A long-time reader and friend (who wants to one day perhaps venture into novel-writing) asked me to write a post detailing how an initial inspiration becomes an entire novel. Therefore, in this post I talk about where ideas come from, how to get them, and how to turn some of them into full-fledged, novel-length stories.
“Where do you get your ideas?”
It’s the question writers are asked over and over, and the answer is inevitably the same: Everywhere! (Further delineated into: Dreams! Conversations! Books! It popped into my head!) But what does ‘idea’ really mean? What happens after the initial idea is found? Why do some ideas become novels and others… don’t? Here are my thoughts:
On Getting Ideas
The human mind is constantly churning, on two levels: the conscious, and the subconscious. The two must work in harmony to bring forth true creativity. Sometimes an idea really will just ‘pop’ up out of the blue and surprise you while you’re performing an activity completely unrelated to writing/brainstorming, but I’ve found there are ways to affect the number and quality of ideas I have.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it forever: Reading feeds your subconscious. If you are not actively feeding your creative self you will enter a creative slump. I learned this one the hard way, over a two year period where all I did was work at my day job and surf the internet at night. I had no inspiration, I wasn’t taking steps to care for myself creatively, and I wrote not a single word. Here’s my advice to those currently slumping it:
Read fiction. You must read fiction in the genre you want to write in! But also don’t fall into the trap of only reading fiction in your genre; explore other genres to expose yourself to new methods and types of plots. Incorporate what you love into your own work.
Read non-fiction. Like many people, I’ve recently become a fan of Chuck Wendig. I found on his blog this article from 2012, where he talks about the importance of reading non-fiction: “Non-fiction is giving you puzzle pieces whereas fiction is giving you the picture another author has already built with such loose pieces.”
This sentence blew my mind with its truth. I’m now on a non-fiction reading binge to give myself more puzzle pieces in my puzzle box, and I encourage you to do the same.
Sleeping. Getting good sleep is one of the best things you can do for your subconscious. The brain needs rest, it needs time to percolate and categorize the stuff you’ve been putting into it. If you’re not getting good sleep you’re not retaining information and forming connections, and all that possibly-inspiring material is dredging out like sand through a sieve.
I exercise and write at night, and I’ve found that if I don’t get enough sleep I have absolutely no energy when I get home, which translates to not exercising and not writing, which slams me into a cycle of non-creativity.
If you can do these three things, I guarantee you will get ideas.
Recognizing [Good] Ideas
Inspirations come to me in several different ways. Sometimes it’s a theme, or a question, sometimes an image, and sometimes the actual words come. Here are examples of my inspirations, taken from my Ideas list (which we’ll talk about below):
Theme: When the shepherd consumes the flock. Figurative shepherds are supposed to guard the flock. To harm it or consume it would be a monstrous violation of natural law.
Question: What would happen if Sleeping Beauty woke up but didn’t remember anything that led to her falling asleep?
Image: A girl sitting cross-legged on her father’s grave at night, holding a shotgun.
The girl in a white shift lay on the stone altar, rain pouring over her body from swirling clouds above. There was no one else for miles, just the forest, the altar, and the storm. Thunder concussed the air but to her it was a blessing from the gods. Would they deliver the gift?
Lightning struck, piercing her belly and igniting the stone. For a single moment she saw the gods, felt the power in their words as the electricity of their touch ripped thunder from the air.
Then all was still.
Inspirations feel different from random thoughts. They’re ideas I’m excited about, that I want to record so I don’t lose them. So, I do:
It is very, very, very important to somehow record your inspirations. I’ve been recording mine for some time, and trust me, sometimes I look over my Ideas Document and am totally surprised by what I find there. You will not remember your inspirations unless you write them down. Do not count on your memory to hold them, because it won’t. Here are some methods I use to save stuff:
Google Docs: If I have an idea (theme, image, words), I put it in a google doc called Story Ideas. I review my ideas every now and then, and add notes for anything else that occurs to me. For example:
- MG about a young boy whose billionaire father dies and he inherits a boxing robot. Sort of Hunger Games meets Ironman.
- Talks to the butler, lawyers upset, but the boy gets to keep him. Butler becomes father figure, like a really friendly version of Batman’s butler
- Gruff mechanic the young boy helps fix the robot. Hard on the outside, soft on the inside. The butler finds him, he’s an ex-con, but the boy chooses him to work on the robot.
- Butler and mechanic take him down to the pits for the first time.
- Needs to be a sub-plot, like a bad executor of his father’s estate?
- The lawyer is old and grave. Dignified.
I had the initial idea a few years ago, and have added bits and pieces as they occur to me through various perusals of the document.
I also store fun names and words I make up at the bottom of this document, so if I need to name something in a project I’m working on I already have some unique names generated. For example:
Renata — I just like the word. It sounds like stigmata. Would make a good book title.
You might notice that I write little notes to remind myself why I wrote something down. It’s the worst to go back through and not remember why you liked a thought, or to be asked to explain where you got an idea for a project, and not remember. Record what inspired you. Like this:
Story about group of friends trapped in cave (Inspired by Prague story, the online cave story, and the Descent)
Notebooks: I find google docs to be very useful because I can get at them from almost anywhere, even on my cell phone. So if I’m out and about and am seized by inspiration, I know I won’t lose the idea.
But notebooks are also very good, especially if you want to stick a tiny one in your purse or pocket to carry about. And then the same rules apply: write it down immediately, tell yourself why you’re excited, and list what inspired you.
Now we get to the meat of the concept. How the heck do you go from a one-liner in a google doc to a complete novel? Here’s how it works for me:
I’m a brainstormer. Ideas never come to me as full plots; they come in snippets, and I have to grow them through lots of brainstorming. There are many different types of brainstorming, but what works best for me is journaling by hand.
Typing can go faster, but hand-writing gives me more ideas. There’s actual science to support this generality if you care to google for it. Having thought a lot about the process, I think this is why handwriting is better: It’s slower (For me anyway; I can type at 110 words a minute). Handwriting is so much more natural and more free from errors that I’m not focused on getting the spelling right so much as recording the actual words in my head. And as I’m finishing up the last thought my brain is already on to the next one, and I can write in one steady, uninterrupted stream. For me, typing is more stop and go.
When I met Neil Gaiman a few weeks ago, he revealed to the audience that his method for writing includes hand-writing the very first draft, then typing it up into the computer and editing as he goes. So if you don’t want to take it from me, take it from Neil: hand-writing kicks ass.
These days I only brainstorm by hand. What does that brainstorming look like? Let me show you:
Here are two picture from my favorite notebook, where I’m working through some ideas for my new project, The Cobworld:
(Quick note about these pictures… sharing notes from a developing work is anathema to some writers. For anyone who’s concerned about this disclosure, don’t worry, I didn’t pick anything that gave away any of my plot secrets :-)
When I’m in the ‘developing ideas’ stage my method is to ask myself a bunch of questions and ‘talk through’ the answers.Why would this character to this? Does it make sense for this action to follow? No, because that would interfere with this other thing I want to do. Etc. I can’t emphasize enough how awesome this method is. It gets me totally unstuck because I can see my thoughts and logically discard bad pathways.
Brainstorming is great because you can’t write anything wrong or bad. It’s all useful in figuring out what you want. I love to look back through my brainstorming pages and see how my ideas developed. It’s even more fun to look back years later and laugh that at one time I thought my story would go in this direction, when it ended up going in that direction. Also placeholder names for characters tend to be super hilarious. As in, ‘omg I can’t believe I was going to call Rose ‘Tristan’ lol’. True story, by the way.
Later, as scenes and dialogue occur to me, I put down the rough drafts in my notebook, too. I skip around to different scenes and try out different stuff in a way that’s not as pressure-full to me as typing in a word document. I’d love to totally hand-write a story one day like Neil, but for now when I’m seriously drafting I usually type.
But when I get stuck, it’s right back to the hand-writing in the notebook. It just unlocks stuff.
Music and lyrics can be very helpful in getting yourself into a particular mood or feeling. One of my favorite ways to ‘brainstorm’ is singing in the car to songs that fit my story, and imagining different dialogue and interactions. I’ve had many ‘aha!’ moments in the middle of belting out sad songs. Try it!
A few notes about time
The brainstorming stage, for me, takes months, if not years. I often don’t know enough about an initial inspiration to commit to calling it one of my official projects. I need a lot more for that, like world-building, the personalities of all my main and supporting characters, and a very, very good idea of the plot. Some writers may be able to get all of that in a flash, but for me it takes a long time.
For example, here’s the first record I can find of The Cobworld in my notebook:
It’s taken this long for me to occasionally revisit my notes and get to know the characters in my head for real progress to get made on the story. During that year+ time I’ve been pinteresting, scribbling new development, and trying out a prologue in different tenses. It wasn’t until I decided to give the story an official brainstorming session with my BFF that I got most of the plot to come in, and I’ve been working every day on developing the story ever since.
That every-day development includes a few pages of journaling a day. See example above.
I have other stories that have been growing with me for years. My adult fantasy, for example, and several others we haven’t even talked about here because they’re still in the initial planning stages.
In summary, here’s how it works:
- Get initial inspiration
- Record idea
- Review idea and allow self time to develop internally
- Lightly brainstorm on and off for months until you’re ready to commit
- Decide to commit to story
- Hardcore brainstorm every day for another few months
- Write the book
I think if I wrote full-time I could move more quickly on this stuff, but then again, you have to be very particular what you devote your time to. This leads me to our next topic:
Recognizing a Workable Idea
Now we get to the tricky part. We all have ideas. And if you’re sleeping well and reading and spending each day journaling, you’ll have LOTS of ideas. But not all of these ideas will become novels, not even if you spend focused time trying to develop them. Sometimes ideas just wither on the vine. Here’s how I personally (please remember these are all just my personal quirks and yours may vary! You will only find that out with experience and hard work) know if an idea has potential or not:
I have words in my head, and I know the beginning scene.
I realized this year that all the projects I tried to commit to that ultimately failed had one thing in common: I never had words for them, and I especially didn’t have words in the beginning.
What I mean by this is that I was never writing sentences in my head. I had no sense of the narrator or the tense the story would be in. Usually this happens for inspirations that come in images. If I’m thinking in images, then I’m not thinking in the words I’ll need to write the story. My best ideas come with the words already formed.
I have also learned that I can’t write a book unless I know the starting point. If I have no idea how it opens then I don’t have the words to write it and I can’t even begin to start writing for it. The Cobworld has been an interesting experiment in regards to this, because I’ve written three different first chapters for it but I have a pretty stable prologue. So I know how the story ‘begins’ to the reader even if I don’t have the first chapter.
Nameless started with a concept and a first sentence. So did ACORAS. One of the other books I wrote as a teenager happened because I wrote the first few paragraphs in my head one night and knew I’d better get up to write them down so I wouldn’t forget in the morning. The words were just there.
These days when I get an inspiration I try to find words for it right away. This gives me a sense of where the story begins and what tone it will take. Remember that example above about the girl sitting on her father’s grave holding a shotgun? I love this image and I long to write a story for this girl, but I’ve never had words to describe what’s happening.
I’ve tried brainstorming. I’ve asked myself, why is she sitting on her father’s grave at midnight? What is it about her father’s body that she has to protect? Why the need for the shotgun? Is her mother aware of this? (This question I know; the answer’s yes). I’ve tried to foist a magical system onto the girl’s universe, or figure out what villains she’s fighting, but I’ve got nothing. I don’t even know how to start writing about her, because I don’t know what she’s doing. The words just aren’t there.
But it’s an image I really love, and so I’m going to keep turning it over in my mind until [if] the words come. Expect to hear more about this in several years.
In a few rare cases I’ve had the words and the beginning, but the story still fizzled out. In those cases the problem came down to poor plotting, which is a whole other discussion. Essentially, these days I try to brainstorm thoroughly before seriously writing, or I find myself running out of steam and frustrated because I don’t know where to go next.
More Tools Before You Write
I’ve written 8 books, if you count the rewritten Nameless, and I have a litter of abandoned half-books. I’m still learning, but I mostly know what works for me and what I need to make a story great. So if you’re still new to novel writing, sometimes the best thing to do in order to learn is just get out there and write! Don’t wait for months of brainstorming and plotting and outlining. Just do it, or it’ll never get done. Some writers write pre-drafts, or Draft 0, or an ‘exploratory draft’ to just get the first pass done and then figure out what the story’s really about. And that works for them and that’s great. I’m not that way, though. So here are some other tools I use, or try to, before I seriously start writing:
Man, I love a good synopsis. A synopsis tells the shortened version of your entire plot, at around 5 pages double-spaced. Mine tend to be longer, because I have complicated shit going down. I love synopses because they really help me to highlight my major themes, and of course if you have to hash out exactly what event leads to what it’s super easy to write to that.
The problem with synopses is they cover scenes and series of events with a single sentence. For example: “Once the heroes win the magic crystal they flee across the desert, battling giant scorpions and debilitating thirst.”
Sounds great, right? Winning the crystal allows the heroes to flee, and we know what troubles they’ll encounter in the desert. But the specifics of writing that? Damned difficult. You need banter, and setting up camp at night, hinting that there’s activity from the giant scorpions, an actual fight scene, descriptions of the characters withering with thirst, etc. It can be really difficult to do some of that and keep it interesting.
Lots of times writers submit synopses, and books are purchased based off that pitch. Then they have to actually write them, which can be a real, ‘oh shit’ moment.
Because I struggled so much with ACORAS, I worked my butt off to get a good plan in place for ACORAS 2 (may the publishing gods be kind and one day allow me to sell that book). Here’s my story:
I finished ACORAS but could not stop thinking about what happened next. I had words, words, words coming to me, and I just kept writing and writing on a second book. I ended up with about 10k of scattered scenes and a vague idea of the general plot.
Over the past year and a half I worked on brainstorming for the whole plot, and even once I had the general synopsis I went further. I made a gigantic, very-detailed synopsis that informed me how to set each scene and the content that would be shown to the reader, whether description or dialogue. Now I feel incredibly confident in my ability to kick out ACORAS book 2 if it ever comes to it.
I used outlines a lot for the Nameless rewrite, but I haven’t found them applicable to my other writing. Basically an outline is when you plan out what occurs in each chapter. Outlines are different from a synopsis because synopses tell a coherent, flowing story, whereas Outlines list each chapter and the events that transpire in them.
Outlining is probably most useful to me when I have an existing draft and need to go through and look for places I could tighten, or to chart out the rise of my action.
Not gonna lie: These days Pinterest is an incredibly useful tool for me to see what stuff looks like, or even to inspire additional elements in the story. Sometimes a mood or an image rings true, and then I know I’ve uncovered another piece of my story. Your mileage may vary.
I don’t really care for the huge ‘character interview’ sheets you can download online, but there are a few questions I try to ask my characters when I’m getting to know them. The first question is, ‘What do you really want?‘ Sometimes character goals aren’t tangible, like ‘free the slaves.’ Sometimes they’re intangible, like ‘discover the truth’ or ‘feel truly loved.’
The second question I ask is, ‘What is your deepest secret?‘ Once I know that, I know what’s motivating my characters on a deeper level than their surface goals, whether it’s guilt, anger, loyalty, etc. But mostly guilt. Guilt is a fantastic motivator.
So that’s how I do it. I religiously record my ideas, I spend years developing them, and I write the ones that unfold themselves to me. Here are some more thoughts about the process:
I’d like to point you towards Laini Taylor’s static writing blog, Not For Robots. She says some wonderful things on the nature of writing, but I’d also like to share this quote with you from her official blog:
I don’t expect to or want to try to fill every hole up front. So often, for me, the important things arise organically out of the writing. The more you write, the more you know. For me, the planning, brainstorming, outlining stuff (I rarely outline, and only in times of desperation) is done from outside the story, looking in. The writing is done from inside the story. It’s like the difference between looking into a house from the sidewalk outside, and being in the house, maybe lying on the carpet in your pajamas, making hand shadows on the wall. For Smythe, who loves hand shadows. You can’t truly know your story from the outside. You just can’t.
This is one of those quotes that changed my life, writing-wise. It clarified for me a lot of the agony I have about brainstorming and outlining vs. writing. Because I’ve struggled so much from plunging ahead and not outlining, but I’ve also struggled with outlining and not being able to write it. For me this proved that you have to have both.
You have to spend some time outside the structure of your novel, figuring out its dimensions and windows, but you will never truly know the story if you stay outside. You have to go in, have to pace the carpet and open the doors, find those hidden nooks and crannies you’ll never be able to see from outside. Start writing. You’ll find out so much more, more than you ever dreamed, when the words actually start flowing.
Whew, so that’s everything I have to say about getting inspiration, and turning it into novels. When people ask me where my ideas come from I’m just going to point them to this blog post from now on :-)
Tell me about your ideas, and how you recognize the good ones. How do you grow your ideas?