Coming up with an idea for a novel seems a binary notion: either you have an idea of what to write about or you don’t. Once at a party, someone repeatedly asked me how my ideas for my novel popped into my head. Describing how an idea came to me felt like describing how to catch a falling star, abstract and impossible.
However, at some point if we want to write a novel, we need to have an idea to work with and we want to make sure it is a good one. So how do we capture these pesky ideas to begin with?
1) Think about what you like. You are going to have to work on your novel for a long time to finish it, so you want to make sure that your topic is something that you are passionate about. Otherwise, it’s going to be even harder to maintain stamina to cross that finish line.
Try writing a list in a notebook of topics that you like the most. What you like can include your hobbies, your interests, your areas of expertise, and any issues that you feel passionate about. Do you skate? Do you play soccer? Are you crazy about dogs? Do you enjoy obscure indie bands? Do you feel strongly about the environment, or small businesses, or rights of minorities, or workplace opportunities, or gay marriage, or accountability in the justice system, or reducing the stigma about mental illness? Some stuff may be deep, some not so much.
Certain interests can belong to your characters, others to the theme of your novel. For instance, if you really like break dancing, you could write a novel where a break dancing competition plays a key role. On the other hand, if you don’t want to write an entire novel about break dancing, a character could break dance as one of their activities.
Of course, your characters and your novel won’t be a complete clone of your life. For those interests that you don’t know much about, you will have to do research. The point is to write about something that you are passionate about, so that you also are inclined to do this research as well.
2) Think about what you like to read the most. Since I like to read YA novels, I’m writing a YA novel. Don’t settle to write a crime novel if you love reading romances. If you really like both genres, then make a decision between the two.
When you are reading (because you are reading, right?), you should pay attention to things that really work in books and things that really don’t. Do you like fast-paced action sequences? Swoon-worthy romances? Mysteries? Humour? What about your last favourite read made you like it the way you did? What aspects from that book can you use to inspire your own writing?
3) Look to other art forms that aren’t just books. Many writers find music deeply inspiring. It doesn’t have to be super highbrow either. Since I write about teenagers, I find that boy bands suit me perfectly well. Gets me in the zone. Some writers make playlists to match their entire novel and although I’m not that into it, I can see how that could help.
Also, visual arts can be very inspiring as well. Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments Series takes direct inspiration from paintings and compares the setting to different artists’ styles. This works with her main character whose mother was an artist. So try engaging with other art to create more art.
4) Think about what you want your novel to say. No matter what genre you work with, there is some underlying message to a novel. What do you want your reader to think about once it is over? How do you want the reader to feel when reading your novel? Even within escapism, there is a general feeling about a book. Should the reader be sitting on the edge of their chair the entire time? Should the reader feel more empathy towards a certain issue or event? Should the reader feel a certain connection with the work, and if so, what?
Of course, your reader may respond differently than how you anticipate, because that’s art. But the point is to envision how you want people to be affected and from there find the tale you want to tell.
5) Keep a notebook. Often inspiration comes when you are distracted. Sometimes you will be out in the world, going for a walk, on the bus, at work, whatever and it will hit you. You will have a great idea. Write it down before you forget so you can use it later.
Often, the best ideas come to me minutes before I fall asleep right before dreaming. I have to wrench myself awake, switch on a light and jot them down in a notebook by my bedside. When I start my writing routine in the morning, I’m very glad I did this indeed.
6) Don’t romanticise ideas. All good ideas have been repeated in art many times over. The originality in your novel may not come from the idea itself, but from how you use the idea.
Think of all the novels about love. Either the couple ends up together or never can be together. Only two options exist really, yet so much different art is out there about this topic. Or the basic but satisfying plot of hero beats villain. It’s not just that the hero beats the villain, but who the hero and villain are, as well as how the hero manages to save the day. The details colour the worn-out plot into something new.
You will put your own unique spin on your idea, so sit in a chair and think until it comes to you. Don’t worry. Eventually it will.