Fiction,  How To Write A Novel: Step by Step,  writing tips

How Do You Know If A Story Idea Has Potential?

Often when I do presentations I’m asked, Where do you get your ideas? As Neil Gaiman says, “the ideas are not the hard bit.” Ideas are everywhere. You may be inspired by a news story, or by something your neighbour said. Perhaps, when you are travelling, you can just feel that a particular place is the perfect setting for the novel you want to write.

During an extended stay in the Glebe, Ottawa, I soon realized that this neighbourhood would be the perfect setting for a teen novel I was itching to write. Add to that, a community battle with City Hall over a huge redevelopment project, and I knew this was my story.

So, let’s assume that there is no shortage of story ideas. Maybe a better question would be How do you capture an idea and turn it into a compelling story? Or, more to the point, How do authors recognize story potential?

Back to my Ottawa idea. I immediately began to muse What if Lily, my protagonist, had an activist grandmother who lived in the neighbourhood? Lily’s grandmother, of course, fits the neighbourhood demographic perfectly. What if Lily’s grandmother was leading the charge (so to speak) against City Hall? What if Lily met a boy in a pop band who sang about the environment? At every turn, at every tourist site I visited, I could imagine my character (who was actually not Lily, quite yet,) taking in the sights and sounds.

When you look at your list of story ideas, is there one in which your imagination immediately takes off? The two secret words that every author relies on for recognizing story potential are what. if. On the other hand, your idea begins to feel like a giant school assignment hanging over your head, move on. This is not your story. At least, not now. Maybe later you’ll go crazy over the idea. But right now, find something about which you are passionate. A novel, as they say, is a marathon, not a sprint. You have to love the idea. You will be working on this project for a very long time.

For several weeks, I researched the historical part of a middle grade novel set in Heritage Park. There were many reasons why I thought this story would be a good idea. The setting is historic and fun. I live close to it. My daughter spent many summers at camp there. I love the idea of a story set in Heritage Park. But every time I sat down to write the story, I would only get so far before I was stuck. Again. The what if’s maddeningly enough, didn’t materialize. I haven’t given up hope. Maybe. Someday. But for now, there is no point in trying to force the story. There is another story begging to be written, that keeps niggling me and nudging me. That is the idea I need to develop. Well, once revisions are complete for my teen novel, that is.

To Do

Last week in How To Write a Novel Step One was brainstorming some story ideas. Click on the link to find out more.

  1. Choose the most exciting idea on your list. Something that sparks your imagination, or your passion. In your Writer’s notebook, write a sentence telling what your story is about. (My story is about (character) in a place (setting) with a problem (conflict.) Kate Messner recently did a Big Picture workshop through SCBWI. She suggests completing these two sentences: 1. My story is about____________ and 2. But underneath, it’s really about_________________. This is a great idea because it covers not simply the story on the surface, but the underlying message or theme as well. Here are my two sentences for Winds of L’Acadie. 1.My story is about a teen who travels back in time in Nova Scotia just as the deportation of the Acadians begins. 2. But underneath, my story is really about a young woman’s search for home and belonging.
  2. Go for an observations walk. Better yet, go for a series of observation walks. Each time, choose a different sense for your focus. For example, focus only on your sense of hearing. Make notes or take pictures of everything you hear. When you get back, describe each sound. Write about how these sounds make you feel or memories they evoke. On the next walk, choose a different sense. You can choose your walk based on the sense you want to focus on. For example, for sense of smell, you want to walk through a market or past a bakery and a coffee shop etc.
  3. Check out your bookshelf, the local library (when it opens) or the free e-books you can borrow from the library, and do the activity from #1. Choose five books that you are familiar with or books you have recently read, and write what the story is about on the surface, and what the story is really about. Keep this information in your writer’s notebook. You may want to refer to these as mentor texts as we go along. You may also want to take notice how each novel begins. Does it start with dialogue? Does it start in the middle of action? Does it begin with the setting? Write down everything you notice about the first page. What do you learn about the novel on page one?

Feel free to add any comments, questions or suggestions in the comment section. Next Monday, as we consider the topic of how to get started, we’ll discuss the merits of outlines and begin to think about the characters that will populate the story.

Until then there will be daily writing prompts and quotes to inspire you to keep writing.

One of our backyard friends!

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