‘Ain’t No Such Thing as Writer’s Block’ is a series of blog posts following the complete process of writing my fourth novel, a Young Adult science-fiction story called ‘Alpha’. You can find the previous post here. Today’s post covers the very first step in writing a novel, the idea.
Nearly every author I know hates the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” Authors who frequent conventions or host regular question and answer sessions have probably developed a long list of witty answers like, from the Idea-of-the-Month-Club (Neil Gaiman), Poughkeepsie (Harlan Ellis), or, Schenectady. They have them in a store on Route 147 (Joe Hill).
The reason for using these retorts is simple, it’s sometimes hard to externalise the exact process of idea generation. Sometimes you can identify your source of inspiration, and sometimes you can’t. Ultimately though people already know the answer to “Where do you get your ideas?” Ideas come from inside your head. More specifically, authors filter their experiences through their brain and ideas drop out, same as with anybody else. I suppose the difference between an author and someone else, if there is one, is a mindset maybe more receptive to ideas.
Ideas come from everywhere and they’re mostly a result of blatant thievery (inspiration - if that’s what you want to call it). Maybe you’re reading an article about an obscure 14th century painting and you get an idea for a thriller about an art theft. Maybe you overhear someone having an argument over the phone and it sparks an idea for a deep piece about the slow destruction of a marriage. Maybe you see a documentary about astronauts and think it would be a whole lot cooler if aliens ate their faces.
Everywhere around you there will be books you read, movies you watch and music you hear that will plant the seeds of ideas. So what do you do? You steal those ideas and run. This doesn’t mean plagiarise, this means mixing and matching the ideas you acquire and making them your own. You’re not going to rewrite Moby Dick word for word, but you might decide that your main character is a gruff old sea captain inspired, in part, by Captain Ahab. This is what people mean when they repeat the quote, which may or may not have been said by Picasso, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”
I knew I wanted to write a Young Adult sci-fi novel for my next book. The first novel I wrote was aimed at young adult readers and I really enjoy writing for that audience. As adults we have read enough books and seen enough movies and watched enough TV to know the familiar tropes, to have seen most things before, but with young readers this is often not the case. There’s something wonderful in creating worlds for young readers to explore knowing that your book may take them somewhere entirely new and may be one of those stories they always remember as an experience of firsts. I think this enjoyment of writing YA stems from my time as a teacher, and perhaps my own love of reading that really hit its stride when I was in that age group. I read everything from Goosebumps novels to Stephen King, from Roald Dahl to Ray Bradbury, from Lord of the Flies to Lord of the Rings. I know from my own reading the depth and breadth that Young Adults read. I wanted to write a science-fiction book for younger readers that still had adult elements.
One book series I loved as a teenager, as I’m sure is the case with a lot of Australian children of my generation, was John Marsden’s Tomorrow When the War Began. If you don’t know the premise of the Tomorrow series it’s about a group of teenagers who go camping and when they return they find an unknown enemy has invaded Australia and the group find themselves mounting a guerrilla resistance against the occupiers. I had a couple of ideas for my next book but the idea I couldn’t shake, the idea that demanded it be the focus was thinking about the Tomorrow series but with the teenagers resisting not the invasion of a foreign nation but an alien invasion.
The idea of fighting against alien invaders is certainly nothing new, but it’s how I pictured the story unfolding, a story focused more on the teenagers as characters rather than the alien enemy, a story that is more adventure than action, a story close on a small group amidst a broader fight. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; a single idea is not enough to sustain a novel-length piece of work. An idea needs other ideas to back it up.
Once you’ve had the initial idea you need to give it some time and space. You need to let the idea sit in your head for a while as other ideas float in and out. You’ll soon find that some of these other ideas stick to the first idea like an idea molecule attracting stray atoms to join with it. This way you not only build up a broader idea more capable of being the starting point for a novel but you create your own unique take on things by joining ideas in new and interesting ways.
I had my core idea of teens resisting aliens but as I let that idea cook in my mind other ideas started to join it. I thought about the ongoing issue of how Australia is treating refugees and thought, how would we treat another species if it came to our planet seeking asylum? I thought about how much we could learn from a more advanced race and would they would teach this new knowledge to us? I had some ideas for characters float through my mind, a troubled girl with a powerful secret and a boy who misuses his knowledge of computers. I spent some time mulling over an alien race, creating a species that was as grounded in reality as it could be.
The ideas started to come together and I found the story start to emerge, fragmented, with a lot of maybes, but the skeleton was coalescing from the constant bombardment of idea molecules. I felt I was ready to start fleshing it out.
But now that I’ve got an idea that seems layered enough to begin planning a story how do I know whether it’s any good? Whether an idea is good enough is somewhat subjective. I personally don’t think sparkly vampires who come out in the daytime is a good idea but apparently millions of people disagree with me. So we won’t talk about whether an idea is subjectively good but we can test to see if it’s ready.
In order for your core idea to be ready to start writing a novel you probably need several things, keep in mind that these don’t need to be anywhere near fully fleshed out yet but I think it’s helpful to have some ideas around each:
- Characters – Do you have an idea of your protagonist, your antagonist, and your supporting cast?
- The World – Where is the story set? If it’s fantasy or science fiction what do you know about the world you need to create?
- Central conflict – Do you know what is it that the protagonist is trying to achieve and how that desire is being stopped?
- How does it end? – People may disagree with me on this one but I think, even now, you should have an idea of how it will end. Is your protagonist going to be successful? If so, how? If not, why not and what does that mean for the story?
- Audience – Who are you writing for?
- Tone or style – What sort of book are you writing? By this I don’t mean genre, I mean what is the feel of the book? Is it light-hearted or heavy? Is it tense? Is it adventurous?
- Are you itching to write it? – This might be the most important point of all. Is this the idea you want to write about because you’re going to be spending an awfully long time with it to turn it from this raw idea to an 80,000 to 100,000 word manuscript.
So with my idea for Alpha it took maybe a year of the idea being just an idea in my head and a few notes on an alien race, some characters and a few things that might or might not happen before I felt it was fully formed enough to begin working on. This is what I had:
- Characters - I had some characters, only two of the teenagers at this stage and I knew I would need to create more but I felt I had the two main characters ready.
- The World – I knew the setting would be near future and that I had a basic understanding of the aliens but knew I would need to flesh this out some more.
- Central Conflict - The conflict was to be between the aliens and the teenagers, but I knew the teenagers must be in a unique position to everyone else. My idea was they would begin a resistance because they learned a truth about the aliens the rest of the world didn’t know.
- How does it end? – I have an idea of the ending but of course I’m not going to spoil that here!
- Audience – As I’ve mentioned my audience is YA, specifically I’m aiming at the older end, 15 – 18 hopefully with crossover into adults.
- Tone or style – I want the story to feel personal to the characters, to be a science fiction story that feels as if it could really happen right now, I want to invoke the fight to survive feeling of the Tomorrow series but doing so in a different way. I want it to be an adventure story about real kids in extraordinary circumstances.
- Are you itching to write it? – You bet.
So, I’m ready to go right? Well, almost. Before I start a novel I like to solidify my idea, create a one paragraph synopsis of the story, something that will be the logline of the book. I highly recommend this as it becomes something to go back to again and again to ensure your story planning is in-line with the story you’re trying to write. This one paragraph also serves as the first step in how I plan the rest of the plot but we’ll save that for the next post.
For Alpha, after spending a few days tightening up the notes around my idea here is what I came up with, this is the book I’m going to be writing:
Six years after aliens arrive on Earth as refugees from a long distant war, a group of troubled teenagers find themselves at Alpha Academy - a prestigious institute for human youth to learn from the aliens - but they soon discover Earth's visitors may not be as peaceful as they seem and must band together to prevent disaster for both races.
So there it is, from the seed of an idea to a logline ready to move forward. In the next post I’ll talk about how I go from this single paragraph to the first outline of the novel’s plot. Remember, to keep up with the 'Ain’t No Such Thing As Writer’s Block' series and follow the development of Alpha enter your email in the email subscription box (I promise it’s spam free). You can also follow me on Twitter.