Moving from Idea to Novel

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I was presenting at my sons’ school on Friday, and one of the questions I was asked was how I turned my ideas into novels. Part of my answer was that, although I have heaps of ‘ideas’ jotted down in various journals, only about a handful of these have (so far ) developed into complete stories. This is because the majority of my ideas aren’t ‘story ready’. They’re either too flimsy or under-baked at the moment or, as I tinker with the plot options for them, turn out to be incapable of sustaining an entire story. 

There are many reasons an idea fails but one question that keeps coming up is – how do you know when an idea is sufficient to carry a great story? I think the easiest way to answer this is to ask the reverse – when is it not a good idea for a story?
Like when…

  • You think it’s a good idea only because it fits in with a current publishing trend 
  • You like the idea only because someone else told you it would make a great story 
  • You like the idea only because you think it will make you lots of money

Clearly, you have to love an idea to turn it into a terrific story. You have to love it because you’re going to live with it for a very long time as part of the writing process. Merely liking an idea isn’t really enough to sustain the commitment required to complete a novel.

You also have to let go of some darlings, because sometimes, no matter how much you love an idea, the characters, story and plot line simply don’t come together to make a successful story.

I adopt the following process when converting my ‘raw’ ideas into novels.

  • Firstly, I jot down all my ideas. You never know which ones might stick with you or which ones, years later, suddenly resonate. That’s not to say I write down every half-baked idea I get in the middle of the night, but if I’m still mulling over it in the morning, it’s probably worth putting down in my journal.
  • Then I let a few of these ideas percolate, to see which ones I am most passionate about writing about, now. Some ideas I love, but still don’t feel quite ready to explore.
  • I then work through the ideas I’m most passionate about, summarising the overall premise of the story, characters, and plot overview in order to prepare a proposal (about 1-2 pages) for my agent and I to consider. Sometimes, even at this stage it’s clear I’m forcing an idea that doesn’t yet work.
  • Then, once my agent and I agree on which proposal seems to stand out as the story I should work on next, I draft the first few chapters and do a more detailed plot outline to see whether it all looks as if it’s going to hang together. 

Now I’ve had ideas fail at all these levels – either because the premise wasn’t clear enough, the plot was too unwieldy or, even after the first chapters and outline have been prepared, the idea still didn’t seem to work for a successful novel. (In this case, at least I discovered this before I finished the entire first draft!)

So what about you? How do you know when an idea is really ‘story ready’. How do you evaluate whether the idea is sufficient to sustain a novel? Do you plan it out or muddle through?


18 thoughts on “Moving from Idea to Novel

  1. My process is very similar, Clare. I get ideas all the time and jot them down and put them in a file. They might be concepts or first lines or even a scene that has come to me. I evaluate these from time to time then choose some for further development.

    At that stage I’m looking for a mix of what I’m excited about and commercial potential. I will then start a free-form document that I work on for at least a few days, writing quickly, seeing if the idea is still working for me. If it is, I put it in the queue.

    • Jim – I definitely have a queue and sometimes things keep being shoved to the back but I know that one day I’ll be ready to write them:)

  2. Clare, my co-writer and I use basically the same process as you. We’ve got a truckload of book ideas but, as you say, most won’t ever see the light of day. They just can’t sustain 80-100k words. I have a couple of additional techniques I do to grow book ideas. I keep an extensive list of original book titles–provocative titles that carry strong imagery. If there’s one I particularly like, I’ll write a 1-2 paragraph back cover commercial blurb describing the story. I base the blurb on the imagery from the title. If the blurb matches the strength of the title, I move it up the list to be considered.

  3. Ideas are like wine. Some are complex and might require some aging before you can decant them. Some are light and easy and work best with pizza or as a novella. Some you try out but realize they aren’t to your taste. Some give up their essence with only a lot of work. Some arrive like a great champagne and make you feel like you can do anything.

    Then there are the Two-Buck Chuck ideas. Best used only to marinate cheap steak.

    And that, folks, is what is called a tortured metaphor. I apologize.

  4. Thanks for the ideas, Clare. Sometimes I find that a new idea would work with an old idea that is already in the file, making the premise more complex or interesting.

    Do you ever use any of your ideas that won’t sustain a novel for a short story?

    • Steve, I’m not a great short story writer but I definitely think that’s an option for many authors. I just find my ideas tend to often get too complex and that’s why I discard them, rather than being too thin (sometimes this means there’s actually 2-3 books within that one idea of mine)

    • Steve: Definitely! I have had four ideas that I tried to make into novels but finally realized the plots could sustain only short stories, and in one case, a novella. Nothing worse than a good idea that is overstretched into a thin novel (usually published with large type and wide margins)

  5. Ideas have a ‘feel’ about them. For a short in the old literary style it would be tight and succinct. For a novel a gut feeling that the story could unroll before me like an infinite roll of wallpaper or a winding road with an exciting destination at the end. I’m not a thriller writer obviously lol
    At times it’s good to write and see how far the journey goes.

    • Love the imagery:) Sometimes my ideas are very much like a winding road (I just have to make sure I don’t get lost along the many paths that lead off that road!)

  6. Clare–
    I used to think I chose ideas for fiction projects, but I’ve come to think the ideas choose me. If they keep coming back, pulling my coat, showing up at odd times during the day with new plot or character details in tow, pretty soon I have to give “this one” my full attention. Otherwise, like Scrooge before his transformation, I decide the idea is just the result of an undigested piece of cheese.

    • Barry – that sounds like a great way to ‘choose’ an idea – the ones that stay with you are the ones you cannot ignore:)

  7. I keep my mind a blank slate and become a sponge for anything that interests me. I don’t edit or filter or censor where my mind goes. I collect general notions in a file as my brain starts to simmer the connections.

    For example, I record lots of NOVA science shows or medical phenomenons, or warcraft innovations. These things can appear random or disconnected until a structure begins to take shape & a character walks out of the fog, pulling the pieces together. I never force it. It has to get me excited.

    I’ve never tried consulting with my agent on storylines. I don’t like to be dissuaded if I’m excited about an idea. I put a proposal together & get input then.

    • Jordan – fair enough, there certainly is nothing quite like having a bubble of excitement burst:(

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