macy, encourages her to express this to her father. Mack surprises Madeline by being excited by her idea and he encourages her to spend time in the kitchen working on recipes.

Then I try to list out some of hurdles my main character is going to experience. Try to find at least three:

Then Madeline realizes she has no idea how to create a recipe...
Then Madeline discovers she doesn't have a good enough pallet to be a food critic...
Now food has turned into such a job, Madeline doesn't enjoy it the way she used to...

And finally I write a sentence or two that sums up what it is my character learned, what she went on this journey for in the first place:

Finally, Madeline decides to just be content with where she is and what she's doing.

I've found doing this is a great way to test out an idea, a character, a plot twist before I even write "Chapter One."

When you're done with that, here's a list of questions suggested in James Scott Bell's Revision and Self-Editing that might help:

  • What could make the situation worse for my Lead?
  • How can I take that beyond worse and make it worse than that?
  • What part of my concept is familiar? Has it been done before? How can I freshen it?
  • What if I tried a completely different setting?
  • What trait could my Lead possess that hurts her?
  • How can I make the characters in conflict hate each other?
  • How can I make the characters who love each other have to be on opposite sides?
  • Are there relationships I can create that up the ante for each character?

Happy blurby thing writing, guys. As always, if you have writing questions, e-mail me.


  1. Excellent post. I often have this problem - but rather than having the good sense to stop at 50, I force myself to keep going. This may be the death of me at some point.

  2. Lol, Kelsey. But that same tendency to be stubborn could be what carries you through to publication :)

  3. I get so bored sometimes writing certain things... some of my ideas actually I think could possibly become a full fledged novel.
    For some reason whenever I write a book, I tend to have a great beginning and a good idea of what the ending is going to be like haha.
    And then I run into a wall..
    The middle of the book lol x) Anyone else run into this? haha

    But of course like you said I write probably not even 50 pages and then I realize... that the book is boring and not going anywhere.

    1. Oh I know exactly what this is like! I've got the beginning and the ending. The problem is getting to the ending :)

  4. I thought Monday was the last day to submit the writing prompt...?

  5. Ugh, you're right! I'm operating on too little sleep this week. Monday is the deadline.

  6. Jazmine, I know what you mean! I was working on a sequel to my first book last year and did just that - ran into a wall in the middle of the book. It was just uneventful and going nowhere! I ended up putting it away for a few months and then I started over at the begining, rewriting, and doing that sparked an idea! Now I am really happy with the storyplot, the climax, and the ending! :-) So now whenever I run into that 'wall', I put the book aside for a few months and just think about it for long hours! Then start over at the begining rewriting!

    ~ Katy

  7. Fun post! Ive found stories in Taylor Swift & Carrie underwood songs! Thought I was the only person that had that happen.

    Are you an outliner? Or is this just an exercise to get you started. The conflict can change?

  8. I'm trying to be an outliner. If it were entirely up to me, I would continue to write by the seat-of-my-pants. It works well for me, and if you're not on deadline, who cares if you have to chuck half the manuscript and start over?

    But now that I'm working with publishers, I'm finding more and more benefits to outlining. Hence the blurby thing. It's a rough road map, very flexible, and doesn't take up a ton of time.

  9. I think I'm a seat-of-the-pants too but still have a slight idea in my mind! Like if you have a basic outline but allow for surprises maybe you can find a happy medium that works?!

  10. Every writer I know talks about having difficult with middles, so Jazmine, you're not alone! Katy offered great advice. Sometimes putting it away for a while, getting a fresh perspective, can make a big difference. Other times, having a friend brainstorm with you can do the trick.

  11. I'm hoping so, Tonya! For me, I usually write the blurby thing, then write my first three chapters and get a feel for my characters and the setting, then write the 1 to 2 page synopsis. So far that's proving to be a happy enough medium for me :)

  12. Muse is my go-to writing music too! They are my favorite band ever! I am so excited to hear you like them, they are absolutely fantastic :)

  13. Tamber, yes they are! I'm hoping to see them in concert sometime.

  14. Great post!! When I first start developing a story probably the first 3 weeks I'm just sketching characters and fleshing out the plot haha! Writing a synopsis would probably help me tie the loose ends to my new plot! This really helped! Oh!! Foo Fighters- awesome band! I usually listen to The Beatles and Depeche Mode for inspiration haha! Yeah, I'm old school. But recently I've been on a Mozart/Vivaldi kick. It really sparks how to convey emotion in my writing!

  15. OMG! I am so excited to find this blog. It. Is. Awesome. Thank you so much for writing it.
    I'm working on coming up with story ideas to write. Do you think it's ok to read back cover copies on amazon as inspiration for ideas? Is that plagiarism?

  16. I usually start off somewhere in the middle of the story, it's the beginnings I have trouble with. And other times it's the opposite. My longest story (also dealing with teen pregnancy) I started off with a prologue then a small part in between then did the ending. There were huge gaps in between and now there are smaller ones. I'm slowly getting to the point of finishing my first book.

    - MJ

  17. The hardest thing for me is scrapping an idea that is going nowhere. I don't know why but I always feel obligated to finish it no matter how horrible.

    But, I've just scrapped a story and I feel really liberated and inspired to write more. So thanks :)