First, Catch an Idea – writing your novel, part 1

*Sorry to be so late.  I am apparently catching this virus every month in slightly more attenuated form.  Last night’s was nothing, really, but enough to send me to bed early and make it impossible for me to write blogs.  Hopefully my fellow MGC don’t kick me out! I’ve been dead weight lately.*


I’m not going to tell you that you can’t write a novel without having the slightest idea what in heaven it is about. It would come pretty hypocritical from me, since I’ve done it.

Most of my novels start with a voice in my head, a line, a paragraph, the impression of a character I can’t evade.

But even I, at some point have to stop, step back and go “So, what is this book all about?” Now with some books (Darkship Thieves, coff) that only happened as I read my first draft, but that was a good time because it gave me the opportunity to reinforce it, as I did my revisions.

Still, even if your idea doesn’t come in the form of “this is a novel about the human condition” (that is not an idea, it’s a … condition.) or “this is a novel about a planet that decides to abolish sex differences” or something, you have to have an idea to start.

Now the idea might be where the character is, and what his situation is and a sense of who he is. My idea for A Few Good Men was this:

The world celebrates great prison breaks. The French territories still commemorate the day in which the dreaded Bastille burst open before the righteous fury of the peasantry and disgorged into the light of day the innocent, the aggrieved, the tortured and the oppressed.

            They forget that every time a prison is opened, it also disgorges, amid the righteous and innocent, the con artists, the rapists, the murderers and the monsters.  

            Monsters like me.

So, I knew that he was in jail, and there is a prison break. I knew it was in the world of Darkships, so I knew the break was the break of Never-Never at the end of Darkship Thieves, and I knew that he was unjustly in jail (I don’t write anti-heros) and that somehow they’d got inside his head. And that was it.

His name came next, and then I had to find a possible way he had that name, since I’d killed the one character of that name.

But A Few Good Men was strange, as I literally wrote it a page at a time, having to trust that my subconscious. This is a very unnerving way to write and even though this was my 23 or 24th book, I was spooked. Don’t do a book that way if you can help it.

The one thing I know is that regardless of what form your idea comes in, fishing for ideas is much like any other fishing. About half of your ideas you’ll have to throw back because they’re just not big enough.

This is hard to explain, but after a while you get a sense for what is a strong enough idea, and what isn’t and cut the line before hooking it – i.e. before starting a novel. – Until that blessed time comes, you’ll have a “throw back” rate of about fifty percent.

Now this is not an excuse to leave things unfinished. A “this story isn’t strong enough to be a novel/doesn’t interest me enough for me to write” usually dies in the first chapter or second at most.

Some rules of thumb, though not always right, is that unless there are extraordinary circumstances, if the action takes place all in a day, it’s probably a short story, not a novel. Or if it’s a gimmick/problem story (you know, where the mcguffin must be found, or the mystery solved) and it’s not a mystery novel, and there are no red-herrings, chances are it’s a short story or at most a novella.

If you only have a couple of characters, the world is ours, and nothing/no one else is coming alive for you, you might not have a full novel.

Now, mind you, this is not hard and fast rules. Only one character in the Shakespeare novels ever came alive for me, and I had to steal the plot from Tam Lin. But a novel it was.

“But Sarah,” you say, “What if it’s larger than a novel?”

Well, yes, that is a problem too. If you’re a beginning writer, you usually don’t realize when you’ve hooked a trilogy. And I don’t know how to tell you how to figure it out, because it has to do with how you write plot.

Some writers take longer to write the same events than others. And I don’t mean take a long time (though some do that too) but take more book-time-space. Dave Drake says Bellisarius was the plot for ONE BOOK, until he handed it to Eric Flint, and it became a series.

The only thing I can advise is that if you find yourself passing page 400, you might have more than one novel, particularly if you find yourself passing page 400 and intend to publish indie.

Then there are the ideas you’ll hook which aren’t yours to write. This I also can’t give you hard and fast rules for. This too will get easier with practice.

At my time of the writing life, I KNOW when an idea is spiffy, but I can’t write it. This is why my husband’s “Maybe you should write political thrillers” was met with a scream of “Noooooo” and why the only work for hire I ever turned down (to be fair no one offers me many. I don’t watch TV and most people know that, so no show tie-ins, ever) was one that was “a struggle in the corridors of power.”

The reason is I can’t write it because I don’t believe in it. (Same reason I don’t have lesbian characters, at least none in whose head I dwell. Yes, I have lesbian friends. Yes, I know lesbians exist But my back brain refuses to believe anyone can fall in love with a woman. I can barely write it convincingly for my male characters, and that’s ONLY because I’ve been loved by a guy for 30 years [that still astonishes me, too!] so the dinosaur brain had to learn to cope.

So I could have a great idea for a lesbian romance in congress, but I couldn’t write it. And I know that.

Part of the reason I can’t write “in the corridors of power” novels is that I don’t believe in politics and centralized government. Yes, like lesbian love I KNOW they happen, but rational knowledge is not what’s involved in ”selling” it in story telling. THAT is a gut-knowledge or gut belief. And that you can’t command. Now, if you feel it’s worth it to have years of therapy to write a novel, go for it. I’m still at large and the various psych professionals can’t find me.

You’ll have to find your own blind spots.

Now, let’s say you have an idea, or a character, or half a dozen lines that intrigue you. How do you write this novel?

Stay tuned tour thrilling next episode: Reading The Road Map of Plot.

54 thoughts on “First, Catch an Idea – writing your novel, part 1

  1. Good. This makes me feel better about the WWI novel. My fore brain is gibbering at me because I don’t have enough research done, don’t know enough about [teeny sub-topic], need to track down more references about pre-1920 place names and so on. Meanwhile, my hind-brain is churning out plot at 50 WPM (dialogue is slow going). And patting its foot because I have two other novellas/novels (and Bog help one may decide it’s a series) bubbling on the back burner.

  2. On “in the corridors of power” stories. Chris Nuttall’s books often have sections of “in the corridors of power” because what happens there is a factor in the overall story he’s telling.

    Two of his newest books are “A Learning Experience” and its sequel “Hard Lessons”.

    In the first book, part of the problem the main character faced was building a libertarian society (off Earth) that also had to be prepared to fight a war defending Earth.

    The second book continues the theme of “how does a somewhat libertarian society prepare for a war that they have to fight”.

  3. Okay, digging in on this series. I’ll be haunting Wednesdays, lurking about, waiting for this post so I can pounce and drag the meat off into…

    Never mind. I’m looking forward to the series. Maybe it’ll help with the current novel idea that just refuses to gel plot wise. I’m not sure I can step off on a novel without a plot. But it won’t leave me alone!!


    1. Sure you can. Just call it lit’rary fiction, add a scene with a dream and mist and sprinkle it with angst and you’re good to go. 😉

      1. If that little nugget haunts my back brain and I write it I’m sending it to you. And you’ll have no choice but to read it, sucked in by the sheer horror.

          1. We could haggle over lunch duty, but junior-grade orchestra — there you’ve got me. I can’t write horror to compete with such. Not even lit’rachure.

  4. Another one following along at home, here. The one major thing I learned in college creative writing is that when I try to write short stories I get asked if they’re the first chapter of a novel.
    Particularly looking forward to the revisions post, when you get to it. *Pokes characters* “Hey, you guys, wake up! The baby’s born and I can get back to work ’cause I have a brain again!”

  5. Ideas I have. What’s the story about? I have it. Three strong chapters of opening? I have them. Protagonists I have. Antagonists need some work, but I know who they are and what they want.

    How to get from that opening to a conflict between those protagonists and those antagonists that illuminates what the story’s about? That I don’t have,,,

                1. Wasn’t Black Moth her first?

                  I like the one with… oh poo. For some reason I’m thinking Ajax, but that’s the Unknown Ajax… I think. I like that one, too. (And all those already listed… The Foundling and Arabella and the Grand Sophie, which were my first three…) Toll Gate? I’ve got the internets! Hey… Black Moth looks like it’s free on Kindle right now. Yes! Toll-Gate (presently $2.99 on Kindle.)

                  Toll-Gate is one of my favorites and quite bloody-minded, too.

                  1. Now I have to go look them up. I loved the Unknown Ajax, but am now worried I am confusing it with Toll Gate. Didn’t Hugo in UA operate the toll for a bit?

                    1. Toll Gate has the missing chest of new gold currency hid in a cave and the statuesque red-headed heroine… I don’t recall what happened in the Unknown Ajax other than all of his new (dependent) relatives thinking he would eat his peas with his butter knife (figuratively, in any case) and trying to force him to marry his cousin.

                    2. I eat my peas with honey.
                      I’ve done it all my life.
                      It makes the peas taste funny,
                      But it keeps them on my knife.

                      Is that what you meant? (eyebrows raised)

                      Which one had the boy mad for the Army?

                    3. Unknown Ajax was fun because his new relatives expected him to be “all for” being part of the family and he could (at first) care less for his new family. Especially when he was playing the “country bumpkin”. [Evil Grin]

                2. The Nonesuch didn’t withstand the test of time for me. I think I enjoyed the Black Moth, although it was … odd.

                  1. The Black Moth was about a villain, primarily. Horrible, disgusting, outright rapist who… at the very end… has a single thought not about himself. So, when I read it I had an idea about how the narrative arc ought to progress, which made it seem like it took a left turn, weirdly, and then the bad guy didn’t get his comeuppance, he just became a little less evil and a little more pathetic.

                    But didn’t she write it for her brother? Perhaps it was meant to be a boy book. Somehow.

            1. Also, I’d like to request a Regency. Going by your language in Witchfinder, it should be a snap.

        1. Patricia Veryan comes close. “Love’s Duet” and “The Lord and the Gypsy” were my two favorite. As in, finished the last page, and turned right to the beginning for a re-read. Until Bujold wrote “A Civil Campaign,” Love’s Duet had my favorite dinner party disaster scene. Veryan wrote both Regency and Jacobite romances. Also, one set in WWII, more or less as an homage to the RAF and the US airmen who volunteered to serve with them. “These Broken Wings”?

  6. I usually start with Characters or Worlds. After playing with them a bit, I realize that I need a _problem_. :: grumble, grumble. :: Perfectly good time being had by all and then I have to have a murder, or an alien invasion or something . . .

    Every once in awhile a problem shows up, begging for a setting and characters, and then it’s party time! The hard part’s done!

  7. I’ve a recent example of an idea I’m throwing back, I suspect it may not be up to snuff, but I’m fairly sure it isn’t mine to write.

    In a world where America never developed the bomb, a Navajo code talker is part of Operation Coronet. The Shinto clergy he kills, and the shrines he desecrates as part of the fighting, so greatly disrupt harmony that the entire world is threatened. Japan’s eight million spirits, and others, work together to allow him to alter the timeline, making the Manhattan project successful in the new time line.

    It doesn’t excite me enough to do the research, I doubt my ability to handle the infantry combat, and what can figure of the end has themes that feel outside of my scope.

  8. And, for those of you who may be interested in an online writing group to go with Sarah’s writing instruction, there’s Expecting Something Written! To join, send email to mbarker at computer dot org right now!

  9. I’ve decided to stop even *thinking* about length after the short story workshop when we decided that every single one of my ideas was novella length.

    But on the probably-a-novel front, I figured out what happens next on one of my romantic paranormals and a reason or two that my duo get pulled into monster hunting instead of just go home. So they’re pointed the right direction (I think) and then I realize that, if I were Larry Correia, a monster would attack them in the current scene. Of course, if I were Larry Correia there would be a new monster on every other page instead of just a handful at most over the course of the story, so… ahem… anyhow… a monster is going to attack them.

    But probably not until this weekend.

      1. I swear you’re gonna kill me one of these days. I’ll probably deserve it, too.

        I think I’ll put up a new little motivational saying on my side-bookcase-of-motivation that says… actually two… one that says “What would Larry Correia do?” and the other one that says “Laura M is gonna kill you one of these days.”

        (Hey… I’ve got one there already that says Laura M… “The character has to face some sort of obstacle, no matter how small or drawn out [in each scene.]”)

        1. I do, from time to time, raise my face to the heavens, shake my fist in your general direction (you’re in the MacBook), and rail against that tantalizing snippet you wrote about meeting an alien on a dark, forested road. Which you then didn’t finish. Don’t feel any pressure.

  10. I’ve been reading about the W plot because I have problems with the middle and I’m getting ready for NaNo. One person said to start with a list of 25 things that happen in your story. I was all excited. I make lists every day. I sometimes even put things I’ve already done onto the list so that I have something to cross off immediately. This provides a great sense of accomplishment. Anyway, you make the list of 25 things and figure out where all those things fall in the W. Only, after I made the list, I saw that, as usual, I had the first 15 or 25 percent, and the last ten percent, but the middle of the W wasn’t there. Made me sad.

    1. If it makes you feel better, the WWI novel’s MC informed me yesterday that he wasn’t going to war just now, he was going to get married and go to Trieste for his honeymoon and dodge Italian nationalists.

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