From Idea to Novel

Starting a new project is always nerve wracking – there’s the empty page for starters but then there’s also making sure that the idea is sufficient to form the foundation for a complete novel. Generating ideas has never been my problem – a number pop into my head each day and some are sufficiently intriguing that I jot them down in my ‘ideas book’ to see if they will gradually begin to take shape in my mind to form the foundation for a story. Many ideas fall by the wayside at this point – because while they interest me, they never really coalesce into a premise that can sustain a novel. Even after that, I’m consumed with doubts…although I’ve really only had one story die after I’d finished the first draft because I realized the premise was too convoluted and confused (the idea, though still holds promise!).

I’m about to embark on a new WIP and I’m at the doubt-filled stage of wrestling with a new idea. Since I have other projects in various stages of the submission process, it’s definitely time to knuckle down to a new manuscript but in this early stage of the creative process I have to grapple with how to formulate an idea into (hopefully!) a great story.

My process (such that it is) usually goes something like this:

  • Light-bulb moment – new idea starts to whip round in the brain and, of course, I think it’s awesome.
  • Write down idea in vague terms – lots of questions and possibilities…
  • Start research (almost always involving some historical period/event)
  • First doubts – which way to proceed? More questions than answers? Do I have enough for a novel??
  • Begin to outline a proposal to help shape the idea into a real concept and (ultimately, I hope) the premise for a novel. This is usually when the second round of doubts start to hit… Sometimes I end up with multiple proposals revolving around the same initial idea as I fumble around trying to decide if this project really is ready to get off the ground.
  • More research = more procrastination and sometimes panic that whole idea really sucks…
  • Send outline to beta readers for feedback – see if it’s intriguing and clear enough (my issue is always one of complicating rather than simplifying a story!)
  • After feedback – sometimes involving a choice between proposals – I send to my agent for her initial read/buy in. This is where I have to formulate the log-line/blurb so I can succinctly describe it to her and others.
  • Once I have agent buy-in I start on an outline and the first chapters to establish the POV/Voice for the book (I spend a long time on the first chapters feeling my way into the book as well as drafting an outline of where I’m headed with the plot/characters)
  • More research (I like to hide between the pages of history books!) = procrastination
  • Finally begin draft!

So TKZers how do you go from idea to first draft? Do you spend time, like me, formulating the premise and making sure your idea is sufficient to sustain a novel? Or do you just set off writing from the get go with the confidence that it will all come together and work out in the end? What’s your process?



11 thoughts on “From Idea to Novel

  1. Sounds familiar, Clare. I like how you’ve established an order to things.

    First doubts – which way to proceed? More questions than answers? Do I have enough for a novel??

    This is the stage I like best. I make use of a free-form document that I keep adding to, asking myself questions, putting down ideas as they come, going back over it and highlighting what feels best, etc. And also start a random scenes list (on index cards).

    When I did my historicals, a lot of research was added at this stage. I practically lived at the downtown branch of the L.A. library, going over microfiche of the L.A. Times and Hearst’s Examiner.

    • I like the idea of random scene on index cards – that would be a great addition to my ‘first doubt’ stage as I’m often toying with the ‘feel’ of the book and how I want to explore the themes/plot ideas. It’s at this stage though I also have to avoid the research sinkhole as I could quite happily get bogged down there for way longer than I should:)

  2. I burn slowly. I get a promising idea and take it for a walk. Really. I take the idea in a notebook and scribble down ideas as I go. After three hours (10,000 steps), if the idea is still spewing out possibilities I take it home and rough out a map. Then I interview likely characters to tell me the story. This takes a long time. My current WIP is just about ready for it’s outline. The first draft? Can’t even think about that until a secure armature is fully formed. Pantser, I ain’t!

    • I think that the upfront work is totally worth it – like you I’m not a pantster and like to have a good sense of where I’m heading before I start writing:) (Of course I often veer off the road map but at least it’s there!)

  3. This is a useful column. I had an idea I thought might become a novel, but I’m struggling. I fell in love with my disturbing event, innocent enough in itself, which I thought would lead the protag into serious situations as he tried to solve a little mystery. But it’s not coming. Partly because I don’t know enough about the world of crime into which I though the protag would be drawn.

    So I like Clare’s idea of generating and testing lots of ideas.

    George Saunders, talking about writing his first novel, _Lincoln in the Bardo_, claimed the process wasn’t much different from writing short stories. Just more of the same. The process he described sounded like the ultimate pantser approach.

    It struck me a while back that microfiction is a drive-by shooting while a novel is a full-campaigned war. I’ve written a bunch of short stories in the last few years, learning as I went. (One recently won a contest at The Weekly Knob.) This column gives me some help toward waging the novel war.

    • Generating and testing options in the early stages helps me evaluate and re-evaluate my idea and my approach to the story so I can see if there’s enough ‘meat on the bones’ for a full novel.

  4. I sat down to write about the matter under discussion. But as I was writing, I discovered what my story is about.

    Sorry I can’t share it with you.

    Because if I did, I’d have to kill you.

  5. Sounds familiar, Clare, except I don’t send my outline to beta readers, just my agent. Looks like I need to add a new step. Thanks for a good blog and a good idea.

  6. Wow, can’t believe how similar our patterns are. Only difference is I have a co-author to continually bounce ideas off. Kelly and I spend hours on Skype just going “what if…?” And the lovely-sounding “I have an idea…”

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