One of my favorite books, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, has a few jarring moments when the author speaks to the reader outside of the plot of the book. When I first read the book in high school and again in college, I was especially drawn to Fowles’ explanation of how the characters seem to write themselves without his conscious input:
“It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live.” (Fowles, ch. 13)
He also mentions how the novelist cannot plan the worlds that they create through fiction, and goes as far as to say “a planned world… is a dead world.” Non-writers in the classes thought it silly, but this seemed to perfectly sum up how I write: sit down with a few ideas germinating and just write with no specific plan of where you’re going–more likely than not, the ideas come to me, and they sometimes surprise me as much as they do the reader.
On the other hand, I envied anyone who could sit down and write an outline for a book they wanted to write. They had a skeleton of the book in hand and could write without pesky writer’s block butting in. I just could never do it myself.
But about a week ago, I did. I outlined the rest of the second book in a planned series (after writing the first few chapters) and all of the third book. True, things may change when (if) I get to putting the words on paper (er, computer screen), but for the first time ever, I know exactly where I’m going with this! And plus, the experience was similar to that of writing on the fly: I sat down with a few general ideas as I wrote, and the rest came to me, surprising me all the while.
So how do you come up with ideas? You take some time to brainstorm! Next time you write, try the following, even if you don’t usually come up with ideas before you write the draft:
- Discuss ideas with beta readers. You trust these people to have first access to your drafts, so they’re likely to be the only people on the planet who will be able to help you come up with ideas, since they’re the only ones who’ve read it! I never thought to discuss ideas with a beta before, but one of mine was so anxious to know “what would happen next” that he triggered a conversation over dinner. Ideas both of us came up with served as the general ideas I sat down with as I wrote the outline–and they evolved quite a bit as I wrote. And now at least the two of us know what happens, even if few others ever do!
- Run with one idea. One idea is all you need to start. Describe how that idea impacts the world of your novel and see if more ideas come to you.
- Don’t be afraid to try. You’re not married to the ideas you come up with–they’re just going to serve as a guideline once you write. If you come up with something different later, that’s fine, and no one need be the wiser!