Plan a Novel 1: The Idea

— August 08, 2011 (7 comments)
Someone asked me to talk about how I plan a novel, and the current size of my readership makes one person a significant sample size. So he wins.

Before I go on, I'm required by law to say that everyone's process is different and valid (assuming it produces a novel -- my old process of "sit in front of the TV until I feel like writing 80,000 words" never really worked out for me). This is not how you must write a novel. It is only how I write a novel. Your mileage may vary.

Okay, so the first thing you need is an idea. I can't tell you where to get ideas, but you need a lot of them to write a whole novel. Not all ideas are created equal, but I think any idea can be made novel-sized with enough work.

I use sort of a loose version of the snowflake method. I start small and build up the idea piece by piece, adding characters, plot points, world-building, etc. One thing that's really important for me is writing down my initial idea somewhere, so when I'm stuck, or I feel like the story is dead-ending, I can remind myself what got me excited about the idea in the first place.

Before I put the effort into plotting an idea, I want to know it's strong enough. For that, I have a checklist based on Nathan Bransford's fantastic post on how to write a novel (you may have noticed my process is not at all original):
  • Premise: One sentence about the main character (MC) and the plot. These don't have to be good. One of mine was the very generic: "MC sets out to save his town and ends up saving the world."
  • Main Plot Arc: Specifically four key parts: (1) where the MC starts, (2) the inciting event, (3) what they have to do (the journey), and (4) where they end up (the ending).
  • Obstacles: Whatever stands in the MC's way.
  • MC: Who they are and what they want (<-- this is very important!).
  • Setting: Including three aspects (from Nathan's post): (1) some setting-level conflict and change underway, (2) personality (what makes the world unique), and (3) unfamiliarity (what makes the world strange).
  • Style and Voice: Honestly I never know what to write for this, but it was in Nathan's post so it's in my checklist. Style and voice are usually the last things I think about.
  • Climax: I don't always have one of these either, but it's not a bad thing to have before deciding to write something.
  • Themes: What bigger issues does this story deal with?
I think if you've got an idea of most or all of those points, you're well on your way to a strong story.

You're NOT trying to fill all the boxes. Last time, I had six ideas, so I made a whole freaking table to see where the gaps were. And there were a lot of gaps. I had no climaxes, a lot of missing journeys, and settings with no personality. One story had an MC but no world, and another a world with no MC (though that was one place my table worked out great: I combined the two ideas).

The table didn't tell me which idea was fully-formed. It helped me get a bird's-eye view to see how much work each one needed, and to get a feel for which one I was most excited about doing that work.

About marketability. The perceived marketability of a concept is something I considered (and even put in my table), because I think whatever I work on should ideally be something other people want to read. But I don't think you can choose what to write based on what you think will sell. For one thing, nobody knows what will hit it big.


For another, no matter how marketable an idea might be, it's not worth writing if you hate it. So marketability goes into my decision, but it doesn't make the decision.

Next week I'll talk about filling these gaps and turning an idea into the skeleton of a story. But tell me about your process. How do you decide whether an idea is novel-worthy or not?

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  1. Yay, I love reading writing process blog posts! :D It's so interesting to see how other people go about it and pick up new tips or tricks to try out. I love how you make a table to evaluate the completeness of your novel ideas. Now I want to make one for my story ideas too, hehe. Looking forward to reading more about how you develop your ideas!

  2. Thanks, Linda! To be fair, I only made that table for this last WiP (#4). Novels #2 and #3 were just "the next idea in the queue" :-)

  3. Great post! I think the ideas can start anywhere (cool MC, unique world, awesome conflict), but you have to grow them to see if they have the depth that can support a novel. But, like you said, I think most ideas can be grown if you work at it (then again, it may turn into something you didn't expect!).

  4. Nice to meet you, Adam. Found you through Susan! Nice post!

  5. I've only ever had one idea I felt was novel worthy, and I'm still not done turning it into a book, so I'm not sure I'm the right person to validate this, but it sounds good to me. I only had a few of the points thought out ahead of time, but somehow I lucked my way into making most of the rest of them work out (I hope).

  6. I love how you have a step-by-step process for just about anything :). Like Matthew, I've only had my one idea that I'm still working to turn into a completed novel. But after reading this post, I realize that I am on the right track!

  7. "I love how you have a step-by-step process for just about anything :)."

    It's true. And if I don't have one, I MAKE ONE UP!