Due partly to your inspiration and partly to my recent reading of Marian Keyes' "The Other Side of the Story," which may or may not be an accurate depiction of the book publishing industry, I'm thinking I'm ready to tackle a novel. Trouble is, I can't make things up. I write decent narrative and I'm great with dialogue, but that adage about your first novel being autobiographical? My biggest fear. So I keep trying to come up with a "plot" out of the air and I just freeze. "Just write" isn't going to cut it for me, I don't think. I've tried that with little success. I need a plan (a "goddamn plan," :) ), or at least a semblance of one so I can know that I'm deviating.
How do I come up with an idea for a plot? Silly as it sounds, the best fiction writing I ever did in college was when a distant friend in another school gave me a one-sentence plot of a play she'd written and I just copied it. Idea plagiarism aside, the story wrote itself once I started. Should I turn to a book about fiction writing? Are any of them actually helpful?
First of all, hee! Can I just say that I read your question and was like, "why does 'goddamn plan' sound so familiar?" And then I realized that you were quoting ME back to me. Ha! I love it.
Okay, I wanted to push this question to the head of the line because I really liked it and because I think it's a really important one. After all, who cares about the intricacies of getting an agent if you can't write your novel in the first place? I'm not sure if I have the best answer for you, so I'm hoping others might chime in too. But the best place for me to start is to tell you my own experience and see if that helps.
For me, the seeds of both books were planted by situations in my own life. For TDLF specifically, I had just lost one of my three closest friends to breast cancer - at 31, six months after her diagnosis - and I needed a way to channel my grief. And as a writer, naturally, what I did was write. HOWEVER. Her situation was just the seed. WhereI went from there was what mattered. I think, as you said in your question, the philosophy of "just write," doesn't always work. Why? Because when you do "just write," you're often times writing aimlessly, and you end up with a bunch of crap that has no purpose in your overall storyline, but you're too blinded to see that.
This is really what happened to me with book #1. Again, I had a seed of an idea - I wanted to explore female friendships, and the nuances, wonders and problems behind them, and I knew how I wanted the story to begin. What I didn't know was where I wanted the story to GO, and thus, not only did the ms stall for a few years, it ended up being filled with a lot of muck on the way to the ending. Why? Because I just wrote. I didn't write with a real purpose in mind.
So...what was the difference between book #1 and TDLF? For starters, I let the idea gestate, which allowed the seed to take root and flourish. Rather than sit down and bang out chapters, I really mulled over who this character would be and all of the potential roadblocks that she'd encounter, not just with cancer but in her every day life. That really helped create a plot. What could go wrong at work? What could go wrong with her love life? What's going on with her family? As I marinated all of these different things, a story arc began to build in my mind, and before I ever took pen to page (or fingers to keyboard, I should say), I had mentally mapped out all of the different figurative places that my heroine would go. She'd deal with cancer, she'd deal with lost love, she'd deal with a distant mother, she'd deal with losing her identity, she'd deal with figuring out how to rebuild herself when she didn't have a choice in the matter. All of these things led me to imagine situations - whether it was having a mini-breakdown at her office or having a monster fight with her mom over her chemo treatment - that evolved into a plot, and eventually, a book.
And this was a really different tactic than with my first time out, where, as I said, I wrote and wrote and wrote, but all I was doing was spitting out words. I hadn't taken the time to let the seed of the idea sink in and see where the characters could take me. And just to reiterate, for me, it was really, really helpful to mentally walk through all of the possible challenges in my heroine's life. In my opinion, too many books meander and lose the reader because there aren't enough obstacles - no one wants to read about someone's boring, placid life. That's not a story. Readers expect change from the characters, they expect to be brought on a journey with the protagonist, and the best way to deliver it (again, in my opinion) is to dredge up conflict. And in these conflicts, you'll often develop your overall story.
A few other notes: when choosing something to write about, whether it's cancer or baseball or friendship or whatever, I do think it's important to choose something that you're passionate about. If you're not, it comes across very clearly in the energy of your writing.
Second, I also think it helps to write about a subject with which you have some level of familiarity - I think this helps fuel that passion and also gives you emotional heft to draw from when you're writing. Sort of like the actor who's going through a divorce and delivers a bang-up, knock-out job in her latest drama because she can go to those deeper, familiar places and tap into the pain that she needs to convey. But I will caution you against writing about your life too literally. Trying to fictionalize 5% of a true story is very difficult (again, my opinion) because your memories are so tied to the real version that they impede your imagination from going to the places it needs to go to create an honest novel. In the initial draft of my first book, I was paralyzed because I had basically lightly fictionalized events from my life, and when those events had played themselves out in the plot, I really couldn't dream up where to take the characters - I couldn't take them where my life had gone, and I wasn't thinking creatively enough to go anywhere else with it. Thus...the multi-year hiatus. For TDLF, I started with a young woman who had breast cancer, and that's really the only similarity that the book shares with the events from my (or my late friend's) life. The character is nothing like my friend and her circumstances couldn't be more different. This allowed me to think of Natalie, my heroine, as an entirely separate person, and I never once thought, "Oh, what would my friend have done in this situation." It was all about what Natalie would do.
I don't know if that answers your question, but I guess, in short, I'd look around your own life and find something that really engages you: why men and women can't be friends, why some people stay married forever and some don't, why your friend's friend was killed in a car accident for no apparent reason...I dunno...and let the seed of this concept sink in while your subconscious explores it for a while. From there, you just might develop a novel.
Anyone have better suggestions? Let's hear 'em.