Writing a book is freaking hard, isn’t it? You’ve gotta have voice and believable dialogue, likeable characters and a hook, and, oh yes, an actual story. Without that last thing, you don’t really have much of a book, do you? So how do you go about creating that story? Where do those initial ideas come from? Well, for some people, they don’t come quite as easily or frequently as others, so here are some tips on how to come up with some ideas of your own, the next time you find yourself stuck with “Idea Block.”
1. Write What You Know. You hear that a lot, and it’s really annoying, isn’t it? But here’s the thing: I’ve learned some of the most random and fascinating cultural and location-centric things from writer friends of mine on Twitter, and nobody’s writing about these things. I have a friend who home schools, but I’ve never seen a book on home schooling. I have a friend who was in a handbell choir, but I’d never heard of one before or seen a character in one. I have friends who spent their formative years being raised in other countries, but I never see books about characters who grew up in, say, Iceland (to name a random place I find fascinatingly awesome) and then came to America for high school.
So why aren’t people writing these things? Well, to borrow from myself, my CP Valerie is always saying that she’d love for me to write a book with an Orthodox Jewish character, but I always resist. (Although I do have one Ortho BFF in my chick lit, because I just had to. The MC is a lawyer in NYC, for God’s sake.) Why? Because I cannot imagine anyone finding this character interesting or relatable. Am I right? Maybe. Am I wrong? Maybe. But I don’t try, and neither do so many others, and maybe we should. Maybe we should be giving ourselves more credit, finding our own lives more interesting and worthy of weaving into a greater work, even if it’s just an inspiration for a second character. You never know what new world you’ll be opening someone up to.
2. Write What You Don’t Know. Now this, to me, is even more interesting in concept, even if it’s much more challenging in execution. Think about a setting, or a character trait – maybe even a disability or mental illness – you’d like to know more about, and build a manuscript around it! Start off with research and see where it leads; you may learn a fact that triggers a plot point and before you know it… Shiny New Idea!
3. Retell, Reimagine, Reinvent. So many truly excellent stories have already been written, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still make them your own. Shakespearean tales, fairy tales, and and Greek myths are all popular choices, and I dare say many of them have been overdone by now, but beyond that is a realm of folklore, lesser- known literature, and more just begging to be reshaped. (Liiiiike bible stories!)
And it doesn’t just have to be books; for example, my next YA will be based on a historical event. Or think about songs that are basically little stories captured in four minutes of lyric and melody, like “Wheatus” by Teenage Dirtbag – an adorable little contemporary YA romance – or “O Valencia” by the Decemberists – a tragic romantic thriller. Just imagine what you could do if you re-appropriated and stretched out one of those!
4. Blow Up Something Small. Last year, I was watching (the newly canceled) 90210 when I freaked out: they had a storyline that was almost exactly the plot of my manuscript, BEHIND THE SCENES. Oh no oh no oh no! Everyone was going to think I’d copied this show even though I wrote my manuscript before this ever came out! Spoiler alert: That was the stupidest freaking thought ever. No one watches 90210, and even if they did, the show had devoted all of two episodes to something I’d devoted 77,000 words to. Clearly we were not approaching it with the same level of depth and care.
That said, imagine if you did this in reverse… on purpose. Imagine if you took something that got five seconds of attention in a book or on a show and made it the center of yours. To illustrate, I’m going to tell you that that’s exactly what I did for my first ever short story. As a kid, I was a total junkie for the Lurlene McDaniel books – you know, the ones where everyone has a terminal illness and you end up crying yourself to sleep after you read it. In one of those books, there was a couple, and they met in the hospital: she was there because of whatever illness she had in that book, and he was there because his brother had sustained injuries playing football, from which he later died. The brother was never mentioned again except in that one line explaining how they met.
I, however, was so fascinated by that tiny little mention that I went ahead and wrote a story in eighth grade about a teenage boy who dies from football injuries. And I got an A+, by the way. (Still the highlight of my life.)
5. Read outside your category and genre. Reading inside your category and genre goes without saying; it’s how you know what’s already out there, what’s already being done and what’s still a gap in the market, what kind of voice/dialogue/language are right, and a billion other things. But reading inside also shows you what already exists for your target audience. Reading outside… now that tells you what’s speaking to people but hasn’t necessarily reached, say, teens who want realistic fiction. Just think of all the agents who’ve tweeted about wanting “A YA GONE GIRL” or “A MG GAME OF THRONES”; that’s exactly what I mean.
Again, a personal example. Before I got an agent, I queried a manuscript I love that was inspired by three things:
- A story that’d happened to me in college that I thought would work in a book
- The Private series by Kate Brian, because I knew I couldn’t set another manuscript in college if I wanted to get an agent with it (this was 2009), and I was obsessed with these boarding school books and knew from reading them I could totally shift to YA by setting said story in a boarding school instead of a university
- THE LACE READER, by Brunonia Barry – an Adult contemporary (bordering on magical realism) novel whose ARC made publishing rounds when I was an EA at S&S
Kinda random, right? But the truth is, number 3 is what really drove the manuscript. THE LACE READER had this twist that made me think, “Holy crap, I want to try this. And this book’s definitely being marketed toward adults only, so wouldn’t it be cool to use that device in a YA instead?”
Now, obviously I didn’t do as well at it as Brunonia Barry did, because she’s a New York Times best seller and my greatest writing achievement is probably this blog post, but I’m still sure as hell glad I gave it a shot!
So, that’s a bunch of ways I get story ideas; how do you get yours?