How many times do you get a new story idea?
All the time, right? Unless, of course you’re supposed to be thinking of one, and it’s urgent that you get one quickly.
How many times does someone come up to you and say, “Oh you’re a writer? I had the best idea for a story…”
And then often they’ll follow up with, “But I don’t have time to write that story right now, so maybe you should write it and we’ll split the profits.”
Well, those people don’t know that there’s a huge chasm between that initial idea and actually writing a book based on that idea.
Here’s why ideas matter little: the idea for a story is just the premise.
There is a long way to go before you use that premise to come up with an actual plot, and that’s why it’s so very important to pick the right idea to go with. Writing is different from other creative pursuits like painting, for example, where you can have an idea and you can pretty much knock out a painting, or at least some semblance of one, in a few hours. With writing, that idea is going to take months, if not years, to elaborate upon and turn into a book.
So just like any commitment, this idea becomes incredibly important.
You know when you’re trying to figure out which person you’re going to marry? The fact that it’s such a huge commitment means that you’re not just going to marry the first good looking idiot who crosses your path. I mean, some of us do, but you eventually realize that this is a really bad idea, and that you need to pick with your head as well as with your heart.
So how do you determine whether it’s actually a pretty good idea and also, how do you you stop from getting totally distracted by the other ideas that might jump into your mind as you’re starting to commit to this one? How do you develop this simple idea from spark to book?
It’s a whole process, but I think that once I’ve walked you through it, you’re going to feel a whole lot better about it, and it’s going to make those first steps of starting a book that much more manageable and that much less overwhelming.
There’s a lot of thought that goes into your book idea, yet many of us overthink this.
Yes, it’s important to choose a good idea, but you know that ideas are a dime a dozen. A thousand different authors can take the same idea and the finished product will look so incredibly different that unless you knew the actual basis of the book, you wouldn’t even realize that they’re all written on the same idea. And as you may know, books are all based on a limited number of story archetypes.
It’s really important to realize that that initial idea- sure it’s important, but you can do anything you want with it. Just ’cause you have an idea doesn’t mean that you can’t mold it as you go, so keep that in mind. You’re not locked into something super rigid just because you chose an idea. You are going to be able to take that idea in even completely unpredictable directions pretty far into the writing process and even into the editing process, so I hope that makes you feel a little bit less freaked out about it.
Still, how do you tell: is it a good idea?
Well, do you love it?
If so, it is probably a good idea, or at least it has the seeds of a good idea. As long as you love this idea, you’re going to keep drumming up enthusiasm for it, and that’s really, really important.
Being obsessed with your book idea is dangerous.
Know that you don’t have to be fully obsessed about the idea, more like intrigued. Just being curious about an idea is probably going to be just as good as being completely obsessed about it. Possibly better, because sometimes when we’re obsessed about an idea, it’s like when you’re in the first flushes of love.
You’re not looking at the problems.
You’re not looking at anything very objectively.
You’re just running ahead blindly.
Whereas if you’re intrigued and you want to find out more, that’s when you’re actually going to be thinking a little bit as well, and you’re going to be looking at ways to make this idea even better.
You’re going to be looking at how this idea fits into your work.
You’re going to be just a little bit more objective.
Let me give you an example of being obsessed with an idea versus being intrigued by an idea:
I’ve written a few books where I was completely obsessed about the idea. I have jumped into a bunch of research about them. Let’s take Written in Stone for example. That is a book that was transformed 100 times between the initial idea and the form it’s in now. That book has been professionally edited twice. It’s been in and out of contract with literary agencies and publishers. It has been a long, arduous road, but I was obsessed with it. The good part is, I kept pushing it. But the bad part was, I was blinded by how much I loved the idea, and I started researching and doing a deep dive into the history into the geography of the world of my book, and I kind of nerded out on it. I love nerding out on things, but your reader does not need you to nerd out in the first stages of writing.
Your reader needs a good story first and foremost, and then any nerding out that you can do is going to contribute to giving it more flavor later. If you frontload that worldbuilding and that research because you’re obsessed with the idea, it’s going to be a lot harder to fit that stuff into a story rather than writing the story and throwing some of that stuff in.
The opposite of this situation is last year’s Nanowrimo, where I had my TikTok audience vote on one of four stories for me to do for Nanowrimo. And I wasn’t obsessed about any of these- I just thought I was going to branch out. I was working on my current work in progress, and I was not burnt out, per se, but I just needed something to inject the fun back into writing. I also wanted to prove that you can just jump into Nanowrimo and win Nanowrimo without having done a ton of research first.
So I basically threw out four ideas that were totally not my usual genre. I wasn’t 100% sold on any of them. There was something about witches and then a couple others I can’t even remember. That’s how much I cared. The final idea I threw out there was an afterthought, something about Berserkers, a curse, and Vikings and archaeology …and that’s the one that people picked. OK, cool, but I wasn’t 100% sold on it.
I didn’t have time to research it at all, and at first I was having a hard time getting into it, but I quickly found that that forced me to focus on the story. By the time I finished Nanowrimo, I started regretting that I was going to have to go back to my serious current work in progress before I could revisit this idea, because by then I had fallen in love with this arranged literary marriage of mine.
So go ahead, try elaborating on an idea that isn’t love at first sight. See if it has the potential to be something good.
What do good stories have in common?
-A compelling, relatable character
-A memorable, vivid setting
-A clear, unique narrative voice
-A well-paced story arc that has rising action, conflict, and tension and fosters transformation
How do you go from idea to story, or premise to plot?
Plug those elements you brainstormed into the story spine:
-Once upon a time there was______. Every day, _________. Until one day, _______. Because of this, ______. Because of that, ________. Until finally, ________. Ever since then, _______.
You end up with a story elevator pitch of sorts. If you’re hesitating between a few good ideas, use this story spine to pitch them to friends- or like me, to strangers on TikTok.