You Have No Idea

Pictured: an awesome story, just waiting to be written.   You're welcome.

Pictured: an awesome story, just waiting to be written.
You’re welcome.

This is October, which means it’s time to start planning our NaNoWriMo novels in earnest. If you’ve never done NaNoWriMo, then this is the year to start. It’s good fun and a chance for you to hang out with other writers. And if you stick with it, you’ll have at least a first draft of a novel when you’ve finished.

Possibly you’ve got a book you started, and you’re planning to work on it. Or maybe you’ve already got a story in mind that you’ve always wanted to write. If so, then that’s great, and you should totally do that for your novel. But what if you don’t know what you’re doing? What if you’re trying NaNo for the very first time, and you can’t think where to start? What if you have no idea for your book? Then this blog post is for you. This is the first in a series that we’re doing this month, talking about how we plan our novels, and hopefully you’ll find this useful.

Some people will tell you to just “Pants” your novel—to write it by the seat of your pants, in other words. There are those who maintain that the true spirit of NaNo requires that you start writing your book on November 1 with no idea at all of what you’re going to write. I would never say out loud that those people are wrong, but I’m sure thinking it as hard as I possibly can. Particularly if this is your first NaNo, you will almost certainly have more fun, and be much more likely to finish, if you try to plan a little first.

So how do you come up with an idea if you don’t already have one?

For some reason, there have been quite a number of people who, at various times in my life, have told me their ideas for a book. I’m not sure why they pick me to tell. Maybe I’ve just got one of those faces. Or maybe it’s like meeting a priest; when they find out I’m an English teacher, they feel compelled to confess their literary sins. But it goes back even before I started my current career. I once had a guy who sat next to me on a train coming home from college, and he spent most of the length of Pennsylvania telling me about the book he was going to write someday, if he ever had the time. (One would think that, for example, a long boring train ride would be the perfect time to start, but I guess that didn’t occur to him.)

Anyway, when people tell me about their “idea” for a story, I’ve noticed that most of the time what they really have is one of the major elements for a story: plot, setting, or character. (Another way of thinking about this is Orson Scott Card’s “MICE” Quotient: Milieu, Idea, Character, Event.) People will say, “I’ve got this idea for a steampunk world where everyone lives in submarines.” Or, “I want to write a dystopian novel about a conspiracy to impose gluten-free food on everyone.” Or, “I’ve always wondered what would happen if a medieval European knight fought a samurai.”

This is my advice if you’re having trouble coming up with something to write about: try to think of just one of those three (or four) elements. Don’t try to think up a whole story, fully formed, right from the very beginning. Don’t try to think of an opening scene and work out the plot step by step in your head. That can come later. For now, just try to come up with an interesting character, a fun setting, or some incident or event that you think would be cool in a story.

There are various ways to do this. If you want to start with a character, try the exercise from My Story Can Beat Up Your Story that we’ve mentioned before on this blog. Think of a character with an unlikely adjective or ironic attribute: a compulsively honest lawyer, for example. Or, in my story, a barely-competent, unmotivated secret agent.

Another way is to think of some inversion of or twist on an existing story. “It’s like Gladiator,” for example, “only the main character is a woman.” Now you’ve got a character, and (depending on exactly what you mean by “it’s like Gladiator”) maybe some plot, too. You can do the same thing with settings: “It’s like Middle Earth, only it’s in space, and the heroine’s culture is based on Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon.”

One formula that gets used a lot (some would say overused) in discussing movies is “X movie meets Y movie,” as in “It’s Gladiator meets When Harry Met Sally.” That already tells you something about plot, and maybe about setting and character, too.

Maybe this seems like cheating, but it’s not. Don’t get hung up on trying to make your story completely new and original. I mean, you don’t want to blatantly rip people off, but don’t sweat it if your story sounds a little like something you’ve read before. I guarantee you that no matter how radically different you try to make your plot, no matter how fresh and unusual you think your characters are, at least one of your beta readers will look at what you’ve written and say, “Oh, yeah. That’s just like [some book or movie that should have been obvious].”

So you’ve got a character, or some cool set-piece fight that you want to see, or a setting. Now what?

When someone corners me and tells me about the book he wants to write, invariably, the person will finish by saying, somewhat apologetically, “That’s all I’ve got.” Yes, that’s all he’s got, but it’s pretty easy to get some more.

Once you have one of those elements (plot/setting/character, or milieu/idea/character/event), you can start filling in the rest of them. Take my example of a knight fighting a samurai, for instance. That’s an Event, or part of a plot. Now ask yourself, who are these guys? What sort of a samurai is fighting a knight? What sort of a knight fights a samurai? Do you see the scene from both their points of view? From a third person’s POV? If there’s a third person in the scene, who is it? (That’s character.) What kind of world is this where people from opposite ends of the Eurasian continent managed to meet up? Is this some kind of alternate reality? Were they captured by aliens and forced into an arena? (That’s setting or Milieu.) How did they come to be fighting? Who will win? Will they kill each other? Will they become friends? If they were captured by aliens, are they going to team up to escape? (Now we’re filling in more of the plot.)

You can even write it out, if that helps you (and it probably would):

Setting: a steampunk world where people live in submarines
Character (what sort of person lives in a submarine?): ______________________
Plot (what kind of events happen on submarines?): ________________________

Once you’ve done this, and you’ve filled in those blanks, you’ve got at least the beginnings of a story. And frankly, I wouldn’t try to write a novel knowing any less than that. But we usually do a lot more than just identify our characters, settings, and plots. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be taking you through our planning and outlining process, as well as giving you updates in real time as we prepare to write our own novels. So keep checking in, and start planning your book now. Remember, the more time you spend planning in October, the less time you’ll spend pounding your head against your keyboard in frustration in November.



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