Seeds of Greatness | Finding an Author’s Novel Idea

How many of us grew up with this incurable itch to write, but often found ourselves at a complete loss where to begin? Or if we did have an idea, we couldn’t seem to corral our thoughts long enough to shape it into a story.

Having grown up with my nose buried in one writing genre or another, I wrote my own fair share of short stories and morbid poetry.  Truth to tell, if I wasn’t  fixated on elves, dragons, and damsels in distress,  you could probably find me lost somewhere on the isle of Dark Knights of the Soul, or other equally disturbing realms of mystery. By the age of fifteen,  I was completely convinced that God had made a critical error in time trajectory,  and sent me to  live two-hundred years too far into the future.

But short stories and dark poetry didn’t really prepare me for a two hundred fifty or three hundred page novel. It’s one thing to write a short story about a boy who died and came back as an ant; it’s an entirely different beast to turn it into full length novel that will leave the reader wanting more.

I don’t believe that a writer “gets” (takes into the head) an “idea” (some sort of mental object) “from” somewhere, and then turns it into words, and writes them on paper. At least in my experience, it doesn’t work that way. The stuff has to be transformed into oneself, it has to be composted(sic), before it can grow into a story. (Ursula Le Guin, American novelist and essayist)

So how do writers come up with ideas for novels? Is there a book somewhere that gives one thousand and one story ideas? Are there websites dedicated to feeding our need to create something…anything?

I’m an avid follower of Fantasy Fiction, and have immersed my psych in authors such as Terry Brooks, JRR Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Edgar Rice Burroughs, R.A.Salvadore and  Jim Butcher, and find most of my own story ideas rooted in similar worlds as theirs. But what if I were drawing a blank, and  no matter how much I read, watched movies or fantasized about living on a different planet or dimension of time,  I couldn’t come up with anything I thought worthy of telling?

As you know, when in doubt  I find going to those who have proven themselves successful is the quickest way to get the answer without a lot of rabbit trails like my own.  So I decided to begin the journey with a few quotes from “Where Do Writers Find Their Ideas?”

My standard answer is “I don’t know where they come from, but I know where they come to, they come to my desk.” If I’m not there, they go away again, so you’ve got to sit and think. (Philip Pullman, English writer)

“From you,” I say. The crowd laughs. I look at the woman asking the question; she seems innocent enough. I continue. “I get them from looking at the world we live in, from reading the paper, watching the news. It seems as though what I write is often extreme, but in truth it happens every day.” (A. M. Homes, American novelist and short story writer)

Now before you throw your hands up in the air in frustration, it would behoove you and I  to give some thought to these highly successful author’s words. Whether we like it or not, genuine ideas , though germinated from the seeds of what we read, see or think about, will always produce the best fruit when allowed to marinate in the juices of our own souls.

I once read a review in which the book critic accused Terry Brooks of trying to imitate JRR Tolkien with his Shanara world. Well the seeds of Terry’s  original idea may have begun with Tolkien (as have the works of thousands of other authors), but the fruit is definitely Brooks. Over the years his stories and characters  have evolved into beings as unique as the DNA of their creator.

But let’s say that you’re not ready to trust to your gut instincts yet,  and would feel better if someone handed you something a little more concrete. Well, if that’s the case, then let’s make our first stop with author, painter and speaker, Natalie Goldberg,  and see what she has to say in her book,  “Writing Down the Bones; Freeing the Writer Within”.

  • Keep a writer’s journal to jot thoughts, feelings or sensations throughout the day.
  • Free writing: write about a memory, color or picture you’ve seen.
  • Events that have impacted your life; birth, death, marriage, divorce. (I have a writer friend you turned a challenging time in her personal life into a novel about Alzheimer.)
  • Jot down your dreams, walk in the park, or the conversation overheard in a coffee shop or restaurant.

But what if keeping a journal and spinning yarns from random thoughts doesn’t float your boat? If your like me and  looking for something with a little more meat on it,  you could go to Glen C. Strathy‘s @ “How To Write a, who offers up the following advice;

“Writing a novel takes a lot of time and effort. You’re going to live with the characters and the world you create for a long time. So don’t choose an idea you will get bored with or grow to resent after a while. Instead, look for writing ideas you can be passionate about – ones that are meaningful to you, that you will have fun working with, that you can feel proud to have written.”

Here’s some of his idea garnering tips:

  • Jot down which novels or stories you enjoy reading and watching. Make a note of the:
    • Genre: What is your niche? Where do you find yourself going back to again and again: Crime, suspense, espionage, romance, fantasy etc.
    • Character types: Heroine, villain’s, underdogs, misfits, rich and famous, poor, action figures.
    • Problems: What types of problems to like to solve? Mystery, scientific, economic, social injustice, terrorism, YA, paranormal?
    • Protagonists: Do you like male or female, young or old, human or alien?
    • Antagonists: mean, ugly, pretty, sweetly evil or blandly good?
    • Theme: What kind of values do your characters have in common. What motivates or drives them?
  • Use plot summaries: Read plot summaries from other books, stories, TV Guides, films. ( Internet Movie Database), change one or two points and spin a story summary of your own off of it.
    • Create multiple scenarios, ideas from it. Write up a summary of your own idea.
  • Real Life.:  Natural disasters, life events, political issues, social or economical issues.

Another  possibility is one that this writer has recently been experimenting with;  using random 500 word prompts, and weaving them into an ongoing story.  Beginning with an idea I took from Terry Brooks’,  “Word and Void” series,  I’ve began writing  a story about a post- apocalyptic world, using the prompts as a way  to flush the story out. The plot, characters and conflict are mine; but the journey is influenced by the prompts themselves.

So far I’ve found it to be a lot of fun.

So where do you go for your writing ideas?


  1. tonikayk · August 29, 2012

    You have posed some very interesting questions, and answers. Thanks.

    • SSpjut · August 30, 2012

      Welcome. I’m part of a writer’s group and there are those amongst us that still find it difficult to either find what they want to write about, or get it from their head to the paper.

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