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The Big Idea

Question of the day: How do you come up with your ideas? How do you know if they're good ones?

Wow. This is a huge question, and I'm not even sure how to answer it because I don't have a concrete method of brainstorming, but I'll try my best.

When I'm casting about for a new book idea, I think I go about it in two ways. One, I start with a theme I might want to explore. The best way to articulate this is by using Time of My Life as an example: I knew that I wanted to play with the idea of what-ifs and time-travel, so I let those two concepts gestate for a while, trying to assess how to write a novel with that "sci-fi" (and I put that in quotes because TOML isn't at all sci-fi) element while still staying true to my writing style. I can't explain how things suddenly snapped into place, but they did. And they snapped into place by me writing the opening page in my head. I hear the character's voice, and coupled with the overriding theme/idea, I just take off from there.

Similarly, with The Memory Of Us (which obviously, I know you guys haven't read), I knew I wanted to play with the idea of a woman who had her whole life wiped out, and how maybe that wouldn't be a bad thing. I explored - in my mind - how I could do this on a big stakes level. How can you feasibly set up a character to live both her old life and an entirely new one? The idea of memory loss came to me, as well as the thought of uncovering how deeply we're all defined by our memories and how that shapes us. Then, as with other books, I drafted those opening scenes in my mind, then finally put them on page. A book was born.

As far as where I get those little nuggets of ideas themselves? I think it's just from watching and listening and observing my friends and my own life and what's going on around me. I think that the themes I write about are pretty universal, and I think any good writer needs to open her ears and eyes to the rhythms that life takes us on. Isn't that what all writers do? I maybe press my ear up to the overriding themes of where I am in my life, and then I hone in on the specifics - how do I build a story around these themes? Again, the easy example is with Time of My Life - the theme being "what ifs" and regrets, and then I get smaller and smaller with the idea until it lands me something concrete: the character, the opening scene, the voice, etc. 

So that's how I do it, but I'm sure every writer has his or her own methods. Writers, will you share how you come up with your own ideas?

Reader Comments (9)

Great post, it'll be interesting to read about other writers' methods.

My method's very similar to yours; I have a main theme in mind, something that f.e. defines the world setting, which will make me think of the ramifications on the people living in this world - as in: who might be problem maker/s (i.e. the baddie/s) and who the problem solver/s (i.e. the hero/es). Then I write the first chapter(s).

I know if it's got potential to be more than just another beginning saved up on my computer, when my fingers can't keep up with the ideas, and the first two to three chapters more or less write themselves. Of course, that's no guarantee I'll make it to The End, but it's how I decide to go ahead and invest more time in an idea.

October 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPia Newman

They just sort of come to me. Right now I've finished a manuscript and am waiting for my brain to tell me what to write next. And they come to me one way and then often turn into something else anyway. The manuscript I just finished was supposed to be about one thing and then mostly turned into something else entirely.

October 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJudy

i'm not particularly a writer but i do some editing sometimes; at times one has a big idea in his head; and is looking for more substance to make it several chapters and subsequently; a book. And at times(when we're too inspired - yeah there're times like that; lol !! :D ); we get to collect more than one idea that is linear with what we're looking for; and we choose one and keep the other for another (or another version);

sometimes too you just can't explain how you're inspired by another writer; i say so because; we sometimes point out a piece of writing from which we got our inspiration; and yet we just can't figure out how related your work and the original one is.....crazy !!

But basically, i think "hte big idea" comes from listening and observing (opening the mind) as ALLison says.....

October 19, 2010 | Unregistered Commentershloch

Yep, sounds familiar... :) My ideas usually start as what-ifs based on something I've been thinking about or something I read -- What if there were NO group associations in the world? What if a girl walked away from her true love and then returned 5 years later and wanted him back? From there I usually identify the main 2-4 characters, and I think about major plot points. It's like finding one big star in the sky, and then squinting up at the night until the whole constellation becomes clear.

October 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKristan

My first two novels were autobiographically-based. The last three have been totally fiction. My murder mystery series idea came from thinking how fun it would be to have one doctor's wife get knocked off per book in fairly affluent neighborhoods (I know, twisted, right? But, hey, I've been a doctor's wife, so I guess that makes it slightly less twisted!). The idea for my current YA novel came to me in one paragraph. I had the main character's names, what their powers were, and their relationship to each other. I wrote the first draft in six weeks and now I'm working on the sixth draft! (Submission one of these days...!!!)

October 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDebra Schubert

I joked for years that I was the only journalist I knew with zero desire to write the great American novel. Then one day last spring, an idea for a book popped into my head along with a sudden, burning need to write it. While writing that one - it took me eight and half months to complete the first draft - ideas for four or five more hit. And they keep coming. I'm working on revising my first novel now, but in the meantime, I jot down ideas as they come for future books.

I don't know what triggered the "on" switch, but my former self-description no longer applies.

October 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStaceyW

I have an idea notebook that I keep around so I can jot ideas down and not lose them. It helps me keep an active file for some ideas. I like to let things simmer in my head for a while too. I'm getting ready for NaNoWriMo and will finally take pen to paper for a rough outline of the novel I'll work on.

October 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDawn Maria

You listen and observe well. That's why your books are timely and "hit" nerves, while "hooking" hearts.

October 20, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterlarramiefg

I really enjoyed this post. I love how you took us from the big idea, to the opening scene. I think you hit on the importance of the writer as observer. The world has many stories it wants to tell. You are mindful enough to notice them, and have the talent to personalize them for all of us. I can't wait to read the new book!

October 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterErika Robuck

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