an idea that will fly

Filed under: writing

On Twitter yesterday @ivegotadrill asked if I would blog about my process of coming up with my book ideas and how I know that they’re workable and will last for an entire novel. This process is different for everyone, I guess, and it’s certainly different for me with every book. But I’ll blog about my process so far, with this book, which is as yet unnamed and unwritten.

September: I finished the draft of Dear Thing and sent it to my agent. She sent it to my editor. As I waited for my editor’s response, I started thinking about what I was going to write next. Some people get ideas for several books at the same time, but me, I’m more monogamous. I had ideas for different sorts of books, but not really an idea for my next mainstream book under my own name. All I had at this point was a character, and that was only because we got chatting to this elderly lady this summer and I thought she was fascinating. I thought, ‘I’d really like to write about someone like her.’ And I began kicking around story ideas based around a character like that. The problem was, this was a character, not a story, and though I really liked her, I didn’t think she was enough to carry a whole novel of the type I’d be writing. So I decided not to push it, filed her away for future use, and tried to do the whole emptying-your-mind thing that helps ideas come to you.

October: No ideas were coming to me. Still, I wrote a novella (under a different name) and trusted that something would turn up. I decided to have a chat with my editor once we’d put Dear Thing to bed, because I don’t just want a good story; I want a good story that people will buy, that will fit in with my author brand, that will deliver the kind of book that I want to write. And which will, also, be interesting enough to me that I can spend the next year on it. Then my editor sent me revisions on Dear Thing and I didn’t think about anything for a little while. Except that maybe I did. Maybe I had a little niggle of an idea about a character and a situation that was connected to a topic I’m quite interested in. But it was that: a niggle. (It was in no way connected to the earlier character I thought I’d probably write about.)

November: I went on retreat with some fabulous writers, all of whom were on deadline and had to write like crazy. I wasn’t on deadline. I had nothing to write; in fact I was actively trying NOT to write. While they were all tapping away on their laptops, I went for a long walk instead, and I did a bit of reading. I picked up a non-fiction book I’d brought, which was on a topic related to my idea, within five minutes I had read a line that hit me between the eyes with the effect of a sledgehammer.

It was my next book, in one sentence. It wasn’t a character, or a situation: it was an entire problem, an enormous conflict, a question about what every human being is and feels. It took my breath away. It was so huge, so interesting. I immediately started wondering if I could do it justice. So I didn’t do much with it. I let it sit there in my brain and fester a little while until it found a character to attach itself to. Actually, now that I think of it, I need to write that sentence down and put it up somewhere where I can see it all the time.

December: Interestingly, I didn’t start getting much of an idea about specifics of character or plot: instead, the first page of the book came to me. And then scenes, as if I were seeing them on a screen. And then I saw a film and a TV show which gave me my next hero. (I do this all the time—find an actor I really like and start building a hero around him. I find it helps me when I’m a little bit obsessive and have a crush.) The hero became immediately alive; I wrote about a side of A4 about him, which I will probably never check or read, and I chose his name. Through getting to know him, I started to get to know the heroine. I started to ask why she felt the way she did and why she acted the way that she would.

My agent rang and I blurted, ‘I’ve got my new book idea.’ She, quite naturally, said, ‘What is it?’ And then I realised that I didn’t really have my next book idea; I had an idea, and a couple of shadowy characters, and a big major theme, and a general sense of how it would all turn out. So I babbled it all to her. Bless her, she said, after a while: ‘Well, that sounds good. Write me an outline so I can sell it.’

Meanwhile, the story was getting clearer in my head; I was beginning to see how it would be structured and what would happen (that was what I was talking about below, about getting ideas when you really wanted a latte). So yesterday I started to outline my idea. Often I do this with Post-It notes or index cards so I can move things around. This time, though, I just started to write what was going to happen. I didn’t edit or think about things too much; I just wrote down what was in my head and as usual, the act of writing stuff down made me think up more stuff. This isn’t the outline I’ll give my agent; it’s just some rough notes for me, which I may or may not look at ever again. I wrote a very brief character sketch, wrote about the inciting event and a couple of turning points, and then, at a point that’s probably about midway through the story, I stopped.

I don’t want to know what happens in the end. I wrote a full and detailed synopsis of Dear Thing before I wrote it, and although that worked out quite well, and I do like the ending a lot, I noticed that having it all planned out in advance made it less fun for me to write. So if I can get away with not knowing, I’ll keep myself ignorant.

My next step, I suppose, is try to sum up the entire book in one sentence, as a selling hook. I’m going to meet with my editor on Tuesday for that good chat I wanted to have with her, and see what she thinks and if she has any suggestions. Then I’ll write a proper blurby thing, a few paragraphs or a side of A4, to show to people. And then I’ll start researching properly and doing some character sketches to start writing the first draft of the book. I haven’t yet decided whether it’s going to be first person or third person, or whether it’ll have multiple viewpoints or only the heroine’s. I’m still trying out various things—I haven’t decided what the heroine’s job is, or whether the hero has a child.

But I do know that my book has a theme, a situation, a conflict, and a character, and that all of these things are big enough to take me through 100,000 words. I’m not entirely sure how I know that they’re big enough; it’s experience, I suppose, but also because I’ve chosen BIG things—a huge theme, a life-and-death conflict—and if you have large stakes, the book can be deeper.

I hope. I hope. I hope.


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3 Responses | | Comments Feed

  1. Excellent post Julie. i love seeing how others work through ideas and how different or similar they are to mine.

  2. Love this, Julie. What Liz said above.

  3. It’s quite different though, I find, book to book. Some books need thinking time, and others just sort of appear. It’s a bit odd to see it written down and see just how long the thinking process is!

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