Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Birch House Press). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.
(This is the first installment of a new series, Writing a Novel from Beginning to End.)
"Where do you get your ideas?" is one of those questions that any professional writer has been asked hundreds of times. It's something of an industry joke, really, but it's not that surprising of a question.
I have no musical skills. The idea of writing a symphony piece completely blows my mind. How do you know where to start? How do you know that it'll sound good to have flutes doing one thing and trumpets doing another? I'm sure, if I were to sit down with a composer, I would ask all kinds of questions that seem completely stupid to one who is musically minded.
I agree with Stephen King's famous quote that writers have no idea where story ideas actually come from. My husband, who's an engineer, never seems to get story ideas, whereas I see them everywhere, as I suspect many of you do too.
But the ideas I have aren't all equal. Some are just sparks, others more like fireworks that quickly fade away, and still others glow like a long-burning torch.
So how do you and I know if a story idea is worth pursuing? How do we know this isn't just another story idea but your best story idea?
If you're like me, your writing time is limited and you want to pursue the best story ideas. Here's the process I go through to determine if a story idea is wroth my time and energy:
1. Give it the time test.
One of two things usually happens to me at this point:
- The idea continues to follow me around, continues to nag at me when I'm driving or washing dishes. I can't help thinking about it.
- I totally forget about the idea in the shuffle of my everyday life. It might even be weeks before I remember that I had the idea.
If number one happens, I know I want to pursue this further. But if the second thing happens, that doesn't necessarily mean I'll never pursue it. Often times it just means this idea isn't ready yet. (But definitely save it, because you never know when you'll figure out that missing piece. Here's how I keep track of my ideas.)
2. Give the idea a quick, "Does this have a chance of being a good story?" analysis.
- A main character in a sympathetic situation. (Using the examples of Harry Potter and The Help, Harry is an orphan being raised by a horrid family, and Skeeter is a white girl in the south in the 1960s who wants to help black maids tell their stories)
- A main character who is a hero in some way. (As a baby, Harry somehow defeated the darkest, most powerful wizard, though he's not sure how, and Skeeter is risking her life to tell an important story and provide social justice.)
- A unique storyworld. (Hogwarts School, and tumultuous Mississippi in the 1960s)
- A theme or takeaway message that will impact others. (Harry is capable of much more greatness than he had ever imagined, or in The Help, equality for people of all races.)
- A great ending. (Don't want to spoil anything for anyone who hasn't yet enjoyed Harry Potter or The Help, but the endings are great!)
I have no memory of where The Fault In Our Stars took place, other than the brief period in Amsterdam. Eleanor and Park is set in Omaha. Even without the complex storyworlds of other books, these are still two stories that burrowed into my heart.
But I've still found this list to be a good starting place when I'm trying to figure out where my idea might fall short.
3. See what else is out there.
Especially if you're wanting to pursue publication, you'll want to see if there are other books on the store shelves that are like yours. When I approach my agent with a new idea, this is one of the first things she checks on—has anything too similar sold recently, and does the market look favorable for this kind of book?
This doesn't sound very fun and artsy, I know. But you really don't want to spend six months writing a first draft of your very unique novel about Amish vampires in space only to discover that it already exists. Right?
Now, if I find that there's already something on the market that seems a little too similar to my idea, I don't give up. Instead, I start brainstorming how to make mine different.
4. Start writing the thing.
If, in step one, I didn't write anything more than a description of what the story will be about, I now write the first chapter or two. There's just something about being in the storyworld and being with the characters that makes it so much clearer whether this is going to work or not.
Sometimes, like with the book I'm working on now, I write the first chapter and realize, "It'll work ... but it'll be a hard one." Other times I've written a first chapter, felt that something was off, and put the book away for a while. One time, I wrote a few chapters of an idea I felt was really unique, only to discover I didn't at all like my main character and that I dreaded spending time with her.
While there are still times where I write an entire first draft before realizing this story just isn't a good fit, going through these four steps really helps me to sift out great story ideas from good ideas.
What do you do when you have a story idea? Dive right in? Plan it all out?
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