I know it seems like such a “no-brainer” that you need an idea if you want to write a novel. That’s the basic building foundation, right? But I’m here to tell you that you need much more.
When I attended my first writer’s conference back in 2001 (American Christian Writers), I met DiAnn Mills, Lynette Sowell and Kathleen Y’Barbo. I think they were the only novelists at this particular conference. I asked them how they came up with their ideas. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine I would ever ask such a question because since then, I’ve trained my mind to do just that and now it’s a struggle to shut the idea machine off. But at the time, I didn’t have a clue.
So if you have an idea and you’re working on your novel, I have some news for you. Publishers don’t want a book.
They want an author.
Let me explain. Editors want someone who has more than one book idea and not just someone who has one book idea, but an author who has great ideas—lots of exceptional and unique ideas.
Maybe you’re there already or maybe you’re still learning how to find the ideas. But even with a well-trained mind, you probably need to refresh your process for honing those unique ideas that will catch an editor’s attention. I know I do.
Sure you need to find your voice, perfect you craft, and network—no one ever stops doing that, even someone at the top of their game. But I’ll venture to say that more than great writing, editors and agents are looking for that great story and lot of them to follow. They want a prolific author.
The good news here is that with unique and exceptional ideas communicated through great hooks and pitches, you’ll see less rejection. A great idea will open doors for you.
An agent I spoke with at length on this topic shared that at conferences, he listens to people pitch their books all day long. Example: Someone will pitch a book. It’s the story they’ve been working on for a year, two years, maybe five. But they only have one.
One is not enough. This particular agent wants to see that someone is a prolific writer.
Over the years as I’ve learned how to find ideas, my question has morphed from where to find them into how do I find enough time to turn them all into stories.
I translate that into: So many ideas, not enough time, or so many ideas, not enough brain.
But here’s the catch: Though ideas are everywhere, not all of them are blockbusters. Not all of them are something that will catch an editor’s or agent’s attention.
One way to develop an eye for not only what makes a great story idea that will catch attention, but compelling writing to showcase that idea, is to judge a contest. You’ll quickly begin to see how to open a story in the best way and what kind of story and writing stands out.
The point is that the more you practice, the more easily you’ll be able to come up with ideas to create a pipeline of potential novels. You’ll be able to prove that you’re an author. Not just someone who has written a book. And you won’t have to count yourself as one of the many who one day wants to write a novel. Anyone can do that, as self-publishing has shown us. But not anyone can write a great novel with a great idea, and do that repeatedly.
Of course story ideas start differently for everyone. For some people it starts with a character, for others a setting, or some other plot element. I write romantic suspense, or romance with a suspense element. Normally, I start with a setting or a situation..
I’ve listed a few things to get you started on filling an idea file. Again, this list might seem like a no-brainer if you’re a seasoned author, but it always helps to refresh and remind ourselves.
1) Curiosity—stir up your curiosity to learn more about things that interest you.
2) Teach yourself to be interested in more things. Broaden your horizon by reading widely from magazines and watching the news, discovery channel, etc., to find stories. TIP: I don’t read looking for stories, I simply read. When something snags my attention, then I know to look more closely.
Make a list of the magazines or other reading where you could elicit ideas. One of my favorite magazines to generate ideas is Wired Magazine—I love this one because the articles are completely random. You never know what will be included. Because I enjoy adventure and travel stories, I also take National Geographic and National Geographic’s Adventure Magazine. I even read through my local electric company co-op magazine.
3) Talk to people and observe them. They’re a wealth of story ideas and also inspiration for characters.
4) Real life (goes hand in hand with talking to people)
Example: In my story The Camera Never Lies, I knew I was going to be short on word count and needed to add another chapter or so. Friends shared a story about the husband taking Ambien and they discovered that he was buying Jesus, Mary and Joseph dolls from an infomercial while sleeping. That inspired me to write about my main character’s mother sleeping walking and added another layer to the mystery—had her mother committed murder in her sleep. Of course, I also added the purchase of the Jesus, Mary and Joseph dolls.
5) Explore things that you’re passionate about. Example: Growing up in Texas I was always fascinated with the redwood trees that I’d learned about in school. I dreamed of seeing them one day. I never imagined I’d end up living close enough to drive to one of the state parks for an afternoon hike—it’s one of my favorite places in the world. I’m so excited that I now get to write those three stories set in the redwoods.
6) Constantly ask, “what if.” This one IS a “no-brainer.”
7) Make a list of all your favorite novels and movies and try to figure out why you enjoyed them. Is there a related theme that interests you? Or look for existing movies or plots and twist them around changing them up until they no longer resemble the original. Remember, there are only a few basic plots. Stars War, Harry Potter, and Eragon all share the same basic plot.
8) Most importantly, train yourself to recognize the right idea—that one that will stand out.
At this point, you might think you have a lot of ideas, but the next step is to determine if the idea is unique, memorable and marketable.
If something catches your attention as unique, unusual, or memorable, chances are it will catch the editor’s attention as well, and more importantly, the readers’ attention.
Tip: Be careful about where you get your ideas. We all filter similar things like a TV show, a country music song, an emailed urban legend, and the like that sparks an idea for developing a novel. Editors will see that same idea repeatedly. Avoid that.
This is KEY: Dig deeper into that idea and look for the not-so-obvious.
9) Last but certainly not least is a technique that I frequently use, though I don’t think it’s that popular. Be random.
This is one of my favorite ways to generate a story. I come up with a random blurb and then it’s like a game or a puzzle to turn that into a compelling plot with complex characters and high stakes. You’d be amazed at how successful this can be.
I hope you got something for this article, and now that I’ve written it, I’m itching to find something new and unique that I can use to write my next proposal!
Elizabeth Goddard is a 7th generation Texan who lives in East Texas with her husband and four children. She and her family recently spent five years in Oregon, which serves as the setting for several of her novels, but in 2010 they returned to Texas to live near family again. She writes for Barbour, Heartsong Presents and Love Inspired Suspense.
You can find her on at www.bethgoddard.com or on Twitter and Facebook.
Oregon Outback - a four-in-one novella collection - Coming July 2012 from Barbour Publishing.
The harsh, yet peaceful Oregon Outback molds the lives of four rugged brothers who stumble into love.
FBI agent Jonas Love has brought trouble back home, endangering his life and that of an old flame. Cattle rancher Carver Love finds himself falling for the sheriff in the midst of chasing down modern-day rustlers. Thrill-seeker Lucas Love fears nothing—until he meets a beautiful bookkeeper. Justin Love is trailing a fugitive who’s heading too close to home—and one particular lodge keeper.
How will God protect these men as they risk their lives to defend the ones they love?