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Posts tagged ‘story ideas’

How Do You Know If An Idea Will Develop Into A Good Story? by Bernard Beckett

Not every idea you have flowers, not every book you start to write is finished and not every book you finish ends up being published, or even submitted. If you write, it’s almost certain a significant amount of your time will be spent working on projects that ultimately come to nothing. It’s never a total loss: you are learning from your mistakes and exercising the writing muscles, so to speak. Occasionally, you only get to the novel you should write by way of the one you shouldn’t. Nevertheless, it would be helpful to be able to identify failures-in-waiting earlier rather than later, and, perhaps more importantly, to be able to differentiate between a piece of writing that is difficult to pull into shape and one that is impossible. If we become too sensitive to the signs of nascent disaster, we may lose the courage to see any project through.

I don’t claim to be an expert in this. Having just abandoned a novel after working on it for two years, I may be the very worst example, but here, for what it’s worth, are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

First, don’t abandon a novel just because it isn’t turning out the way you hoped. Woody Allen once said that he arrives on the first day of every film shoot carrying in his mind a picture of the masterpiece he is about to make. Then, compromise by compromise, the actual film takes shape. The thing we are aiming at is a feeling rather than a product. Its fleshy imitation is sure to disappoint, especially on first draft. The danger is that in order to develop the mental toughness required, you can become insensitive to crucial warning signs.

The next thing is the importance of being able to distil the idea that brought you to the novel. I think the cliché of being able to reduce a story to one or two sentences is absolutely as valuable as its ubiquity suggests. If you have a vague feeling that you find highly exciting but you’re unable to find a succinct expression for it, then it might not be a story-in-waiting at all but rather one of those phantoms that will always dissolve under scrutiny. I once had the idea of a story where a boy receives a letter in the mail from God. He assumes it’s a hoax but can’t quite let it go… I could never pull any more out of it than that, even though, whenever I think of it I have an ill defined yet compelling feeling that there’s something there. Until I can say what, there’s nothing to be gained from exploring it further, or so I see it.

Another point I have to remind myself of constantly is that openings aren’t stories. Openings are fabulous ways into stories, but just having a great opening is not in itself a reason to believe a great story (or indeed any story) will follow. I struggle with this one a lot, simply because I find openings so seductive. ‘A middle aged journalist at a concert is called away to cover the location of a murder victim’s body. He is meant to be taking his teenage daughter home at the end of the concert, so accepts the offer of a man he has bonded with during the show to drive her home. Only, of course, this stranger is the murderer, seeking to groom his next victim…’ I really wanted to write that, so I did. The opening ran to five thousand words, I was excited by it, I liked the voice, there was a great sense of momentum, then a screeching halt because the opening was all I had. I didn’t actually have a story I wanted to tell that went beyond what was in fact a slightly macabre little short story. Novels aren’t quite in the plant-and-wait-for-it-to-grow category of things.

Finally, and this is the one that caught me recently: is the story you are telling an authentic expression of you? That sounds waffly. Let me see if I can sharpen it. There’s a very great difference, I think, between trying to be the sort of writer you would like to see yourself as and trying to be the best version of the writer you actually are. Sometimes I will read a book and immediately be seduced by the idea of ‘wanting to write like that’. Yet, when I examine it more closely, I realise the thing I have loved about the book is the insight it has given me into a world and personality that isn’t my own. Much as I admire and am jealous of so much great literature, it is very often shot through with a sort of existential angst that, were I to try it on for myself, would play as nothing but self absorption.

I’m not in the end a deeply serious person. I maintain a certain lightness in my life. I struggle to take myself seriously and when others do there’s always a part of me that wants to slap them. Where others are able to draw upon the depths of their fears and sufferings, I find the hole has been filled in with a truckload of cheap gags and irony. That means, on the occasions that I have tried to imitate the writers of serious literature, there’s been a fake quality to the writing that I’ve quickly become self conscious of (but haven’t angsted over, you understand). The writing I’ve most wasted time over is the writing where I’ve been trying to be something or somebody I’m not.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

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Where My Ideas For Novels Come From, by Beth Revis

Probably one of the most asked questions I have at events is, “where do your ideas come from?”

Honestly? I don’t know.

The ideas for my novels tend to come from a wide variety of places – but mostly a combination of real-life oddities and excellent books and movies.

Really, I guess the answer is: my inspiration tends to come from two words. The two most important words to a writer: “What if?”

I was recently at a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum. There are several of these across America. I happened to be in the one in San Antonio. It was filled with lots of weird, true-life things. Every single thing in that museum has a story. When I can’t get to a wacky museum like Ripley’s, I tend to search online – Cracked.com and io9.com are both good places to go for weird-but-true stories. Wikipedia can sometimes also give me the fun info I need, even when I’m not actively searching for a new idea to write, I go to these places and websites and cram as much knowledge into my brain as possible – you never know when you can use a random tidbit or detail to make an existing story better. In my latest novel, Shades of Earth, I used info from my elementary school history class as a reference.

Another great place to go for inspiration is books. I read the types of books I want to write. Not every author agrees with this idea, but I live by it. Do you want to write fantasy? Read fantasy. Do you want to write romance? Read romance. When you read something you love, think about why you love it. You shouldn’t emulate it. You should find the heart of what you like. If you read something you don’t like, think of what would make it better. One of my best short stories happened because I didn’t like the end of a book I’d read – so I rewrote a story that did what I would have done in the ending.

There is no one source of inspiration. A writer doesn’t just turn the inspiration on and off. Instead, constantly seek inspiration. Find out as much as you can about everything that interests you. Stories arise from a fertile mind, nurtured with real life.

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Beth Revis’s author website: www.bethrevis.com

Beth Revis’s bio page

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Getting Story Ideas And Writing Them Into Novels, by Pauline Francis

Where do I get my ideas? Lots of ideas pass through my mind. I usually wake up with them. But only some stick. That’s how I know which idea will probably become a new novel.  If I try to force it, the book doesn’t work. When I have that lovely excitement of something coming up to the boil, I don’t start to write until I have the beginning and the end. The end is really important. If you’re using historical characters or events, a twist in the story that doesn’t change known events can help get past readers knowing how things turn out.

What happens if an idea sticks but your publisher doesn’t like it? Well, there are only two choices: don’t write it – or write it and hope that another publisher will take it. I’ve just made that second choice. The novel that I’ve just finished (which my publisher didn’t want) and sent to my agent is based on a theme that has always gripped me: how people are treated in war. One day, I saw a photograph in the Guardian newspaper of a frozen Inca (16th century Peru) girl. She was sitting up, hair and skin intact because she’d frozen to death. She completely captivated me. I couldn’t get her out of my mind and she sat on my notice board for a long time as I tried to get my publisher interested. This is how Ice Girl began. Some pressure was put on me to make this a forensic novel with a contemporary setting, which would have been really interesting, except it wasn’t the forensics that interested me. What if that frozen girl had been captured by the Spanish conquistadors when they arrived in Peru?

I’ve had many problems with this novel. Peru is inaccessible to most readers, although they might know that Paddington Bear came from darkest Peru. I decided to give the book two narrators: an Inca girl and a Spanish soldier. This gave it the right balance as UK readers are usually well-travelled in Spain.

I’m satisfied with my decision to write without a contract. It was the right thing for me to do.

I can only begin to write if I have the main character, and a beginning and an end to my story. Then I do some research. My novels are rich in symbolism and I look for research that supports it. The novel I’m now writing is set against the French Revolution and the symbols are heart/blood/corpses, linked to the novel Frankenstein. When you have your symbols it’s amazing how much they come up in research.

I don’t write out a plan of the chapters, but see the events unfolding visually as if I’m at the cinema. I always use a short timeframe – usually one or two years – and I almost always use two narrators. I like this technique, especially if present tense is used, because it moves the story along very quickly and makes the character very now, rather than distant. It also gives my characters the contemporary feel that I like so much. I love short narratives, especially where characters are quarrelling and they keep breaking into each other’s narrative. It brings the story alive. I’ve never written a novel in third-person yet. I’d like to, because it can give breadth to the novel and lots of different points of view.

Language and character interest me more than plot. I detest too many adjectives and adverbs. I rarely use exclamations marks.

I’m a full-time writer now and I write every day, even if I don’t feel like it. I write new work in the morning. In the afternoon, I check what I’ve written the day before. Every week or two, I read my work out aloud to feel the tension and rhythm. I do a lot of cutting and pasting after that.

I don’t believe in writer’s block. There’s always something that can be written. If the book isn’t flowing well, I might spend a week writing individual scenes that are bothering me. I’ll do this by hand, on A4 paper headed with the name of the scene. Listening to music just before writing is good, as it stimulates creativity.

Writing is using your writing muscle. If you don’t use it, you lose it – and very quickly. Our muscles slacken within 36 hours. So does writing. After a holiday, it does take longer to get back into it, just like any job. Then I just read a teen novel by one of my favourite writers and I’m so full of awe and envy that I can’t wait to get back to mine. Or I might watch a TV series aimed at young people and this works. We’ve just had a series on TV called Merlin and I love the repartee between the young Merlin and young King Arthur.

I start work at about 8 o’clock and always finish at 5.30 to watch Neighbours. I used to watch it with my children, but they gave it up a long time ago. It relaxes me and I find the way that issues are dealt with interesting.

I love writing on trains, especially when I’m travelling to schools or festivals. We have many literary festivals in the UK and it’s a great honour to be invited. Sometimes it’s just me on the stage and sometimes it’s a discussion. I don’t mind what it is. Meeting my readers is the most exciting part of being an author. If I’ve managed to change their life in any way, I’m humbled and moved by that.

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Paulines Francis’s author website: www.paulinefrancis.co.uk

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Developing An Idea Into A Complete Story, by Andy Briggs

It all starts with a sudden explosion of thoughts and concepts that rebound from one another until they start to form the kernel of an idea. It is this precious idea that is going to consume months, if not years, of your life as you nurture it into a story. It’s that tiny idea you thought of on the train, in school or walking the dog that is going to make you get out of bed each morning and hammer away at a keyboard.

So it better be good.

How does this idea evolve into a book? You will start working out the beginning, middle and end – the core three acts that bond your story together. Most of the time, these will be utterly wrong and you will find yourself rewriting your opening, reworking the middle and having no idea how it is all going to end until you get there. Having a notion of where the story might go is enough. Your characters will begin to develop from this. You’ll find yourself bending and twisting the story to fit their needs – try and resist this. You want the story to be a challenge for the characters to navigate, so don’t be concerned about their health and safety.

Now your characters are forming, your plot is also falling into shape. A couple of key scenes will probably have sparked into existence; jot them down and keep them for later.

With the raw elements of characters and rough plot you have reached a fork in your evolving quest. Do you sit and plan the story as best you can, so you know what information each chapter has to convey and what turns your story will take? Or, do you jump in and start writing with no clear idea on where your story is going? Both methods are equally valid, and it often comes down to the individual’s personal tastes. I like to plot – I think this comes from starting my career writing movies. With scripts, you need a solid structure and have a finite number of pages to play out your story. For the novelist, at this moment in time, you have a blank canvas and infinite pages.

Whichever path you have taken, your story will unfold and you will begin to find the characters are not behaving quite the way you want them to. This is because you are giving life to them with each sentence, and no matter how well you think you know them, you don’t. It will feel as if they are taking you in a different direction from what you originally intended. I feel it is pointless trying to change their minds, you may as well go with the flow – but remember, you are the Creator. Don’t let them get away with leading you down an unplanned path. When this happens, I throw down a challenge within the story to derail them and bring them back on the course I plotted. People say you should love your characters – but drama comes from conflict, and you should be causing as many problems for them as possible.

As you plough through your story, you may discover those brilliant plot twists or scenes you dreamt up no longer fit the story. Don’t try to force them in, otherwise your story will seem disjointed. New scenes will evolve from the problems you have thrown at the characters. Rather than force a great idea into an unyielding story, set it aside for another book. Good ideas will have their moment; just remember their moment may not be now.

After navigating through writer’s block, casting misfortune on your characters and typing until your fingers are numb, you finally have a book. You may suddenly realise the ending was not what you had in mind, or, on the lucky occasions, have an ending that surprises you. You may also discover that your beginning doesn’t set the right tone – which probably means you have entered the story at the wrong moment. Try other entry points to see what works.

The most important point is that you now have a complete story: pages of drama and tension that all came from a random idea. As a writer, there is no greater thrill than reaching that moment.

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Andy Briggs’s author website: www.andybriggs.co.uk

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On Story Ideas And Developing A Novel, by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

There are so many story ideas out there; small, personal stories, slice-of-life, romance, adventure, horror, fantasy epics. I have lists of ideas tucked away that I’ll probably never get around to writing. So how do you know which idea to follow? With luck, something will talk to you – the right idea will hold your hand and walk you right through to the end.

After I finished writing my first Happyface, my first teen graphic novel, I felt like I needed to take my writing career to the next level. Other authors were making huge deals for 6 figures writing these epic series, these volumes-long fantasies and dystopias of other worlds and barren futures. I’d only written some comics and my first teen graphic novel, but I’m an author, so I figured I should be able to write anything I choose.

I set out to work on my own series. I fumbled through a few ideas before I settled on my epic – it involved a world that exists on a molecular level, subatomic particles and whatnot that you could only see after you die, when you leave your body and become energy. Or, you could see it through The Machine.

I slaved on this thing for months as it grew and grew, lending itself to volumes of stories. There was a parallel to Homer’s The Odyssey, there were gods and monsters, there was a girl… there were many girls! There was a broken protagonist, who needed to fix himself on his journey. Once the confines of the human body were left behind, the world became especially open. He could travel through time and space, there was an underworld, a heaven and lessons to be learned.

I first knew I was in trouble when I was sending my editor these long dry articles on quantum physics and theories on the soul and she said, “Okay, great, I don’t know what you want me to do with these!!” I’d spent months trying to build this world that never felt tangible. I didn’t know how or where to start, and I hadn’t written a single word. It was just IDEAS, piles and piles of IDEAS, and research, and graphs and charts and character arcs. I wasn’t getting any closer to having a BOOK. My editor pointed out that people have spent a lifetime trying to pull off The Odyssey.

One day I was at my day job and I had to call someone who lived in Winter Haven, Florida. “That’s a weird place to name a town after winter,” I thought. Florida is like summer all year round. This sparked the idea for Winter Town. I pictured the winters I had as a child in New England and thought it was a charming setting for a story. I thought of writing two protagonists, a boy and a girl, and how maybe they only get to see each other during the winter, making it all the more magical and romantic.

Within twenty minutes I had a rough outline for what the book could be. I emailed the idea to my editor and she immediately grasped onto it – it felt like a proper follow-up to Happyface, and it wouldn’t take me years of plotting to make something of it. The basic idea for Winter Town never changed. I added personal elements, there were themes on art, dreams and comfort added, but I was moving. I was writing, and I felt like I was actually working on something and not just spinning my wheels. Then it was just solving the remaining puzzles – What do these characters want? What do they need? How do they fulfil each other? Where do they leave each other empty?

Maybe I’ll still get to that epic some day, or another series, but my point is this: Don’t chase trends, don’t worry about what others are writing or how much money they’re making, and don’t follow buzz – just write your story. Write what comes from your heart or you’ll be starting at the bottom of a long uphill battle.

story notes by graphic novelist Stephen Emond

 

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Stephen Emond’s author website: www.stephenemond.com

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On Getting Story Ideas (and Developing Them Into Finished Stories) by Diane Lee Wilson

“Where Do You Get Your Ideas?” That’s a question I frequently get from aspiring writers and one that, frankly, surprises me. Because gathering ideas is truly the easiest part of writing a teen novel. Developing them into a finished story is quite another matter.

Viable ideas for your novel are everywhere. Literally. If you maintain a keen interest and a sensitive ear you’ll find possibilities in a “human interest” story in the newspaper. In a conversation with a stranger. In an unusual photograph in a magazine. In a “throwaway” line from an old movie. If, as a writer, you’re truly alert to the bits of stories all around you then you will find more stories to tell than you have years to live.

Keep in mind that you’re going to craft your story for a teen audience so focus on those themes or settings that will most appeal to this age group.

Now, how do you keep track of all these gestating ideas and which ones do you nurture first? For me, I always have a completely unedited “idea file” in progress. This manila folder regularly accumulates intriguing clippings, photos, and random scribbles on notepaper (often jotted down in the middle of the night when “brilliance” seems to appear). Most of these thought fragments have never blossomed into full stories. But sometimes a theme begins developing (a place in history or a particular character type, for example) and I’ll extract all this pertinent inspiration and assemble it in its own “story file.”

When I’m between projects I’ll also take the time to edit my “idea file”. If I’m no longer struck by the wonderful possibilities of a certain piece then it has lost its magic for me, and I crumple and toss it without regret. You don’t have to hold onto every single story idea; there are many, many more in the world around you. Trust me.

So how do you identify the best ones? The very best idea, the one to which you should apply all your energy, is the one you’re constantly turning in your mind, the one that makes you jump out of bed in the morning and want to start writing. It’s the one that lights the creative fire inside you.

As all writers know, however, self-doubt can creep in and all too easily dampen that fire. Maybe there’s another story that’s better, you begin to think. Maybe I should be working on that one.

Well, here’s where you have to balance inspiration with determination. Re-evaluate what got you started on this teen novel of yours. Do you still believe in that idea? If so, then dig down and find the determination to carry your idea through to a complete novel.

If you truly find yourself staring into the dark, though, perhaps it’s only temporary. Perhaps you need to put your story on the back burner for a while and let it develop at its own pace. I think most writers have several story ideas incubating at the same time. I, for one, always have two or three projects in various stages of maturation lined up behind the one on which I’m working.

Although I consider myself a fairly disciplined writer, even my project line-up can change. As an example: I have compiled research for an intended novel that now fills an entire file box. Relevant books have been acquired, notes organized, character descriptions fleshed out, even a few early chapters have been written. I like this story. I want to write it. But twice now, some other project has pre-empted my creative fire and assumed priority. Most recently this happened when I was reading a newspaper article and turned the page to find a striking photograph that I immediately saw as the climax of a story. At the same instant that I was acknowledging that “THIS is my next story” I was bemoaning the fact that I would once again have to set aside the story with the huge file box. Oh well. Hopefully I have enough years left in me to return to it.

Determination to complete a story can always be mustered, but inspiration, especially when it presents itself in full flame, should never be ignored. Follow your instinct.

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Diane Lee Wilson bio page

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Generating Story Ideas, by SM Johnston

Don’t underestimate a daydream. For me, daydreaming plays an important part in my creation of concepts. Scenes flash through my mind, quite often like movie scenes with narration. It often happens while I’m listening to music – sometimes while at the gym or driving (and I have a forty minute drive to work so that’s a lot of time for story ideas to develop). Other times I get a hypothetical question pop into my head and my mind starts drifting off thinking about how that would work in reality.

For example, my short story Karma, which was runner-up in The Australian Literature Review’s YA short story competition, was inspired by the question “What if there were people out there who were responsible for ensuring karma was delivered?” From there I start running through a list of possible characters, their names, what they look like, how this subgroup in society is run. This imagination time is a perfect opportunity for world building.

Luckily, when I came up with the concept of Karma I was at my computer. Other times when I’m out I have to rely on writing my ideas down as quickly as possible. Notebooks are a writer’s best friend. Keep them everywhere. Admittedly, I have gotten odd looks when I’m scribbling my notes down like crazy in the gym shower room, but capturing those precious ideas is vital. Keep them in your car, next to your bed, in your bag and anywhere else you can think of. One time I had a really strong inspiration for a short story while listening to Pearl Jam and I had to keep repeating the words over and over in my head until I pulled up at my house and had the opportunity to get it onto paper.

Some writers have set play lists that help them get into the writing groove. Personally I have trouble writing with music on, but it definitely helps in the imagination process. I play a lot of Taylor Swift when I’m writing YA contemporary and shift to bands like Good Charlotte, AFI and Simple Plan when I’m delving into darker writing. Find your muse and play it loud.

Don’t be afraid to store plot bunnies either – that is story ideas that you may not be able to work on then and there. Jot down your ideas and keep them for when you’ve finished your latest project. It’s important to not stifle your creativity.

Your own life can also be inspirational for the story writing process. My short story Growth was based on my experiences with my dad dying of cancer. Because it was autobiographical, I could leave things as they were. But another story inspired by my experiences with Dad, a YA GenFic WIP called The Living List, is fiction, so I am taking a lot of my feelings from the experience and expression them in a different way. I spent a lot of time imagining what it would have felt like if I had of lost Dad as a teenager instead of as an adult.

If you want to hone your imagination skills, try looking for flash fiction competitions. They often have a picture or a few words as a prompt. They’re a great way to get your creative juices flowing.

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SM Johnston bio page

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