Monday, October 13, 2008

Writing Advice Monday: Is it an Idea...or a Book?

I often get asked where I get my ideas for my books, and by the same token, how I know that an idea is good enough, big enough, to be a book.

For instance, my current release, "Snowbound Bride," a novella in Christmas Weddings, centers around the hero and heroine being stuck together at Chicago's O'Hare airport. Living in the Midwest, I have traveled through O'Hare several times and been stuck more than once. I have often wondered what it would be like to run into someone I had a past history with--an old friend, perhaps, and that led my mind down the path of old lovers reuniting and what would happen in that forced proximity. Then, when the planes take off again, do they choose to take the same plane or fly in opposite directions? [you can read an excerpt from that book here].

Anyway, for me, coming up with ideas is never the problem. I must have at least two ideas a day—ones that I deem good enough to toss around in my mind, trying them out. It’s knowing whether there is enough for a book that is a little more difficult.

For instance, I read the paper daily, and most editions of Newsweek, along with several other magazines. There are tons of idea germinating stories in the daily paper and the quirky news section of that magazine. I tear out pages and stuff them into my idea folder, for later inspiration.
It’s knowing which ones to keep and which to toss that is a little more difficult. Here are some tips for knowing whether you have simply an idea or enough meat for a book:

1. ARE THE STAKES HIGH ENOUGH? When you sit down to write a book, you will invariably have a character who wants something, i.e., a goal. Maybe you have a seventh grader who wants to make the varsity basketball team. Or a man who wants to track down his son. Or a business owner who wants to save his company. All of those are great beginnings, but they aren’t a story unless they become an important journey. The stakes—i.e., the reasons why your character needs to achieve this goal—have to be important enough that they can carry a few hundred pages AND the reader’s attention. The kid who wants to get on the varsity team wants more than just a position as starter, he also wants to prove himself to his father as a kid who can do more than take up space on the sofa. He wants to prove to himself that he is a strong, worthy player. Getting on that team, he thinks, will change his life. The goal becomes bigger, with ramifications that run throughout the character’s life and foster a change within him. Stories are about change, so be sure your stakes force that change in your character.

2. IS IT GLOBAL ENOUGH? If you write a book, it needs to appeal to more than just your grandmother. You have to tackle a subject that will resonate with many people, thereby giving you a broad enough readership that the publisher can see the viability of the story. Your idea about the arduous journey of a walking catfish trying to cross the road might not have enough global appeal. Either broaden the story’s scope, so that it becomes a story that many people can relate to (think of “Finding Nemo,” which was about more than a little boy who was lost; it was about a father’s relationship with his son, his own growth journey, and the rescue of more than just Nemo) or toss it and try another. They are just ideas, after all, not oxygen. You can live without them.

3. IS IT SOMETHING YOU WANT TO WRITE? Too often, writers tackle a subject because it’s “hot.” They think, “Everyone is writing about vampires, maybe I should too.” But the writer doesn’t enjoy vampire stories, hasn’t read one before, and is really a cozy mystery writer at heart. Whatever type of book you sell, you need to be prepared to write a hundred more just like it. Publishers like to build careers, and the best way to do that is to build a readership on one particular type of book. If you don’t like writing or reading about vampires, you won’t be happy writing those other 99 books.

4. CAN YOUR CHARACTERS WORK WITHIN THIS IDEA? Sometimes you come up with an idea, and then thrust these characters from your mind into the idea. But then things start falling apart and the characters refuse to cooperate. Their personalities don’t work with what you are writing about. Their storylines are running off on different tangents. You may simply have put the wrong characters into your story, or you might be trying to fit a square peg idea into a triangular story.

5. IS IT AN IDEA YOU ARE EXCITED ABOUT—REALLY EXCITED ABOUT? Going from just an idea to a book means writing a few hundred pages. If this idea excites you today, but then tomorrow it seems to pale, then you probably need to throw it out. You have to be excited enough about this idea to want to roll out of bed and attack another ten pages on this story, day after day, until the book is done. Make sure that whatever you are planning on writing about gives you that charge that will carry you through the more difficult parts—the middle of the book, the revisions, the submission process.

Only you can tell if you have an idea or enough meat for a book. Either way, I suggest you hold onto those ideas in a folder. There have been many times when I have flipped through my idea file and seen three or four that held common threads. I ended up bringing them together in one story, creating something with multiple layers. It wasn’t just one idea, it was several, that eventually made their way into the book.

If you’re looking for a story for your book, then try out a variety of ideas. Taste them in your mind, play with the possibilities and hopefully, you’ll soon have something that will carry you forward!

All those who comment on this post are entered into a drawing for a copy of Miracle on Christmas Eve, my last year's Christmas novel -- to get you in the mood for Christmas! And don't forget to pick up your copy of Christmas Weddings, in stores now!

Shirley

28 comments:

  1. My problem is that I seem to have ADD tendencies when it comes to fiction writing. All of my ideas seem to fit your criteria but keeping focus on one idea long enough to bring it to a completed novel state is another thing. It's about the only area in my life where a sparkly new "shiny" can take my attention from what I'm working on and reassign it to a new project! Naughty, naughty Katie-Anne, I know. And this, readers, is the reason why fiction writing continues to be the only writing area where I'm not published - because you can't submit for publication that which is not yet complete!

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  2. Hi Katie-Anne!

    I find the best way around that (because I often get ideas when I'm trying to write another book) is to just jot the other idea down, just enough to get it out of my head, and then move back to the main book. I have folders and folders of ideas that I'll probably never use because I always have a new one, LOL, but at least it got those pesky ideas out of my head so I could work.

    Shirley

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  3. I have no problem with coming up with ideas, but my problem is sticking through them to the end. I love getting started with the planning and initial writing, then about midway I lose it. I love the ending, often will write it here. But, I just don't seem to have the middles down good enough.
    Evelyn

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  4. I'm the same - got something in the region of 55 novels all plotted out and am - gasp - actually writing them one by one. I take half an hour out, each morning to add what I need to, to each ouline (like ideas I had overnight) or more if it's really good and then move on. My dictaphone has become my new best freind though, it has to be said - cause I wake up, I dictate, I go back to sleep.
    The bit that worries me is which one to do FIRST. I mean, some of them are seriously timely, whilst others will always appeal. Do I go with the flash in the pan, cause it's NOW - or the solid wall, because it always will be?

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  5. Evelyn,

    Getting through the middle requires a strong beginning and strong planning in the beginning. If you have a powerful goal for your character, and high stakes, as well as a lot of conflict, then you naturally build in a middle that works.

    If you haven't done that, then yes, you will definitely struggle in the middle. A good way to know if you have a strong goal is to ask yourself whether this is something the character would risk everything for. Their life and/or livelihood. Their family and/or place in society. It has to be a strong and worthy goal, and one that is fraught with conflict.

    HTH,

    Shirley

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  6. Kai,

    You have to pursue the one you are most passionate about. The one that really gets you raring to write the most. If you try to chase the market, you'll be like a dog chasing his own tail, and you'll never catch it. That passion, that fervor, will show on the page and that will be the book that will have the most powerful writing.

    HTH,

    Shirley

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  7. My principal problem is that I'm a good starter, but after the third chapter, I don't know what to do with my characters. My story line always seems to weaken and to loose its credibility. Maybe it's a lack of planification... or simply my ideas are not strong enough.

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  8. Go back and read the comment to Evelyn, La Bergere. You need a strong goal -- that's most likely the problem. It has to be strong enough to carry a whole book, and to be worth the character pursuing, and also worth us caring about. If your characters don't have strong enough goals, motivations and conflicts, then the plot will fizzle out after about fifty pages...which is around chapter 3 ;-)

    Shirley

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  9. I love reading your blog Shirley, you always have so many good pearls in it...not to mention the food! OMG the food!!!! :)

    My biggest problem with trying to develop an idea into a story is myself. I think I have some major confidence issues, I second guess myself so bad that I can't ever seem to get past the "is this idea good enough" part because I always talk myself out of it.

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  10. This one is heading for the printer, Shirley, so I can add to my collection of 'Shirley Handouts'. They're a huge help and I refer to them often. ;) Thanks!

    And I tend to be along the lines of Bousmama, but I'm working on that! *g*

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  11. Bousmama,

    the only way to know is to write the book :-). Really -- just write it. ALL of us have confidence issues. I sent something to my agent the other day and had been waiting to hear back from her. Checking my e-mail OBSESSIVELY :-) to see if she liked it (she did) but I had to do lots of other stuff just to keep my mind off that proposal I had sent out to be read by her. Because otherwise I'd drive myself nuts with the "is it good enough" thoughts. That doesn't help me get any work done, so it's not productive thinking.

    So how do I get past those thoughts? I write instead of think them. It's a win-win :-)

    Shirley

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  12. Glad to help you enjoyed the post, Patty! And read my advice to Bousmama -- I hope it helps you, too!

    Shirley

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  13. Anonymous2:36 PM

    Hi Shirley,

    I love to read and I am trying to finish my book. I have had so many obstacles get in my way that it has me down in the dumps. What do you suggest for me to start the writing back up. I have thought of many ideas but they dont't seem to fit into my book. The one true love in the book has passed away in real life. Thats where I am stuck..Any ideas would be great. If you want to email me my email is ConnieQuade1@comcast.net. Thanks for the time and I love your books.

    Connie

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  14. Wow...get behind on my blog reading and I sure did miss a lot!!!

    Fantastic recipes. Yummy. Will definitely be giving some of those a whirl.

    I have been kicking around the idea for a book for years. I am just too scared and not really sure if "my story" would relate to a fiction.

    But no one ever accused me of being a wonderful writer. Talk I can do, write....eh, not so much. Who knows maybe one day.

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  15. Debbie7:35 PM

    Hi Shirley! I'm just a reader, not a writer, but I really enjoyed your post. Lots of fascinating information! Thanks for sharing!

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  16. Thanks for the info, Shirley. This is perfect timing for since I am trying to finalize an idea for my NaNoWriMo book for November. Thanks.

    Carol

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  17. Connie,

    My best advice is to start another book. If you're stuck on one, then it's time to move on to another for a while, just to get those creative juices flowing again. You may find that the new one is the one you become most excited about and that's the one that drives you forward, or that the new one provides a welcome respite, allowing you later to get back to the other one. But I suspect you're really close to the subject and are having a hard time because of that.

    My advice? Distance by writing something new, something TOTALLY unrelated. That's going to help a lot, trust me. Use one of those other ideas to create a whole new book--and leave the one that's too hard to write for a while. It'll be there for you to come back to when you're ready. And who knows? This new one might turn out incredible, too!

    HTH,

    Shirley

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  18. Andie, you need to just subscribe to the blog :-) Then you get it every day! I've got two subscribe options on the sidebar, if you're interested. And I'm trying to be WAY better about posting more recipes. Ever since Blogger allowed posting ahead of time, it's made it a LOT easier for me!

    And you never know about the writing thing until you try :-)

    Shirley

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  19. Debbie,

    Glad you enjoyed it! And thanks for reading! All readers are tops in my book, because they help keep the book industry going! :-)

    Shirley

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  20. Carol,

    Glad the timing worked out so well! I hope all the Monday Writing posts have something you can use during Nano!

    Shirley

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  21. Hi Shirley!

    I just got hit by an idea this weekend. Well, I'm always getting hit by them, but this one I think will stick. So reading your handout was a wonderful checklist. And now I'm off to make some notes. :) Thank you!

    Ami

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  22. I have been keeping an idea notebook on and off for years, but I'm not always good about having it handy :) Thanks for the suggestions about developing ideas for novels. Just in time for NaNo!

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  23. Micki from JWI3:21 AM

    Ooh, Christmas books! My favorite! We had snow last weekend, so it certainly felt like Christmas. Have a great day!

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  24. Ami,

    So glad the post helped! Hope the idea becomes a GREAT book!

    Shirley

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  25. Pattie,

    Come back next Monday and hopefully I give you some more just-in-time-for-NaNo advice! :-)

    Shirley

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  26. Wow, snow already, Micki? I'm so glad I'm not living where you are, LOL. I hate cold weather and definitely live in the wrong area to avoid it!

    Shirley

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  27. Parrish8:30 PM

    My problem is that, I'm 14, so I don't know if my stories will appeal to people in the age group of my characters. I know their'll appeal to 13/14 year-olds, but I want older people to like my stories too.

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  28. Parrish,

    I think you can learn to write for any age group. The key is to really, really study the genre you are writing. The language, the flow of the stories, the structure. You'll learn as much from reading and analyzing as you will from writing, too.

    Shirley

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