Writing: How Do You Come Up With Your Next Big Idea for a Book?

by Alison on August 2, 2012

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s being “between novels.” For me, the drive to write feels like nervous energy. It’s just there, making me a little jumpy. And if I don’t do something about it, I’ll be so restless that I’ll drive myself and everyone around me crazy. You know it’s bad when friends and family sweetly suggest you start writing again on something, for-the-love-of-god-anything.

And yet, thinking of my next big idea for a novel is hardly a science. Frankly, I wish it were. I wish there were some formula–no matter how difficult–that guaranteed a novel-length idea to explore. But there isn’t so instead my process would be best described as: keep your eyes open, take notes, and wait it out. 

(Image source)

Recently Kelly Thompson wrote a six-part series for Lit Reactor about the path to publication for her novel, The Girl Who Would Be King. I highly recommend it if you’re currently anywhere along this path–and spoiler alert, she ends up choosing the Kickstarter option. The series perfectly captures the agony of each step of the process. She does a great job of detailing them from the actual writing of the novel to finding an agent, revising and revising, and submitting to publishers. But it’s her final installment–What Happens When Your Book Doesn’t Sell–that really struck me.

She writes:

So let’s just get to the heart of the problem. Independent of what we would or could do with my book that hadn’t sold, the most obvious thing to do was to move on to the next book I’d written. I should send that new book off to my agent, and at least get that new ball rolling while we considered options for the first book.

Except I had NOT written another book. Because I am an idiot.

She goes on to detail decisions she made about her original manuscript that might have been different if she’d had a new project to focus on and keep her agent excited about. It’s an interesting tidbit of advice–and not one I had heard before. Very few people start working on the next book while the first book is still on submission. Wouldn’t you want to know what happened with the first book first?

But, she has a point. It is probably the best way to keep your writing career moving forward. When I was attending the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, I remember Alice McDermott talking about this. I believe she called it something like “putting that one in the drawer.” The concept was, if you had a novel that didn’t find a home, you put it in a drawer, dusted yourself off, and moved on. Someday you could look back on that one with the clearer eyes of the future and see what went wrong. But for now, looking at it with the faulty eyes of the present, what went wrong probably isn’t apparent , so it was best just to put it in the drawer for safe keeping and move on to the next thing.

Now I’m just over here waiting for the next lightning bolt to strike. Usually for me these bolts don’t strike on cozy Saturday evenings when I’m just padding around the house, my laptop within easy reach. No, for me they strike on crowded Muni trains, waiting in line at the pharmacy, or between meetings. And so for the first time ever I’m going to try out an app called: A Novel Idea.
It’s for writers and it helps you organize a book. You can input the title, major themes, specific scenes, characters, and more. Plus, there’s a section called Notes for half-formed ideas, which is generally the form mine take. Not only was it free, but I love the idea of having it within easy reach on my phone. I’m a big believer in making a note when you have the thought. Too many times I’ve had a good one and said to myself, Oh, I’m sure I’ll remember this, only to lose it forever.


I’ll report back on whether I actually end up using it or not–and when the lightning bolt stikes.

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