I wanted to start a little series about writing in 2014, but hell, I’m bored with lazing around already so I figured I’ll start right now. Post one: how us crazy writers find book ideas.
You might’ve read a few weeks back that I was taking my blog in a more fiction oriented direction. A direct response to the masses of OOA (Outdated On Arrival) marketing ‘advice’ that sends newer writers on wayward paths, and a focus on the long-term. Yup, rule number one: writing is a career thing. If you want short-term success, go elsewhere.
Or don’t, and just prepare to be disappointed.
Okay. Now we’ve got that rant out-of-the-way, I wanted to talk about something that I’m asked about more than anything. A question that completely baffles me every time I’m asked it, because I really do not know what to say. It usually goes something like this: how on earth do you find book ideas?
Full disclosure. I used to ask other writers the same question. I used to sit down in front of a blank sheet of paper and just wait for that perfect book idea to enter my head.
And I waited.
Immediately, looking back, I can see what I was doing wrong, and I’d bet it’s the very same thing new aspirant writers do wrong, too.
Firstly, when trying to find book ideas, I was obsessed with the idea of perfection.
Now, this might not be easy to hear. This might just go against everything you believe, in fact. But the truth is, when trying to find book ideas, no idea is perfect. The sooner you can accept that you just need a ‘good’ idea, the better.
But then there’s another side to this whole hunt for perfection, and that’s that no idea is necessarily ‘bad’ either.
Yup. Any old crap you jot down has the potential to be a really intriguing story to somebody.
Again, I realise this goes directly against what you’re taught at school, or what you read in several fiction writing books. But trying to find book ideas should not be a decision process of what is good and what is bad, because fuck, what the hell do you know about selling fiction?!
Sorry to be blunt, but it’s true. We’re our own worst critics. If we start judging our ideas, deciding one thing is probably going to be ‘boring’, then that’s our inner critic talking. So instead, you should settle on an idea that intrigues you. Simple as that. If it’s something that you honestly, deep down, feel like you want to explore, then run with it.
Even if you think it’s the worst idea in the world, give it a shot if it feels right. You might just be surprised.
I want to introduce the second part of this ‘finding ideas’ question, and this is something else that flies directly in the face of everything you’ve likely learned up to this stage, but bear with me. The second part is this: you do not need a fully formed idea at the idea creation point.
Hell, I’d argue that you don’t even need a fully formed idea at the writing stage, but that’s a personal thing. But the truth is, I wouldn’t bother trying to map out a load of plot twists and turns when you are ‘coming up’ with an idea, because chances are you’re going to either get bored or run into something you don’t like and end up throwing the whole thing away. All you need is a trigger. A little something that interests you. Then, you can write. Simple as that.
WHAT?! No planning? No extensive character sheets? No research?!?!
Sure. You can do all that. I do it sometimes. But the truth is, you don’t have to. Because doing all that can see you snowed under in the hunt for perfection once again. The truth is, you can just write if you want to. Just write and see how it goes. Sure — if this isn’t your style, don’t do it. But if you want to do this, try it. There is no right or wrong method.
Of course, if you do want to just write, I’d recommend studying plot and narrative beforehand. The three-act structure, screenplay structure, Lester Dent’s Master Plot Formula — all of this is helpful stuff that, once understood, can be subverted to a writer’s own will. But don’t try to force structure if it doesn’t feel natural. Of course, there needs to be some kind of story there, which leads on to my next point.
But how do I ACTUALLY find book ideas?
Simple. You think up a character. You give them a problem. You write about them overcoming that problem, the problem intensifying as the story goes on, and either defeating or (less common) losing out to the problem, and thus becoming a changed individual at the end.
Okay, this all sounds very formulaic, but put on an episode of your favourite TV series, or one of your new Christmas films, and just study the structure of it (read: watch it and eat loads of popcorn). Chances are, it’ll follow this structure to some extent.
And yes, clever clogs, even unconventional movies and stories adhere to this formula in some way. Just because Memento is told in reverse doesn’t mean there’s no character with no clear problem. Just because Gone Girl is a split-perspective novel stuffed with multiple narrators doesn’t mean there aren’t characters battling with problems. This is the way of modern fiction. Only by understanding can you even begin to think about subverting.
But really, I don’t even have to force ideas anymore. Usually, they come to me. That’s the truth. I have a huge note filled with ideas I’ll likely never visit. Here’s an example of a few, just to show the diversity and range — not to mention how little I judge when this inspiration strikes:
– Monster/noise in the fridge…
– SINKHOLE: Where do they end up?
– THE REAL WORLD IS HELL :O
– Gritty as fuck hitman novel
– Immortal jellyfish – Elixir of life discovered and goes mainstream
– Caffeine addiction story; ‘Something in the Teacup’…
The list goes on, and it gets more peculiar in places. But as comical as some of these ideas may sound, I can immediately imagine characters in the world of those ideas with problems. I can see that poor caffeine addict struggling with his tea addiction as it turns him into some evil being. I can see that person waking up at the other side of a sinkhole in some parallel dimension. I can see the monster in the fridge.
How does a writer find book ideas? Simple. We don’t. Ideas come to us. Or if we need to ‘come up’ with an idea, we imagine a character with a problem. We explore. We don’t judge.
I’m often asked that ‘where do you get ideas’ question. I keep a hand written notebook w song lyrics, situations I’ve been in or overheard all sorts. Then I take one and turn the idea around to see if it is a story. In November I wrote a story inspired by a paragraph in a book I’d read years ago. At first I was a bit worried it wasn’t a good idea. Having written it as a 1st draft it seems it wasn’t too bad 🙂
Good job, Liam. Keeping a notebook is something I can vouch for, too. Well, a ‘Notes’ app, but that counts. Keep it up!
I like what you say about first creating a character then give him/her a problem. That’s what I did on my first book and it had turned into a trilogy. I even thought of the name of the character before giving him the problem, just so he would feel more real to me. Great post, Ryan.
Cheers, Jean. It’s very true — the secret of story is that it’s as simple as a character with a problem. That idea can be as complex or as simplistic as possible. But yeah, the root of all stories is a character with a problem, so I cut to that as soon as I can. Seems to be going well for you too.
Many stories begin with ‘What if – ?’ It’s said that three good ideas go to make a solid story… but not all three ideas are needed at the start. They can join the wriring conga later on.
You are right about not needing a fully formed idea at the start. That’s what the First Draft is for, to fit all the pieces together in some form and discover what works and what can be discarded (or recycled).