A novel can begin when you pick up the newspaper—and sometimes does. You read about Senator Ted Kennedy undergoing therapy for a brain tumor and he’s quoted as saying that it’s not time for eulogies; he’s planning to stick around. And, no matter what side of the political fence you sit on, you start to wonder what it would be like to be diagnosed with a deadly cancer and still feel that you have so much work left to do in your life. And in that moment of bravery—or maybe that moment of delusion, as the writer in you needs to decide—you have an idea for a novel.
You delve into the poignancy of Senator Kennedy’s situation. You may decide to change his name. You may make him a congressman or take him out of politics all together and make him a grocery store owner.
However you choose to alter the facts of the situation, at some point you have to ask yourself if this novel idea can really become a novel. Everyone dies, so we know the ending—so where’s the conflict? What kind of structure would the novel have? Do you want to make it a 300-page postmodern rumination on a life well lived? And, if you do, how would you make it interesting to a reader?
Ideas for stories are everywhere. A conversation overheard in a bar, an experience in your own life, even the newspaper—all serve as great resources for ideas, but these ideas may not make great novels, or novels at all.
Novels are built, not discovered. Your inspiration is just the beginning. Once your interest is peaked, the building process begins. How you build your story depends on who you are.
If you’re a mystery writer who came across Senator Kennedy’s quote, or if you know a person struggling with cancer, you may take a route similar to that which Tom Cavanagh did in his comic mystery, Head Games. Cavanagh, in an effort to understand his father’s cancer, created a hero, former Orlando Police Detective Mike Garrity, who has a tumor in his head. That tumor’s name is Bob, and, unfortunately, Bob is the most significant relationship in Garrity’s life.
Now while this may sound flippant, it’s really not. Cavanagh used the great love he has for his father and his intimate knowledge of the situation to create a work that is indeed funny—and at the same time gentle and wise—and is still a bona fide murder mystery. It’s truly a novel idea.
Of course, Cavanagh could have written a memoir about his father, or a family saga based on the possibility of losing him. Or, like Alexs Pate in Losing Absalom, he could have used a father’s brain cancer as a way to speak not only about loss but the choices we make in our lives and the issues of race. But, as most writers do, Cavanagh dealt with his interest in a way that reflected his own history and disposition—he used the tools of his own life to build a story.
In his past life, Cavanagh was a writer for Disney television. He still lives in Orlando. So when he sat down to write the plot for Head Games, he drew upon his days working in children’s television and had his detective search for a lost member of a boy band (who bore a striking resemblance to a member of The New Kids on the Block, a boy band that the author worked with). He also set the novel in Orlando. Those intimate details gave his idea the energy it needed to become a novel: They gave it life.
The word novel is both a challenge and a promise—it means “new or unusual, the first of its kind.” So, it’s your job to take your novel idea and pay it off in a way that is new, unusual—and truly your own.
As you flesh out your story, ask yourself, “How can I make this different? What’s the twist? Given the parameters of the situation, what’s the unpredictable thing that no one is thinking of here?”
Always remember that writing is an art form, just as painting is. The purpose of art is to make people rediscover what they think they know and to assist them in incorporating this newfound or rediscovered knowledge in their own lives.
Consider the work of Andy Warhol. He painted large canvases of Campbell’s soup cans in vivid colors. He put them on the wall as if to say, “Look at these, these are art.” And so we had to look at them closely, more closely than we did when we opened a can of Cream of Tomato for lunch. And through the process of that examination we may not think it’s truly art, but we have a chance to think about our relationship to the image, the image’s relationship to our lives, and what the image means to us. We may even ask ourselves, When is a can of soup more than a can of soup?
That’s what art does—it enriches our lives and our understanding of our experience.
And that’s what a writer brings to writing—she takes an everyday event or object, like being ill or buying Campbell’s soup, and makes it so vivid that we understand our own world in a slightly different way. She make us think outside of the box of our own making.
Everything you write, even if you define it as a paperback romance, is art. Art is crucial to society because it asks us to imagine—and when we imagine, all things are possible. Virologist Jonas Salk imagined a world without polio, and made it so.
So when you have a novel idea, no matter what the source, you need to test it, to verify the fact that it can become something bigger than just a notion—you need to know if it can inspire you to build a world, which can inspire the world.
THE NOVEL LITMUS TEST
To see if your story idea can turn into a real novel, you have to decide if it has “legs.” Can you run with it? Can you somehow take the idea that sparks your interest, find meaning in it, and create a world from it that is real and meaningful to others? Can you turn it into something that sparks your reader’s imagination as much as your own?
To answer these questions, approach your idea as a journalist approaches a story. Begin by asking about the who, what, where, when, why, and how of what you think your story might be. The more precisely you answer these questions, the deeper the understanding you’ll have of your novel’s potential.
Keep in mind that if you do decide to write the book, you may find that as you work, the circumstances of it could change, or the characters, or any number of elements—that’s very common. As the Emergency Broadcast System used to say when it interrupted your favorite television show, “This is a test. This is only a test.”
The Litmus Test allows you to see if you have interest, and if the story is deep enough, to actually begin writing. It is by no means an outline of your work, although it can become one.
As you go, write your ideas down in a notebook. You’ll want to keep your responses for reference in case you decide to go ahead with the project.
Step one: Answer these questions to the best of your ability. There are no wrong answers, but there are answers that inspire you to write on … and that’s what you’re looking for.
1. What about the idea draws you in? What’s the most important element of it to you?
2. Who could the players be? Not just the people who inspired you to follow your idea but the supporting characters. What type of people would be involved in the situation? Who are the friends? Who are the acquaintances? Who are the enemies? Try to create a quick biography of each in which you explore their relationships to each other and to the protagonist. Try to engage all your senses. What do they sound like when they speak? Don’t forget to add physical descriptions, aspirations, and even cologne choice, if you “know” it.
3. Where does the story take place? When? Keep in mind that the details of the incident that sparked you may not be where you choose to set your novel. Whatever you do, make the setting as concrete as possible. Every reader needs a sense of being grounded in a time and place. Nobody likes the feeling of not knowing where they are.
4. What are the possibilities for conflict? Don’t just settle for what actually happened. Now that you have a chance to imagine this idea in a more fleshed out manner, ask yourself what could happen given who the characters you’ve created are, in addition to where they are in this world that you’ve made.
Step Two: Write. This is the difficult part. Once you’ve decided the particulars of the story you want to tell, just start writing it. Begin with what you think is the first chapter. Then write the next. Or, just write a couple of chapters out of sequence. When you reach fifty pages, try to write an outline. If you can’t, keep writing until you can’t write anymore, and then try again.
You’re not looking for publishable pages, you’re just looking to unlock the possibility of the story and give yourself an understanding of the depth of the project. These pages will be more about what’s possible given your idea, and not necessarily part of your final text—although that’s possible, too.
Whenever you feel blocked, put the pages away and come back to them the next day. If you continue to feel blocked, or if you have written fifty pages and have run out of ideas for the 270 more you need, put the project away for a while—a week, a month, a year, whatever.
Whatever you do, don’t throw any of this away. While you may not be able to write this particular project right now, the fact that you were inspired in the first place may mean that there’s some part of this story that you need to write. When you’re ready to do that, it’ll be waiting for you.
EXERCISE: YOUR VISION AS A WRITER
You can change the names and the circumstances, but you’re always working within the boundaries of your own heart. The ideas that spark you will all have common threads. Short or long is really just a momentary decision. You’ll always have another chance to rediscover what you’re trying to say, and what you’re trying to say will change with age and your own experience, but it will still be part of your landscape. The only time you’re ever finished with a story is when you take your last breath.
Take a look at the books you enjoy reading and compare them to your own writing. Then ask yourself, what are the themes and traits that define the work you like? What defines your own work? Make a list of both. For example, Isabel Allende is known for lush historic Latin American novels steeped in romance, magic realism, sorrow, and hope. She once said, “I have stopped asking myself why; now I trust that in every book I am exploring my own soul, my past, myself. Certain things interest me deeply: strong women, mothers, love, violence, death, loss, grief, friendship, loyalty, justice, and redemption. Those seem to be constant themes in my writing and in my life.”
What are the things that are part of your life that you explore? What interests you deeply? Once you know, you’ll better understand where each story will take you.
About the Book
For more tips on story development and idea generation, as well as much more, check out The Constant Art of Being a Writer: The Life, the Art & the Business of Fiction by N.M. Kelby.