Wednesday, November 30, 2011

From Idea to Book

In my last writing post, I talked about evaluating an idea's potential. Once you decide that your idea really will make a good novel, you have to do still more work to actually develop it into a novel.

I have found that the biggest pitfall in turning an idea into a novel is specifics. When you're talking on the idea level, you can afford to be vague. You could even write a query letter or short synopsis without too many details. But when you write the book, you need specifics. Mostly, that comes down to "what" and "why." You may know what the villain is up to that the hero will have to stop, but why, exactly, is the villain doing this thing? You may also need the specifics of what the villain is doing, broken down into an actual plan instead of a big-picture goal. Your synopsis may talk about the hero going through a number of trials on the way to reaching his goal, but when you write the book, you need to know exactly what the trials are and exactly what the hero does to get through them.

When you come up with these specifics depends on your writing process. If you're a plotter, you may want to work it all out before you start writing. If you're more of a seat-of-the-pants writer, you'll more likely want to tackle each of these questions as they arise in your book. Either way, at some point, you'll have to drill down into specifics, and I sometimes find this to be the most challenging part of writing. An idea that sounds great when I'm talking in terms of "and then they stop the villain's evil plan" sounds less great when I have to figure out exactly what the plan is, exactly why the villain is doing it, exactly how the hero will try to counter it and exactly what the villain will do in response. One sentence in a synopsis can amount to ten or more pages in the finished book, and writing ten pages requires a lot more information than writing a sentence.

How do you get those specifics? Sometimes, it's just going through the work of asking yourself questions -- and then what? Why? Work through cause and effect. If you can't answer these questions through straightforward brainstorming and logic, then you may need to do additional research. Look at how things like elements in your story work in the real world. Research the setting, the career field or industry or any historical analogues to come up with answers. Or you can look for inspiration in other fictional works like movies, TV shows or novels. That doesn't mean copying plot elements exactly, but sometimes looking at the way another writer has handled a similar situation can help you come up with ideas for handling your own work. One thing I like to do when I'm stuck for specifics is brainstorm while putting iTunes on shuffle. It often seems like the answer to what needs to happen will pop up in a song that comes on just when I'm thinking about that problem. Daydreaming is also good. Imagine different scenarios playing out and use the one that makes the best movie in your head. If you're more left-brained, make flow charts.

One thing you may need to do in developing the novel is let go of some of the original elements of your idea. Those elements may be things that sparked your interest in the story, but they may not fit into the book, and you'll twist yourself into knots trying to force those things into your story. The characters you started with may not be the right ones for the story. Some of the scenes you first envisioned when you first came up with the idea may have no place in the actual novel. If you're having to work too hard to make something fit, it may not belong.

I guess all this comes down to work. Coming up with ideas is easy. You can even develop the ideas enough to talk about them without too much effort. But going through all the steps of writing a novel is where the hard work comes in and is what separates the relative few who complete a novel from the many who say they have a brilliant idea for a book. This is one reason why publishers are often leery of buying incomplete novels from first-time authors. An author who has never completed a manuscript may not realize the difference between developing an idea enough to write a synopsis and developing that idea into a novel.

I'm going to do one more writing post this year, so are there any end-of-year questions you want me to address? I may even do a Q&A if I get several questions that don't require post-length answers.

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