The wordy transition: Growing novel-sized story ideas
As part of your call to write, I have discussed reading about writing, reading with an eye toward writing, creating the right writing environment, selecting a point of view, developing relatable characters and crafting authentic dialogue. While all of this is nice and fine, you might think that I skipped one very important lesson and that is growing a novel-sized story idea. Well, today’s the day that we take your little seed of an idea and turn it into a mighty work of fiction.
There are two ends to the story-planning spectrum: those who meticulously plan out every little detail before writing and those who grasp hold of a vague idea and decide what the story is about while they write it. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.
If you fall more towards the meticulous planner end, you might find it helpful to spend weeks, even months, researching and outlining your story before you begin to write it. You’ll create notes about scene, setting, and character on dozens-upon-dozens of index cards, always ready to add a few more. You’ll probably back up your written notes with an e-File of some kind and then back that up on a thumb drive — you can never be too careful.
If you fall more towards the free-flowing, come-what-may end, your process will be totally different. You may wake up one morning, walk out to get the newspaper and notice that the neighbor’s roses are in bloom. Roses, you’ll think, huh. Then you’ll return inside, power up your computer, and begin writing about those roses — what they smelled like, what they looked like, who planted them and why, what goes on in that rose garden and on and on. With time, your story about roses may become a tribute to the deceased family cat that's buried in the garden or it may detail the exploits of a deranged serial killer who lives in this pretty, little suburban wonderland. The point is you could end up anywhere.
Of course there are issues to consider if you take such an extreme approach to writing. If you’re too meticulous about your planning, you may find you spend so much time developing your ideas that you never actually begin writing! With this type of planning, you may also find you’ve imposed too rigid of a plotline on your story, not allowing it to grow organically. Characters may feel shallow, and some scenes may feel contrived. If you go the other way, you’ll end up with a very, very long book with lots of irrelevant bits and pieces. Your biggest challenge will come in the editing phase, when you need to take out these extras that don’t add to the overall thrust of your story — no matter how beautifully written and perfect they are. This is called “murdering your darlings.”
So I, like most writers, fall somewhere between these two extremes. Here’s how I grow my story ideas, step-by-step:
- Let inspiration strike — Come up with one idea that you really like, whether it is a theme for your story, a character, a setting, a scene, or a circumstance.
- Ruminate on this idea — Think long and hard about what other pieces need to be in place to support your inspiration. If you’ve come up with a setting, try to picture it in your mind. What do you see? Who’s there? Where was he before coming to this place? Why is he there now? Keep asking yourself these questions to build upon your initial inspiration.
- Place your inspiration within a larger context — The previous step will help with this. Which question had the most interesting answer? Maybe your initial inspiration will end up as only a small piece of your story-building puzzle. This is the step where you determine what exactly your novel will be about. Sum up your idea in a single sentence or in a paragraph. It doesn’t need to be very well thought-out at this point.
- Think of a catalyst — What sets your story in motion? You need to have a good reason for beginning your novel where you do. When you’re pitching your completed manuscript to agents, many only need look at the first five pages to judge how well you can write and how well you can tell a story.
- Begin writing — Now that you know where your story begins, write it down. More likely than not, this tentative first chapter will be drastically altered during the editing phase, but that doesn’t really matter. You can plan all you want, but to develop your story’s voice, pacing and tone, you need to write it.
- Review what you’ve written — What works and what doesn’t? Is this going somewhere? Did any new ideas spring up while you were writing? If so, explore them.
- Plan some more — While writing, I keep three sets of notes with me at all times. The first set details my general plans or ideas; this is normally a vague bulleted list with snatches of dialogue I like, potential plot developments, or character summaries. The second set includes my ideas for the immediately forthcoming chapters. Normally, I only plan one or two chapters ahead, constantly adding and subtracting from my list of ideas. The third set is my notes for editing. Rather than obsessively tracking back in order to tweak what I’ve already written, I record these thoughts for later when I am in the official editing mode.
- Write some more — Even though I’m a planner by nature, I’m much more free-flowing as a writer. I think this is because my story is always somewhere within my brain. I ponder possible plot developments and the like whenever I have a few free mental moments throughout the day — in the shower, while driving or doing the dishes. Sometimes I even dream about what happens next. When it comes time to write, I review my scattered notes briefly and then begin to clack at the keys. Writing this way allows the story to grow organically. It makes my characters more authentic, because I’m allowing them to speak for themselves rather than stuffing words into their mouths.
- Get Feedback — You may choose to get feedback continuously as you write, chapter-by-chapter, or only after you have an entire working manuscript. Ask a trusted friend to look over what you’ve written and comment specifically on the story development and characterization. She’ll be able to find plot holes much more easily than you could — after all, this story is your baby, you love it too much to tear it apart (especially this early in the process). With this valuable feedback, you can go in and cut loose threads in your story or write in new scenes to help fill these gaps.
- Edit — Here’s the bottom line: you’re never really done growing your story idea until you’ve finished writing and editing it completely (and maybe not even then). It seems like you would be, but you’re not. It was only in the third draft of my novel that I realized I needed to add a chapter somewhere in the middle to better explain my ending. I began piecing together my novel with only a vague idea of its ending, but when it came time to write it, I had a marathon writing session, completing the last 30 pages in the space of a single day. I thought I was writing a novel about my protagonist’s self-growth, but it was actually much more of a mother-daughter story.
I believe that the most exciting parts of writing a novel are those that aren't planned and sometimes aren't even noticed by their author. When the writer is very enthusiastic about her idea, it seems her subconscious brain will work behind the scenes to tie the whole thing together in a pretty, little package. This doesn’t mean that she mustn’t work tirelessly and very, very hard. In the end, the subconscious mind’s contributions are something like a bonus to the writer for a job well done.
is the founder and organizer for the Ann Arbor Classics Book Group and the Lead Books Contributor for AnnArbor.com. She is also an aspiring novelist, busily spinning her paranormal YA yarn, Farsighted, while seeking publication for her multicultural work of literary fiction, The Iron Pillar. You can learn more about Melissa by visiting her website: www.emlynchand.com .