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Ideas for writing a book (and how to develop them)
BOOK IDEAS: How to find them. How to develop them. How to make them better.
We once got a strange email. It was three lines long, from someone telling us he wanted to write a book.
OK. That’s great. The email wasn’t written very well. The spelling wasn’t great. The punctuation – uh – had all fallen off. But none of that was the issue on his mind. His email was simply entitled “Book Ideas“, and he was writing to ask for help. In a word, he wanted us to develop his ideas for writing a book.
And here was the thing.
He was sure he was a good writer, which is great, but he hadn’t actually written anything. Worse still, he said he didn’t have a single idea for a story.
That was all a bit negative – but on the plus side, he’d thought of a brilliant title, Ghost Enemy.
Unfortunately, he didn’t know what his title meant – and could we possibly enlighten him?
Now, all of us know what it feels like to feel uninspired and stuck in a rut when ideas just won’t come. And this post is all about solving that problem.
Where do ideas come from? How do you know if they’re any good? And how can you take your existing ideas and make them better?
Big questions, but let’s see what we can do to help. What follows is a simple idea generator method.
Consider this. It’s not a question of forming the idea, but of recognising one (or ones) you already have, so let’s do that.
Make lists of:
Things you daydream about;
Your special interests (medieval churches, IT security, tattoos);
Your areas of expertise;
Your current passions (things that get you off on a rant or long-winded explanations);
Things you loved as a child (amazing how often the child seems to predict the adult, so look back, see what you loved in the past);
Books you loved as a child;
Books you love now.
Write actual lists of these things. Not in one single half hour session, but bit by bit, over time. Let things stew, bubble up. Almost certainly, you’ll find something nagging at you. Something that stays with you after you leave your lists.
That there is your idea.
How to handle ideas for books (what to expect)
The trouble with inspiration is it never arrives fully formed. Writing is messy. Few novels arrive complete. Most have had to be hacked out of rock.
It’s okay, though, if you decide development is easy and fun, and remember ideas take time. You don’t get from nowhere to perfect in one leap. It’s not a generator. It’s an incubator.
You don’t find your idea. You grow it.
We’ll talk a little more about that shortly but first, ask yourself. Is your book idea any good?
Be sure your idea is strong enough to carry you to publication before you start writing.
There are techniques for (a) figuring out if your idea is strong enough and (b) adding sparkle to it if it isn’t, fortunately.
Learn the market
Read the area, niche, genre in which you are going to write. Read widely. Stay current. Know new names, not just old ones.
It’s a massive mistake not to do this, and many new writers don’t. You should, because these are the books your ideal readership is reading.
Get a sheet of paper and write down what you know about your future book, or interests you’d like your story to make room for, to explore. That might be very little at first. It might be no more than:
Secret weapons testing
That has no characters, no plot arc, no meaningful line of development, but it’s a start.
Not just that, but it’s an exciting one. There’s a frisson of interest there already. A stew that might bubble up into something wonderful.
So keep going. Whatever comes to mind.
Jot down words and sentences. Note down anything that comes to mind around plot events, themes, settings, ideas for your protagonist.
Keep listing, see what comes to you.
An example: first attempt
Try out things. So you might find yourself writing things like this:
Ex-SAS man turned seismologist is there.
Baggage from the past (a mission gone wrong?).
Meets Olga, glamorous Russian geologist.
How do you feel about those? Take a moment to see what your actual reactions are.
Me personally, I think the ex-Special Forces seismologist could be a decent character, but the glamorous Russian Olga feels like a bit of a cliche. I feel I’ve seen her too often before. And the ‘baggage from the past / mission gone wrong’ element feels dangerously on the edge of cliche.
That’s fine. Remember that this whole process is a development exercise. So you can try things out, see how they feel, and discard them as much as you like.
Discarding stuff is good – that shows that you’re pruning the bad stuff and keeping only the good stuff.
Just add explosions …
An example: Second attempt
So maybe we try again. We might start sketching something like this.
Leila – who is ex-Special Forces – is a British seismologist.
She loves extreme adventure, including climbing, sky-diving.
She’s sampling ice cores to track past earth disturbances.
She finds weird, inexplicable traces – too recent.
A multinational team – many scientists there.
Russian scientist, aloof, unnerving (will turn out a ‘good guy’). …
… And so on.
Maybe we haven’t yet nailed much with this list, but it’s the forward-back process of development that brings rewards, helping you make subsequent connections (e.g. perhaps you decide Leila’s the only woman on that team, perhaps she needs to prove she’s as strong as any of them, etc., etc.).
The only test of whether a list like this works is whether you have a deep-ending tickle of excitement about your jottings. If that fades, you’ve gone wrong somewhere, so find out which element isn’t working, delete, and try again, following your intuition.
Remember that the process of story development is one of constant experiment.
You sketch something out.
You see how it feels.
It feels good? OK, great. You continue to add depth to your sketch. (Add a character, a possible plot point, some more about settings, some more about the challenge to be faced, etc.)
It feels wrong? OK. So scratch out the thing that felt wrong. Try something else in its place. Or if you can’t find (say) the right antagonist for the moment, then leave that issue for the moment and turn to an area where you do have some good ideas. You’ll find that as you build up one area of the story (say, settings), you’ll find that other parts (say, your antagonist) suddenly flash into view. Each part of the story illuminates and supports the others.
How to give your story the “X-Factor”
And as you’re doing this, remember that readers always want something new, something unexpected.
So give it to them!
The way to do this is to make sure that your list of story ingredients always includes a rogue element – something that you don’t expect to be there. That rogue element will always have the effect of lifting the story and giving the reader a little thrill of excitement.
What’s more the rule basically applies to ALL huge-selling novels of recent years. For example:
BORING STORY: a normal American teen falls in love with a normal American boy. GREAT STORY: a normal American teen falls in love with a vampire.
Two versions of the same thing. One is too dull to cross a room for. The other one (Twilight) was one of the biggest YA sensations of all time.
Or how about this:
BORING STORY: a journalist investigates a murder in Sweden. GREAT STORY: a journalist plus a bisexual, Aspergers, rape-surviving, computer genius combine forces to investigate a murder in Sweden.
The “rogue element” of Lisbeth Salander’s kick-ass character basically gave the Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy the fire it needed to conquer the world.
And so on. You can look at any huge selling hit of recent years and find that unexpected ingredient that blasted the book to international success.
And you can repeat that trick for yourself.
If you find your story is just too expected, then throw in something to freshen it up.
So, let’s go with this Arctic idea, and let’s say that your draft story looks something a bit like this.
FIRST DRAFT STORY: Leila, ex-Special Forces British seismologist is sampling ice cores in the Antarctic. She finds evidence of recent blast activity – human-made. She suspects of team of Russian scientists are really testing a new type of nuclear device. She investigates. The situation escalates. It resolves itself in a dramatic shoot-out.
And what are your feelings there? I’m going to guess that you thought, roughly, “Yeah, that’s OK, but it doesn’t really set my pulse racing.”
And the issue is that everything is exactly what you’d expect. It’s as though we read this story plan, and already feel like we’ve read that book or something very similar.
So now let’s apply our rogue element strategy and see how the story might run.
STORY WITH ROGUE ELEMENT Leila, ex-Special Forces British seismologist is sampling ice cores in the Antarctic. She finds evidence of recent disturbances that make no sense. And there are thefts from the camp – unexplained> At first the Russian team is suspected, but – caught out with a Russian captain, Arkady, in a snowstorm – it looks like Leila and Arkady will both perish. But they’re saved – mysteriously – as fresh kerosene is added to their supplies. Leila and Arkady come to believe they are dealing with the ghosts of Scott’s tragic expedition to the Antarctic. They realise the souls of Scott and his men are trapped in the ice and are only seeking escape. Leila & Arkady use their knowhow and technical resources to liberate the ghosts.
Personally, I’m not yet sure about it – I literally just this minute came up with the idea – but I will say this:
You were not expecting that story to emerge. You’ve never read anything like it before. Already, it has a grip over your imagination that the first version never did.
In fact, if we took the bones of that story and really did some work with it, I’d say we’d have the chance to create something really extraordinary. A story that no one had ever read before, or would ever forget.
The short moral of this example is obvious:
Yes, the process of story development is intuitive, trial-and-error, and has plenty of dead ends. But it’s not random. Good stories follow a formula, which can be put roughly as follows:
Your passions + a rogue element = a great story
If you want to structure that process some more – and you should – then do use our idea generator, available on this page. It’s great, and it’s pretty much guaranteed to work.
Remember to give yourself time
Give yourself time to muse over your book.
If all this takes a week, it’s taken you too little time. Three months would be good, but if it takes six months, that’s fine, too.
Jack Kerouac, famed for writing his draft for On the Road in twenty-one days, pondered his ideas for years.
My most successful novel (Harry Bingham writing) was two years in development, then written within two months – so development matters.
Real inspiration takes time, care, effort, and thought.
Technique matters, too
Often, new writers can give up on a project by starting in a rush, noticing things aren’t quite working. They don’t quite know how to analyse what isn’t working, though, so give up – probably convinced that they don’t have the talent.
And that’s not just untrue, but a shame.
Writing books takes time and needs patience. It is also tough, and some new writers spend no time learning how to do it.
The best solution?
Get expert help
Hang out with supportive writer-friends
Improve your technique
And you know what? Jericho Writers is a club for writers like you and was set up to help writers like you.
We’ve helped loads of people write books, get agents, and get published (or, very successfully, self-published), and that includes loads of people who started out without having tons of education / knowing people in the industry / being a super-genius / spending 20 years on retreat in the Canadian wilderness, or anything else.
Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books).
As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)