Writing Wednesday: How Do I Come Up with An Idea?

Writing Wednesday

Welcome back to Writing Wednesday! This week we troubleshoot the age-old question writers get: Where do you get your ideas from?

NaNoWriMo is fast approaching, and many of my friends are gearing up to write their butts off for the month of November. (As am I! You can add me at sjaejones.) A lot of them already what they’re going to write, but some have asked for a little help.

I’ve already written a post for Pub(lishing) Crawl on “How to Find the Right Idea to Turn into a Book”, but for NaNoWriMo, I’ve decided to tweak my advice a little. I also gave some tips on Episode 6 of the PubCrawl podcast, but I want to delve a little further into taking the seed of an idea and making sure it has roots, especially during the mad frenzy of word-generation that is NaNoWriMo.

1. Identify what you like.

And be as specific as possible. For example, I tend to love stories with emotionally obtuse heroines and emotionally fluent romantic interests. I am a lover of all things fantasy, particularly magicianship and spell-work, and not quite so much paranormal or supernatural. I am drawn to certain time periods of history: Britain during World War I, the late 18th century in Central Europe, and Meiji era Japan. I like plucky magical girls and ragamuffin urchins. Etc.

The book I am drafting for NaNoWriMo has most of these elements, and fortunately for me, I also like to research1, so I have a lot of background knowledge of my favourite historical time periods. If you find yourself unsure of what you want to write about, then I recommend drawing up a few lists:

  1. Make a list of your favourite books.
  2. Identify as many tropes as you can within them. Refer to TV Tropes as needed.
  3. Circle the tropes that speak the most to you.
  4. String the tropes together in a way that starts to spell a narrative sentence.

2. Find your premise.

In my post for PubCrawl, I identified an Idea as having three components, or Story Seeds: Character, Premise, and Plot. Although Character is almost always the Story Seed I find first, for NaNoWriMo, I think having your Premise first is probably the better way to go.

At a later date, I suppose I can delve into the notion of High Concept, but for now, I’ll define the Premise as the setup or “hook” of your novel. Premises can be described in an X meets Y style format, or it can be a one sentence description. For example, I have described my book Wintersong (which was NaNoWriMo 2013 winner) as Labyrinth meets Amadeus and A reimagining of Labyrinth in which a young woman travels to the realm of the goblins to rescue her sister from the clutches of the Goblin King. Generally, in publishing, the simpler the one-sentence description, the more commercial the hook. (It’s more commercial because it is easier to pitch. No, seriously. Sales reps go to stores and pitch books they haven’t read to buyers. The easier your hook is to pitch, the more commercial the idea.) During NaNoWriMo, the simpler the description, the easier it is to get words out.

3. Make like a magpie and steal, steal, steal.

If you’re at all like me, you’ll find Plot the hardest of the Story Seeds to come up with. Because of this, I usually find something to retell. Although most people’s minds go to “fairy tale” when faced with the word “retelling”, you can retell absolutely anything. Your favourite X-Files episodes (some of which were retellings of other things, like the episode “Ice”, which was an homage to The Thing). The Norman Conquest of England. I find history a rich place to steal from, not only for setting inspiration, but for conflict as well. What is the story of Henry VIII but a domestic drama of the highest order? George R. R. Martin found The Wars of the Roses wonderful inspiration for his A Song of Ice and Fire, after all.

Now, I want to emphasize that there is a difference between stealing for inspiration and outright plagiarism. (You cannot plagiarise history, which is why I advocate that as being the best place to steal from.) Taking something as a starting point is one thing, but to use situations identical to the work of inspiration is plagiarism. So you might be inspired by another’s work, make sure you take that inspiration and form your own conclusion.

4. Once you have your premise and characters, figure out what the Inciting Incident and the Point of No Return Are.

I’m not much for books on craft/structure, nor do I think writers should be married to the Save the Cat method, but every story needs a beginning. (Stories also need middles and ends, but beginnings are my forte.) For simplicity’s sake, I’ll define the Inciting Incident as “the thing that changes everything for the protagonist” and the Point of No Return as “the moment when the protagonist decides to do something about that change”. Sometimes these two things are the same, sometime they’re not. In my books, they tend to be two different moments in the text: the first being external, the second being an internal decision to become personally involved.

5. NO JUDGMENT, or write that thinly-veiled fanfic of your heart!

Look, there’s no shame in writing something self-indulgent. In fact, writing something self-indulgent makes drafting easier. Wish-fulfillment is a potent force; much of what I write is wish-fulfillment in some way. I write the books I want to read. I put myself in the narratives I would have read as a child. An Asian girl as the protagonist of a Frances Hodgson Burnett novel…with magic. If that’s self-insert Mary Sue fanfiction, then so be it. I am happy writing it.

So that’s it for this week! If you have any other questions, sound off in the comments or drop me an ask on Tumblr!

  1. HOUSE RAVENCLAW FOREVER.

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