Friday, July 28, 2006

But Where Do I Come Up With An Idea?

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.


Bernita said...

Can't think of a better suggestion - partly because your experience mirrors my own method, even to the extrapolation of personal data into something fictional.
Took me two years to meld the double concepts I wanted.

Mike Vecchio said...

"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."

To me this is a key in story development. The general idea and theme come first. Although the theme may come out of the desire to say something specifically about a character.

My biggest learning in this regard was AFTER I'd written my first novel and outlined my second. I wrote my first movie script. I found that invaluable in terms of discipline and creating tight writing and plotting. From that point forward I decided that I would only write in 3 act sequences as a start. First off, it allows easy adaptation to a script. Second, it produces a rapidly moving story line. Now, IF you are writing a novel obviously you can increase the scope of what you have. You don't have to limit yourself to 3 acts. There is much discussion about scriptwriting structure, however, a script is 115 pages give or take a few. This means all scene descritpions must be tight and have punch. Each word must create a visual display for the director who finally takes it on. Then the character dialog must carry the characters and character arcs.

Why I am I going into this short rant? Because what is in a script clearly embodies the elements necessary to drive a successful novel.

While this may not help with ideas once you have the ideas, thinking in terms of a 3 act sequence can assist in terms of ways to take the story where you want to take

3 act sequence short version:

Plot point 1 - introduce problem and bring to a turning point that kicks off
Plot point 2 - change in direction of story that brings you to
Resolution - resolves action

Mary had a little lamb. It kept shedding wool all over her mom's carpet. Her mom and her argue about it. She takes it to school one day to get it out of her mom's way.

Plot 1 one - Teacher says it's against the rules.

Mary goes to the town magistrate to get the rule overturned. Runs into this person and that at the town hall.

Plot point 2 - Magistrate says - oh that rule applies to non-wool
shedding sheep.

Mary goes back to school with the declaration. The teacher becomes really annoyed. Tries to throw Mary out of school.

Resolution - Mom comes to school to defend Mary. Mary and mom discover how much they rally care about each other.

Thinking his way allows you to start with something simple. In my case I needed a quick example. So Mary had a little lamb popped into my mind. Then I came up with the 3 act sequence just now!

That's how it works for me.

Allison Winn Scotch said...

MTV - Interesting feedback! Breaking it down into those three acts is definitely a good way to go if you can do it! Thanks!

Mike Vecchio said...

Allison -

Quick comment:

I'm advocating that as a starting point. While I did address the idea of more plot points, you can even layer plots. The idea was take something simple - A character who etc.. etc.. then begin action. For me this frees up the development process. Obviously if you have in mind literary fiction then you may want to complicate it, keeping in mind that IF you do the movie you'll need to compress the action or eliminate a sub-plot etc.

By the way I looked at your Website and your book summary -

I loved it from the description! Hey, if you deliver on that plot like I feel you will - that book is a stunner!!! Very insightful. It is an important book, especially for today's world!

My novel is along the same lines in terms of delving into the central character. However, her desperation and prison that she launches her journey of self-discovery from is quite different.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

I have no problem coming up with that one initial idea that launches the book, but I have trouble with all the other little events and subplots that must support the story. I really need to perfect my 'what can go wrong?' technique.

I'm also big on having some level of familiarity. My trouble is I don't think I've done enough in my life that people would want to read about! Need to try convincing my husband that it's time for some adventuring...;)

Anonymous said...

While life experiences (be they personal or otherwise) may provide ideas, it's your imagination that creates the story. In other words, Alyssa, you have a great excuse for daydreaming. *g*

Sara Hantz said...

Alyssa, have you read Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel. He's great at getting you to delve deeper and think of things to go wrong. He came to the NZ conference 2 years ago and did a one day workshop on the Friday, and then shorter workshops and other stuff on the other two days.

It was the best conference I've been to. The Friday workshop alone was worth the whole conference fee.

Anonymous said...

Had a hunch and found it at "Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook: Hands-On Help for Making Your Novel Stand Out and Succeed (Paperback)
by Donald Maass"

Yes, I ordered a copy.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

I've definitely heard his name mentioned with awe...just hadn't gotten around to seeing what all the fuss was about. Now I'm going to.


Kerry Dexter said...

"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."

I'm chiming in from a different experience, that of writing biography and narrative non fiction. Being paralysed by facts has happened to me there as well! I've learned to think of generating ideas as a bit like looking at the patterns in a kaleidoscope -- different backgrounds, foregrounds, voices, lead to many ways to tell the story. That's another way to come up with ideas. On my mind because I just finished a grant proprosal to write a book about three musicians. Finding the interlocking ideas and ways to present them to vividly readers -- and succinctly to the readers of the grant proprosal -- has me seeing parallells.

Really enjoying your blog, Allison.

Allison Winn Scotch said...

Thanks Kerry! I love the kaleidoscope analogy - that's really excellent.

And MTV - I hope I didn't sound critical of your post. I didn't mean it to be at all! I thought it was a great suggestion, especially if people are able to use that line of thinking as a skeleton for their overall story arc.

Looks like this post and the following comments might have proven really helpful. I'm so glad!

Amie Stuart said...

"Second, I also think it helps to write about a subject with which you have some level of familiarity"

.....or something you're really really interested in IMO.

Gaw I love your blog, girl!
Alyssa I play the "And What if" game (and I'm a huge proponent of pen and paper)...I know I know such a complicated and technical way to plot a book *ggg*

Michelle Miles said...

I tend to use the "what if" scenario too. It helps me jump start a new novel. I wandered aimlessly with a draft for nearly a year before I realized it was total crap and threw it all out. Now, I'm writing the same story - but with total fresh ideas and better characters. It was the "what if" thing that saved it. :)