Friday, 31 October 2008

Ideas and Legs

Ooooh...this is my first attempt at scheduling a post so I really hope it works! (I'm not taking any chances after last year when I forgot it was my turn to do the coffee morning post and had to be nudged via email...)

Anyway...welcome! In celebration of my recent news I'd like to offer you all a glass of champagne rather than a coffee. Yes, I know it's early so I'm also serving bucks fizz, and orange juice and sparkling water for those of you who are driving/teetotal/in charge of small children. And, while I'm here, I'd like to say a huge THANK YOU to each and every one of you for your support, help, advice, listening ears, comments and general encouragement over the last two years. I am extraordinarily proud to be part of the novel racers group and I can honestly say you're the most fantastic, supportive writers I've ever met.

*feels a bit emotional*

Right...on to business...

As some of you know I'm currently working on various ideas for my second novel. Normally I'd just grab the first idea that enthused me and get writing but I'm having to quell my fervour a bit and think carefully about whether or not the idea is a good follow-on from novel 1. According to my agent a second novel has to be 'even better than the first' (so no pressure then!) so I'm really wracking my brains for that perfect-fit, killer idea (and God does my brain hurt!).

The main thing, though, is that I fall in love with the idea and the characters. 80,000-100,000 words takes a fair while to write so I'd better be in love with the book (as least initially) if I'm going to be able to return to it day after day without wanting to my laptop (and head) against the nearest wall.

So now, with the germ of an idea floating around my brain, I'm starting to ask various questions to see if the book has 'legs' - i.e. is the idea good/big enough to sustain an entire novel (and my interest). I'm flicking through my 'how to plot' novels and asking myself questions like:
  • What does the main character want more than anything in the world?
  • What is her greatest fears?
  • What obstacles must she overcomes?
  • Who or what is her greatest adversary?
  • How does it end? (I always need to know the ending even if I don't necessarily know what happens in the middle)
  • Might might the sub-plot be?
Unless I can answer all of those questions I don't feel able to commit to a novel and lots and lots of ideas for novels have fallen by the wayside because I wasn't able to answer those questions - or the answers weren't strong enough.

So my question for the group this week is...

With so many ideas to choose from how do you decide which one to turn into a novel?

Other things to think about:

What thought processes are involved in your choosing one idea and rejecting another?

What questions do you ask of your novel/idea before you put pen to paper?

What are the warning signs that what you're planning/writing isn't working? that's a LOT of different questions. Feel free to pick and choose which one(s) you want to answer.

*raises glass*



liz fenwick said...

Gosh, I go away for a wqeek and exciting things happen. I can not say how excited I am for you!!!!! Raising a Buck's Fizz and a double expresso to stay awake after a nine hour flight.

Your questions really hit home with me today as I am not into part two of the latest book. I didn't ask myself these questions but I know they would help - especially now as I am entering THE MIDDLE.

But to back to your questions - I felt this idea had legs because I could see enough major conflict before I typed the first words. I may not have enough of the side stuff but the central problem of the book was heavy enough - at least i hope so.

However you have me thinking about my heroine; I think at the moment she is to bland and too much is just happening to her. She needs to become more active. My villian is fabulous and I just love her to bits so obviously I have some serious tinkering to do in the next draft. But maybe your querstion has caught me in enough time to shake her up a bit!

Still grinning about your fabulous news!

Lucy Diamond said...

Yay, I'll drink to your success, Calistro - actually, I'll drink to all of our collective successes - and may there be many more! (I'm quite sure there will be...)

I'm just starting my fourth novel (6,000 words in and counting) so this post is particularly pertinent. I've been thinking about the idea and characters for a long time... for at least half the time I was writing Novel 3, these Novel 4 characters and storylines kept popping up in my head, and I had to put them on hold until recently. So now I feel that yes, the idea/characters have stood the test of time and I still want to write about them - that's a bonus!

I've been reading the Donald Maass (Writing a Breakout Novel) book which is great, and has been very helpful to have in mind before launching in. His points about creating conflict, high stakes and layered characters are very good, and I've already pushed my plot ideas a step further than they had initially been (if that makes sense). I've written a couple of character descriptions, noting my main characters' aspirations, fears and quirks, and have mapped out the rough storyline, so now I just need to write the blimmin thing...

I guess my advice would be to just live with your idea for a little while, let your subconscious mull it over while you're getting on with other stuff. It will come to you in time, I am quite sure, Cally. Have a bit of time off to celebrate your success, maybe try something completely different like a poem, or a painting, and have faith in your imagination!

Better do some writing now...
Have a good weekend everyone xx

Flowerpot said...

that is brilliant news and I'm so pleased for you. As for the other stuff I agree with Lucy - answer your questions and let it fester a while. Usually you get a gut feeling about whether it will work or not, don't you? The Donald Maas book is great and you need some time to celebrate!

Leatherdykeuk said...

I'll raise you a cup of tea - you'll recall I don't drink ;)

I write my way into ideas selection. Prior to writing a novel i write several months worth of short stories and flash fictions of the characters and bits of the plot. They either sit well with me or not, and thus the plot develops.

KimyaShafinaaz said...

hi there

for me, the warning signs are those nagging reminders that just mayyybe, the logic of the writing doenst follow. so i ask myself tons of questions all the time. i wonder if any have thoughts for my process. my novel has a mini chapter by chapter outline (20). i have four or five sentences on each chapter. i begin with a prologue disaster. the crisis is made clear in chapter one (along with protagonist) the prologue disaster explodes in chapter seven (end of act one) disaster two occurs in chapter ten (middle of act two) and disaster three (major!) the protagonists main fear... erupts in chapter fourteen.

so far, it seems to be working. but i have my internal critic keeping the flow at an often stunted level... maybe i should stop for a round of caffeine.
any crit/comment?

Debs said...

Many congratulations, Cally. I'll definately join you with a glass of bucks fizz, any excuse!

I work through various ideas and characters for a few months, and think about a vague idea of what the story, and any sub-plots will be, and hopefully the ending. I write some sort of synopsis, although I generally don't stick with it, and then write the first draft.

I think that if what I'm writing is boring me, it'll certainly do the same to anyone else, and either remove it or rework it.

Cheers, once again, Cally.

Zinnia Cyclamen said...

Ooh, champagne, lovely! As the song says, it's five o'clock somewhere ;-) When I started the current WIP, I had half-a-dozen ideas churning around in my head, and the decision to go with this one was made on the advice of tutors on a writing course. I haven't a clue what I'll do next time - apart from come back and re-read these comments, of course!

Caroline said...

Congrats to you my dear :)

Errrrrm I don't do any of the things that you do. I get a voice inside my head and I try to ignore it. If the voice doesn't go away then it gets stronger, then I have to write a paragraph that has formed from the voice. Then I write and write. The ideas kind of come later.

Which all sounds a bit insane! I have seeds of stories bubbling at the moment.


Anonymous said...

Bit early for bubbly. Tempting though. Very tempting. Better just have coffee for now.

Sorry for the hiccup in the NRP gadget. Hopefully it's fixed now. Though I apologise, it wasn't actually my fault. My ISP managed to corrupt some of the files I uploaded and I ended up having to recreate a whole folder on my web site. I'll be talking to Virgin Media if this problem persists.

In general, I'm very logical and scientific about the creation and maintenance of my fiction. I don't believe in Muses and other such mumbo-jumbo. Fine if they work for others, but I'm an atheist where that sort of thing is concerned.

I'm writing three novels, sort of in parallel, at the moment. I've no idea in what order I'll end up submitting them. They're all very different and in different genres, so a three book deal is very unlikely. All three sprung from ideas. I get ideas first, then think of books for them. I don't think I could do it the other way around. Two of them started out as short stories. In fact, one of them started out as nothing more than a prompt title. Amazing how these things grow, isn't it.

To see if an idea will fly, I do a quick test with what I call global storyboards. This is a single page of boxes and connecting lines for the major events, usually in several streams. I'll often put the time scales down the side as well, to see if that works. Basic errors will show up very quickly and visually with this technique. If it does work, I'll convert the streams into PoV and then eventually break them down into chapters. This bit's easy and rather fun. The characterisation and actual writing I find very difficult; lot's still to learn.

Another thing I do is to write some very short pieces, based on the theme for the idea. These will just be random snippets, though staying within the realm of the idea. I guess this is a bit like Rachel's flash fiction technique, though I only do two or three. Again, it's pretty clear what's going to work and what isn't.

Happy Halloween!

Rowan Coleman said...

Cally! I am SO delighted for you, what fantastic news - I knew you'd make it eventually! I am very proud of you, as I am sure al the racers are. I like your topic. For me the idea that get developed is the one that takes an imaginary life of its own in my head. In other wordsI'll be sitting on the train thinking about the idea and I'll drift off into am imagined scene of conversation, the characters come alive and develop from there. I'm a big fan of thinking and 'head writing' alot before putting pen to paper. I don't do questions first draft - I ask question second draft - first draft is just for free fall, second draft editing, shaping - cutting - that's where often the central nub of the book finally clarfies. Warning signs? I don't know, I ditched one book once because the plot wasn't going anywhere but I think in almost ever book I've written it sometimes FEELS as if its all going horribly, I find the thing is to press on until it starts to flow again and then go back and sort out the sticky patch when you are over it. I think all writers are very different, different approaches - none are wrong or right - just what ever gets you working! Once again well done Cally - you are a total genius!

Anonymous said...

Well first, congratulations on your success. Very well deserved I am sure. Lots of questions there but I shall answer just one: for my first novel I felt it would be best to write about a subject I am most familiar with. Thinking it would be easy I put pen to paper then realised it wasn't! I have always known my subject and just needed to create a plot and story around it. I had my characters ready and waiting, in this life and the next. I hope to be in your shoes one day.

CJ xx

Lazy Perfectionista said...

I start off like Caroline, with a voice that just won't go away. Then I tend to have a bit of a plotting session to sketch out the main things that will happen. This helps me to begin with, but I usually find that things start to change when I actually start writing the full scenes - the characters take over!

For NaNo, I've got the unignorable voices and the first situation that causes conflict and change, but I'm going to try to wing it a bit more, and just write without a full plot sketch. I want to see what happens when I don't tie myself into ideas before I let the characters take over, and if that means I actually end up having better ideas.

JJ said...

I don't have a lot of experience with which idea to run with, but of the two I was deliberating over ... Uhm, it fell to the one where the characters came in to my head and started talking to me. I felt like I had to write it - I couldn't bear not to.

ChrisH said...

Congratulations!! Did you say champagne? It would certainly go down a treat (a) to celebrate your success (b) because we have had a huge powercut here and it's driven me crazy and (c) because, at last, I'm getting that tingly, 'Ooh, I want to get stuck in to my novel' feeling. That's the main ingredient for me, the X factor, if you like. Without that I start to lose interest and we all know how hard it is to keep going anyway, without falling out of love with what we're doing. As for questions, that Maas book is wonderful for doing that bit for you. Liz was the first person I saw recommending it (pardon me if someone else was using it first) but I'm deeply grateful as I've found it incredibly useful. Anyway, here's wishing you every success with the next one. (Because that always helps me to keep going - hearing someone else's good news!).

Juliette M said...

Oooh that's peculiar, I do the same thing as Caroline... but I tend to visualise the voice as a character first, as well.

I have so many ideas floating around - I keep a writers' journal with notes and things in, and any that really stand out, make it onto my whiteboard for future reference.

If they're really special they get their own folder in Microsoft Weird ;)

(toasts Cally*)

*with champagne. You know. Not actually in a toaster.

KayJay said...

Congrats once more! I'm so happy for you and definitely inspired! I'll have a glass o' bubbly for sure, bugger the time of day!

Yes, your topic is all very pertinent to my situation too, as I'm starting to think about Novel #2...

I'm the queen of ideas, but that comes with a cost; sometimes I find it hard to commit. With Novel #1, it is easy - it is the story I've been waiting to tell all of my life. I'm sure that this is the case for a lot of us. Because it is my first book, it has been bubbling away for years and the ideas, voice and plot have had a long time to marinate. I think ideally I have to NEED to tell a story for it to truly work. I'm sure more experienced and better writers don't have this restriction as much, but I get bored so easily that I have to feel a compelling urge to get the story out of my system.

I don't ask myself those kind of questions you mention until the second draft and I certainly don't know how things will end. I have a rough idea of plot which gives me a clue if the idea has legs, but ultimately for me it has so much to do with the voice and where that takes me.

It's a tricky question, but I think that you should pick the idea that you absolutely have to tell, even if the plot etc doesn't come so easily initially.

NoviceNovelist said...

Oh I think I'm I'm her ejust in time for happy hour - so a bucks fizz will be most welcome!
Congrats Cally - fab news. I agree with lots of the above and would say overall its the idea/character/voice that stalks me and force me to deal with it. I also like to think about it for a really long time. Current idea which I'm just in the early stages of writing has been bugging me for over a year.

Cheers to you Cally!!!!!

Helen Shearer said...

Congratulations, Cally! Well done.

I'm with Rachel on this. I write little bits and pieces of things, then an idea for something bigger emerges from the pile. I don't actually seriously think about character motivations and details until I'm well into it and hit a brick wall which makes it necessary to think it out. It usually means I have to go back and make changes but I just can't seem to start with a clear idea of what I'm doing or where I'm going. It evolves.

Have a fab week everyone.

wordtryst said...

Congrats again, Calistro. Brilliant news! And yes, I'll have some of the bubbly the better to toast you with, my dear. ;)

I second Lucy's suggestion to live with the ideas for awhile and let your subconscious show you the way. Might seem a bit crazy what with your agent waiting and all that, but I've found that stepping away from the pressure is freeing, while facing it head on freezes me up.

L-Plate Author said...

Hi everyone

As some of you know, I was 25,000 words into book two, which I feel now that I half planned and need to plan more. During this, the Bloke from Stoke said something to me about using an idea and I had a 'lightbulb' moment. I ended up getting so excited and combined my abandoned book with this new idea. I left it to stew for a good week before I got down anything and then planned it for a month. I am now 22k into this draft and it seems to be working. I have also thought of the other 'half' for the book that I started, which will now become my book three. So I know for me planning in advance really works. I envy Caroline and Juliette who can just write. I blame the Virgo in me!

As the rest have said, Calistro,congrats again! x

Lane said...

Huge congratulations to you! Your news is nothing short of flipping fantastic. Champers is definitely in order I think:-)

I don't have experience in choosing ideas as I'm still on my first novel. I pictured a character in a certain situation, decided I liked her and just sort of ran with it. Not very technical I'm afraid. I may well do things differently next time (and refer back here for all of your methods)

Have a great weekend everyone.

Graeme K Talboys said...

Hmm. Every novel I've written has pretty much arrived as a complete story in my head. The writing has been exploring the detail.

It has been slightly different this time round as there isn't a story, as such, but the structure and the themes were pretty much all there - evolving rapidly (in a couple of days) from a short story (to be published in an online magazine Exterminating Angel on Nov 15). I had intended it to be a single novel in four sections, but the first section quickly outgrew that and left me with sufficient material for three more books.

Paige said...


Well done Calistro!

Right, all the ideas I have will be novels. Even the little tiny ones that I'll have to build on will be novels. I currently have about 8 ideas and I think they are all viable because they are ideas that I would like to read.

I've recently decided to rewrite the idea I had for Book 2. I did have a few thousand already written but the idea stalled. I didn't like the way the book was going - it was 'stuck', I was 'stuck', the characters weren't developing as I would have liked. It was like they were stuck in mud and unable to escape. I couldn't rescue them so I killed them off. The basic storyline is too good to let go though, in my eyes, so I've kept it and have decided to write it from a different angle.

Fiona said...

Cally, your post is a creative writing class in itself and one I wish I'd read before I started my novel. Instead I thought that just wanting to write meant I could write *sigh* I will, howevere, use this post as a check list in future.

Fantastic post and many congratulations.

Clare Sudders said...

Sorry for being so ludicrously late to this, I really struggle to get to my computer these days...

Anyway. Choosing ideas. For the last two books I created samples representing a handful of shortlisted ideas and asked trusted readers to help me choose. I also look for whether I'm really enthusiastic about it, whether I can describe the whole book in a couple of short sentences, whether I think it might be sellable. But it's a dark art and I'm never convinced I've made the right decision!