1st Drafts / Research

Starting Fires

If you’re new to “YA on Saturday,” click here to read last week’s post. The first step of “Summer’s Ultimate Novel” (SUN) was to get a five-subject notebook and start listing ideas. Today I’ll talk about the second step:  choosing the right idea for your novel. Maybe you already have lots of ideas, and that’s great. But maybe you have zero ideas—that’s okay, too. This post is for you; I hope it helps.

If you’ve never written a novel before, I suggest you rely on the familiar. You’ve probably all heard the advice, “Write what you know.” This doesn’t mean you have to write an autobiography or a memoir, although you certainly can if you want to. After all, this first novel is just for fun, right? *wink* 

But say you want to write fiction, or fantasy, or something supernatural that you’ve never experienced. In that case, how do you write what you know? I write supernatural stories, but the settings are places I’ve actually visited. And when I create main characters, I put a little piece of myself into each one, just so they have a base of reality. 

So let’s brainstorm for ideas based on “what you know.” Grab your notebook and flip to the “Ideas” section. Ask yourself the following questions:

1. Where are five places I’ve lived or visited?
2. What are five traits of mine?
3. What are five things I’m really good at?

I won’t bore you with all my answers, but I will tell you that at least one of my answers to each question influenced my first novel, EYES OF LIGHTNING. I went to college in Carbondale, so I visited a lot of southern Illinois (the setting of EOL). The main character is Ivy, who just happens to be a stubborn tomboy like me. She and I also share a background in farming, but that’s where the similarities end. No, really.  

By the way, it doesn’t matter if you’ve spent every day of your life in a tiny town. I know all about tiny towns, and sometimes they make the best settings. Small-town characters are so quirky! Or if you vacationed somewhere, that place could be a possible setting, too. Tourist traps are full of story potential. Your book could even revolve around a summer vacation (think of THE MOON BY NIGHT by Madeleine L’Engle).

Please don’t tell me that you are completely unskilled. You don’t have to be an expert; any activity or hobby will do. Sports, band, choir, art, 4-H, dance, knitting, reading, writing, computer programming (most sidekicks possess the ability to hack into a database). Etc etc, you get the idea. Your characters can’t be two-dimensional; they need layers (like onions! Or parfaits!).

One more question to ask yourself:  

4. What is my favorite type of book?

If you’re constantly reading mysteries, you should probably write a mystery. Or you might like fantasies, science fiction, contemporary stories, etc. You’ll know the most about whatever genre you read the most, so it’ll be easier to write in that genre. 

Hopefully by this point, you know what makes you tick. What type of novel makes sense for you? The best ideas choose you, not the other way around. Don’t force yourself to write about something you care little for. Write what you’re passionate about, and your voice will shine through naturally. 

If you didn’t have ideas before, maybe now you’re getting sparks. Sparks are the original novel ideas, the very first flashes of inspiration. A spark might be an image in your mind, a plot idea, a character’s voice, or a “What if…” question. Every writer is different, so be open to any possible sparks!

My sparks are usually nature scenes, probably because I love nature and it inspires me. For EOL, my first image was a cave in a forest. For THE RIVER’S EDGE, I imagined a girl in the water. Another story idea came to me while I watched an ice storm one night, and still another originated from a sunset. These are all sparks that caught on and grew to bonfires. If an idea stays in my head and continues to develop, then I know it’s an idea worthy of a novel. If the spark dies out, then the idea was a dud. So if you have a spark, rejoice! Fan it leisurely; if it’s meant to thrive, it will. 

But what if you have more than one spark, and you don’t know which one to choose? Take comfort in knowing that you can always write the others in the future. For now, you have to pick the one that is easiest to write. If this is your first novel, you need all the odds in your favor in order to finish it. Pick a story you love, one you’re passionate about… but preferably one with a simple plot. Make sure the story can stand alone; in other words, don’t try to tackle a trilogy on your first attempt as a novelist. It’s hard enough keeping track of story arcs within one novel; story arcs throughout a series can drive you crazy. 

Still not sure which idea is the best one? Then this is your assignment:  brainstorm all week until you’re sure. Keep track of which idea you daydream of the most (probably the one you’re most interested in). If you have an idea but don’t know if it will work for a novel, try sketching a quick outline. Use your notebook and write down all the thoughts you have. Does your idea expand into a beginning, middle, and end? You don’t have to know the details yet, but you can probably tell if an idea has potential after a week of brainstorming. 

If all else fails and you can’t decide, then ask me! Leave me a comment or send me an email with your possible ideas, and I’ll give you some feedback. Feel free to disagree with me just to prove me wrong!  🙂  

Next Saturday, come prepared with your novel idea. I’ll talk about themes and story questions, so you’ll need that idea to work with. In the meantime, let me know if you have questions! Hope you have a great week filled with sparks and storms!


7 thoughts on “Starting Fires

  1. Pingback: Theme Dreams « E. M. Rowan’s Field Notes

  2. Pingback: Novel in a Nutshell « E. M. Rowan’s Field Notes

  3. Pingback: Where We Gonna Go From Here? « E. M. Rowan’s Field Notes

  4. Pingback: How to Make Your Characters Realistic « E. M. Rowan’s Field Notes

  5. Pingback: Characters in You « E. M. Rowan’s Field Notes

  6. Pingback: Types of Outlines « E. M. Rowan’s Field Notes

  7. Pingback: First Draft Goals « E. M. Rowan’s Field Notes

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