Idea To Realisation; How To Write A Novel

PART ONE; DEVELOPING THE IDEA

A while ago I put out a tweet on my account asking if anyone, anyone at all, would be interested in live updates about what the process of writing a novel looks like start to finish.

Well, the answer was yes (as you can imagine, given you’re reading this now), and I’m a balls-to-the-wall kind of person…

 

So here it is; ground zero. That moment when you have an idea, and literally nothing else. For me that idea, that concept, consists of Four things;

  • Sound
  • Sight (an image in your mind, or in the real world)
  • Feeling
  • Texture

And it looks like this;

IMG_20180302_181729

I suspect I’m neither unique, or unusual in this, but I’ve never seen anyone talk about how to turn these things specifically into a workable plan for a novel or short story. Here’s how I begin; I write down that concept, the sight, sound, smell, and taste of it. Even if it makes little sense, even if it sounds like I’m describing a painting; I get it on paper. Sensory people, in my experience, have the most trouble with planning, and the easiest time when it comes to writing – so if you’re like me and this stage is hell, don’t worry it gets much, much easier.

This is the first step.

Then I add to that with working titles, genres, themes, potential plots and subplots. The end result is a messier version of this;

IMG_20180303_073859.jpg

From here I move on to what I call the “mini-snowflake”.

I’m sure you all know what the snowflake method is and so you probably have a good idea of what the mini-snowflake is, but I’ll explain anyway. The mini-snowflake is a replication of stage 2 of the full method applied with the idea of helping to create a concrete idea of how to progress before you start planning in earnest. Start with a single sentence which explains the premise of your starting point, then follow up with a paragraph which explains the rough trajectory of the middle, and then finish with a sentence that gives a rough shape to the end of your story. It could look like this;
IMG_20180303_073526.jpg

 

 

Now,  at this point most people would go into a full-blown snowflake, right? Well, not me amigos. If that would work better for you, and you’ve got what you need from my advice, then crack on, but I go to characters next. Stephen King once said that you’re either a planner or a pantser by nature, though most people have a little of both, and I’m a pantser. I fly by the seat of my character’s pants, though, not mine, and so I fill out my protagonist and antagonist, along with any main characters, before I do anything else. Now, this is where you might think it gets weird; my character sheets are reminiscent of D&D, but I promise you they work. Well, they work for me.

Interestingly enough this similarity predates my jump into D&D. If I’m honest it comes from playing RPG’s like Dragon Age: Origins, Oblivion, Skyrim, and, of course, older offerings. Here’s what my character sheets look like;

 

IMG_20180303_073044.jpg

 

The idea is to build a character type that can deal with the obstacles in their way, but not with consummate ease. By setting things like skills (for example research, literacy, two-handed weaponry… it all depends on your genre), feats (passive qualities which can be improved with work, e.g. strength, flexibility, intelligence) you can get an idea not only of how they will react but what they can do. Likewise, by setting things like their drive (the overall goal that pushes them through life), and their short-term goal (the thing motivating them through the story), as well as the overall ideal to which they subscribe you can begin to build a relationship with your character.

 

Once you have a cast of viable main characters return to your initial ideas sheet and ask yourself which of these ideas fit best with the characters in question. How would they react to each situation? Are the needed motivations realistic? Will there be enough tension?

Make a list of the top 3 ideas you have and note the pros, the cons, and the unique selling point for each of them because it’s time for idea development. In all honesty, you’re most likely to end up with an idea that combines aspects of all three, or even one of your top 3 with some of the disqualified contenders. Roll with it; all you need is a viable idea to work with. Think of this as a malleable hypothesis – it will change as you go through the stages of plotting, writing, rewriting, and editing.

All you need, at this point, is an idea that has 4  qualities;

  1. A HOOK
  2. TENSION/CONFLICT
  3. ROOM FOR GROWTH
  4. THE ABILITY TO EXCITE YOU

If you’re not excited and passionate about the idea, the novel is going to fizzle out. If you have these 4 things, you have a good foundation from which to kick off.

Resources for moving forward;

30 Story Starters

The Genres in Fiction

3 Mistakes To Avoid

3 Cardinal Sins of Writing

3 Ways to Level Up Your Prose

 

 

 

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102 Ways to Spark Novel Ideas

The hardest part of writing is, for many, getting started; formulating a viable idea is harder than it sounds for many writers.

Never fear – TheMerryWriter (that’s me!) is here to save the day!

Image result for save the day gif

Well… maybe not, but I do have a list of 102 prompts, story starters, and suggestions for idea generation that might just haul you out of this rut;

Idea Generators

Some ways to formulate ideas, both big and small;

  1. Bend a well-worn story; the stories of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Dracula have been worked over and over. Remember this; some stories are public domain and as such you can use their plot, their characters, and/or their premise. Twist it with your own ideas and you could have a winner!
  2. Read the Newspaper; find the weirdest or most mysterious news story you can and write an alternative path to/ending for that news story (be sure to change names and details if you wish to submit it for publication). You can bend a news story to fit almost any genre, too!
  3. What-If questions; look at history, or current events, or even novels and stories you love and ask yourself “what if”. For example, my good friend Miranda Shepard  is writing a story based on the question “What if Logen Ninefingers had met a nice girl and turned on Bethod before Bethod turned on him?”. To read it you would never know that this is how it started, or that the characters have their basis in the work of Joe Abercrombie, but that question was enough to get her running (shameless friend promotion, I know!).
  4. Make Use of Junk Mail; have you ever had one of those emails or letters claiming to be from a Nigerian, or Russian, or Vietnamese, Prince/Princess who will pay you if you just let them use your bank account to claim funds? Well, why not write a story about the people who make these scams, the people who fall for them, or even story in which it is true!
  5. Old friends, new horizons; invent a fantastical, or realistically grim depending on your bend, for an old acquaintance with whom you have lost touch!
  6. Eavesdrop; now I’m not suggesting you listen for secrets behind closed doors (unless that’s really your thing), but we all know there are times when you catch a snippet of conversation in a public place and wish you knew what came next, before, or how it started…. why not write your own version?
  7. People watch; an extension of the last, but bear with me. Watch the way people move, what they wear, and think about the kind of person this might make them. Write a story about the person you create, or simply slot your new character into an existing plot.
  8. Alternative history; much like the what-if question, but a little more involved. After all, the Man in The High Castle is an alternative history; what would have happened if we came to believe the Nazis won the war?
  9. Write a fix it; have you ever been disappointed by a story or movie? Write a fix-it scene or story that resolves things the way you would have liked!
  10. Try a plot generatorthis one will actually generate a short story, novel, script outline for you if you fill out the descriptors. It usually spews out sub-par offerings, but if you’re stuck you can have some real fun and maybe harvest a few small ideas at the same time.
  11. Start with a word; pick a word you don’t know the meaning of and look it up, or a word that you just like the sound of. Make a mind map of all the associations it has for you and write a story using that inspiration/guidance.
  12. Pick a picture; google an image, or look at a painting and make a story that fits the scene depicted. If you want to get really out there pick an abstract and write about what you see in it.
  13. Write for others; ask your friends and family what they really like to, or really want to, read and write something just for them.
  14. Re-invent a fairy tale; avoid a well-worn one like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and go for something like the woman who lived in a shoe, or Rumpelstiltskin. Better yet you could write a new fairy tale using established mythological creatures like, for example, Ghillie Dubh of Scottish folklore.
  15. Do your research; pick a topic that really interests you, for example Templar history, social development in children, marine biology, and read around the subject. The more broad your knowledge, the bigger the pool you have to draw ideas from.
  16. Make a “hate” list; list the tropes, character features, and cliches you hate the most and go through them one by one writing short snippets and scenes (even stories) which twist them in ways you would prefer to see in main stream media.
  17. Make a “love” list; make a list of the tropes, character features, and cliches you love and deliberately write them badly to find out what it is that makes them work for you.
  18. Break your routine; we are creature of habit, of course, but be sure to break from your norm now and then, New experiences are key in keeping your repetoire fresh.
  19. Take a holiday/vacation; on the subject of shaking up your routine – be sure to take time to not write. That’s right; when you don’t write, you can improve your writing (say that fast three times!). Recharge and focus on experiencing life, even if your vacation is only a lack of work.
  20. Talk to people; talk to anyone about anything. Talk to people you know you disagree with about difficult subjects (politely) and to people you usually agree with about controversial subjects (politely). Hell, talk to strangers about mundane things. Absorb the milieu of humanity as often as you can if you really want to write; so many of Stephen Kings books feature tiny, insignificant moments that make his fantastical stories truly human.
  21. Make a decision; before you have a full plot, or if you cannot build one to save yourself, make a huge decision and plonk it in the middle somewhere. E.g. this character will die. Then set about brainstorming as to how you can make this happen in a meaningful way.
  22. Relive your memories; write about your memories, the good, the bad, the ugly, the insignificant, and the fleeting. These are the things that impacted you enough to stay with you. Bonus; fixate on the most obscure and meaningless memory you have, write about why its so important and memorable, make a false history to get a character to that point.
  23. Reverse Problem Solving; create a problem for your character and mind-map or brainstorm how you can cause this problem for them.
  24. Ping-Pong; get together with friends and work together to make as many ideas as you can from one starting point. One person “serves”, i.e. they must come up with an idea, no matter how silly or weak, and the next person develops it and so on.
  25. Fill the gap; write out a start point for your character and a possible end point, fill that gap! If you can’t think of one for your character do it for yourself; where are you now, and where would you like to be (in your wildest dreams or most tentative plans) and fill the gap.
  26. Link Hop; start on a Wikipedia page for something you find interesting, link hop three times and write a story that joins all things somehow. This is a hell of an exercise; be prepared to drink!
  27. WWJD; pick a sticky situation out of a novel, newspaper, film, or memory and ask yourself what someone else would do in that situation (maybe not Jesus, though).
  28. Trigger storming; pick an action, incident, or problem and apply it to your character/a character. E.g. “Chad finds out his wife of ten years is cheating with his best friend, what does he do?” or “Jolene is up to her eyeballs in debt and about to lose her house, how does she fix it?”
  29. Fill a need; what does the world/ your town/ a country sorely need and ask yourself how this need could be filled. Brainstorm ideas from the boring to the outlandish and make a character who can fix this problem in one of the ways. Write about it.
  30. “…and throw rocks at them”; make a character with a goal, any goal at all, and then chase them up a proverbial tree (i.e. complicate things) before you throw rocks (problems) at them. Ensure things get out of hand.
  31. Consider an object; there is a whole book and film about how the painting The Girl with The Pearl Earring came to be. Create an object history.
  32. Write about the most upsetting thing you have ever seen or heard; solve it or make it worse, the choice is up to you.
  33. Consider your pets; what does your dog do when you leave the house? Does your gerbil have nefarious plans? Is your rabbit actually an Old God? Write about the secret life of the furry tenants in your home!
  34. Consider a milestone; graduations, birthdays, births, and deaths all throw up high emotions and remarkable moments. Brainstorm a big life event and write the story/agenda of everyone in attendance. There’s a story in there somewhere!

 

The Prompts

One sentence prompts to make you think about your character and world;

  1. Character A and Character B are divorced – what happened?
  2. The Magic is leaking out of your world, what caused it?
  3. Character A is the Chosen One, but their power is completely useless – what is it?
  4. If your character could get only one thing from their life, what would it be?
  5. If you made a perfect Utopia, what would the single, fatal flaw be?
  6. In your dystopian future who leads the revolution?
  7. The revolution has failed – what happens next?
  8. This first date is the most important of character A’s life; they have been assured that their soulmate mark matches with character B’s, but when she gets there it is character C, the waiter, who matches them. What happens next?
  9. Make your OC’s biggest fear come true. 
  10. Your OC loses their dog; how do they react?
  11. Their house is on fire; what two non-sentient items does your OC save?
  12. Put your OC in the teen novel you wish you had lived; fix any issues you have with it. 
  13. Your OC has been kidnapped – how do they escape? 
  14. If they don’t, who comes to save them?
  15. Who would your OC give up everything for?
  16. War has broken out; does your OC volunteer, or do they wait to be conscripted?
  17. Your OC fakes their death in order to get away from debtors; how do they do it, how well does it go, what happens next?
  18. Character A is given the choice between characters C and D; they know both of them well. Who do they choose, why, and what do they do next. 
  19. Voodoo is real; Characters A and B have irrefutable proof of this, what do they do?
  20. The Easter Bunny is real, and it eats children. What does your OC do? 
  21. Rewrite your favourite YA story as adult fiction; what changes? 
  22. Rewrite your favourite adult fiction novel as a YA story; what changes?
  23. Character A and B go on a road trip, they break down in the desert at midnight. What happens?
  24. Character A’s superstitions turn out to be true; how does character B react?
  25. Chocolate is now banned, what does your OC do? 
  26. Dogs can talk, and it turns out they’re involved in a world wide conspiracy. 
  27. The Zombie Apocalypse is here; which of your OC’s survive? 
  28. Your OC teleports whenever they sneeze; how does that go for them? Write about their misadventures
  29. Capitalism has fallen; what system does your world revert to?
  30. How does your OC deal with the dissolution of a long term relationship?
  31. Earth has fallen – what happened? 
  32. The Great Library of Alexandria was not destroyed but hidden away – who hid it, and where? 
  33. Write a self-insert where you deal with your favourite historic figure in their own time. 
  34. What really causes the disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle?

 

The Starter Sentences

Some dialogue and starter sentences to get you going;

  1. “I mean it could be worse…. at least we still have the ham.”
  2. The flags snapped and rippled as an icy wind blasted down the mountain side; the red sun that was rising made them snow glow pink as the opposing army approached. 
  3. “Magic isn’t hocus pocus, wave a stick and poof you have what you want!” “No?”  “No! It’s hard work!”
  4. The dogs were too smart for her; she was going to have to really work to fool them… 
  5. The bite was starting to ache. The skin around it was going green, and there was a smell, meaty but dusty, that wasn’t quite right. 
  6. “Bite me!” “Oh believe me, I will.”
  7. If she could only reach the lever… it was so close. Her fingers brushed the mahogany handle. 
  8. He was dead, of that much he was certain. How else could there be so little pain? 
  9. “I never wanted you to feel this way! I love you… I just can’t be with you!”
  10. “If I ever see you again (X), I will kill you. Blood debt be hanged.”
  11. The waters were still as glass and black as night, but in the centre something made them ripple; a flash of green in the under tow. 
  12. The TV flickered, and the message that appeared was chillingly simple. Do not exit your home, do not open the door. They are not what they seem. 
  13. Life is a series of disasters, interspersed with happiness; (X) was beginning to realise that the next disaster was looming in the form of an eight pound feline. 
  14. If I had only one super power it would be the power to drive romantic prospects away… 
  15. “If you turn the hourglass this way, you’ll find that time slows.” “And if I turn it that way?” “Never turn it that way!”
  16. Blood seeped into the snow, making the ice crack under the sudden heat, and soon a spiderweb of pink ran through the ice. (X) swallowed and stared at (Y)’s lifeless body. What a waste. 
  17. “Lycanthropy is not a reason to miss work, Smith!”
  18. “How much candyfloss do you think I could fit in there?” “What?” “What?!”
  19. The police were the first to fall, and so the resistance had to come from the teachers. 
  20. “I swear, by the almighty, if you don’t put your pants on I’ll kill you.”
  21. The ships that rocked gently in the harbour arrived over night with no warning, and seemingly without crews. 
  22. When I was sixteen years old I died. Thankfully I got better. 
  23. It looked like a whale, but it was peppered with shining eyes and seemed to glide through the water without moving a muscle. 
  24.  The darkness was watchful and dense; it seemed to press on her from every side, and the corners seemed to be full of skittering noises. 
  25. Scepticism had saved her life more than once, so it was really unfortunate that it now seemed set to kill her. 
  26. If looks could kill, he’d be a smear on the carpet. As it was he could only blink and fidget, hoping to look sheepish.
  27. “I could kill you, you know?” “Well, so could a falling coconut, what’s your point?”
  28. “Never have I ever…. eaten raw flesh.”
  29. “If you can’t backflip, why are you even here?”
  30. The door groaned and splintered; soon they would be through, and all hell would break loose. 
  31. “Forgiveness is like an open wound; it lets all kind of dirt in.”
  32. When the living give up on progress it’s time for the dead to step in. 
  33. “She never even graduated!”
  34. “I honestly thought you were a shaved bear of some kind…”