Writing a novel is no small task. In fact, it’s a momentous task. Some writers spend years eking out a first draft, followed by years of revisions. And that’s before they even think about the grueling publishing process.
In other words, you’re going to spend a lot of time with your novel. So you better love it. No, wait — loving it is not enough. You have to be in love with it. You have to be committed to it. Obsessed with it.
It’s normal to lose interest when you’re on your tenth revision, but if you’re losing interest in your plot or characters while writing your first or second draft, the problem might not be you or your novel. The problem might be that you tried to commit to something you didn’t love. That’s never a good idea.
For many writers, the trick to sticking with a novel is actually quite simple: find an idea that grips you.
Get in Touch with Your Passions
Before you chase every crazy idea into the ground, stop and take a breath. Think about what moves you: books you couldn’t put down, movies you’ve watched dozens of times, TV shows you couldn’t stop talking about, and songs you played so many times, you’re sure they have bonded with your DNA.
By identifying your passions, you can figure out what makes you tick, and that’s a great start to your quest for novel writing ideas that you can really sink your teeth into.
All your past and present obsessions hold the clues to your future commitment to your own novel. Pay close attention to your preferences for genre, theme, setting, style, character archetypes and above all — emotional sensibility. Make lists of what you love about your favorite stories, and soon you’ll see the shape of your own novel start to emerge.
Generate and Gather Plenty of Novel Writing Ideas
Once you’ve made some general decisions about the novel you’re going to write, it’s time to start generating specific ideas.
Of course, the best novel writing ideas come out of nowhere. You’re on your hands and knees scrubbing the floor and suddenly that big magic bulb over your head lights up. Or maybe you have so many ideas, you don’t know where to start. It’s even possible that you’re aching to write a novel but are fresh out of ideas. Your mind feels like a gaping void.
Actually, story ideas are everywhere. The trick is to collect a variety of ideas, and let them stew while you decide which one is worth your effort. Here are some quick tips for generating ideas:
- Hit the bookstore or library and jot down some of your favorite plot synopses. Then rework the details to transform these old plots into fresh ideas for new stories. Try combining different elements from your favorite stories. And use movie synopses too!
- Load up on fiction writing prompts and develop each prompt into a short (one page) summary for a story.
- Harvest some creative writing ideas from the news.
- Grab a subplot from your favorite movie or TV show — a story line that wasn’t fully explored — and make it the central story problem.
Create a stash file for your ideas. It can be a folder on your computer or a box you fill with 3×5 index cards. You can also write all these ideas in a notebook. Just make sure you keep them together so you can easily go through them.
Let Your Novel Writing Ideas Marinate
Some ideas are so enticing, you can’t wait to get started. If you’re writing a poem or a piece of flash fiction, then have at it. If things don’t work out, you’ll lose a few hours or maybe a few weeks. But imagine investing months or years in a novel only to realize your heart’s not in it. Try to avoid doing that by letting ideas sit for a while before you dive into them.
The best ideas rise to the top. These are not necessarily the bestselling ideas or the most original ideas. They’re the ideas that are best for you. Those are the ones that will haunt you, keep you up at night, and provoke perpetual daydreams.
These are the ones worth experimenting with.
Experiment to See Which Novel Writing Ideas Can Fly
There’s a reason people test drive cars and lie around on the beds in mattress shops. When you make a big investment, you want to feel right about it. You can’t know how a car will drive until you actually drive it. And you can’t know how a bed will feel until you relax on it for a while. And you definitely can’t know what your relationship with your novel will be like until you experiment with it.
In truth, the experimental phase is when you start writing the novel — just like the test drive is when you start driving the car. But you haven’t committed yet. You’re still open to the idea that this is not for you. This might seem like I’m nitpicking over semantics, but you’ll find that discarding partially written novels wears on you after a while. If you play around with your story with the understanding that you’re experimenting, and if things don’t work out, you can always walk away without feeling guilty or like you gave up. Go back to your idea stash, and start tooling around with the next one.
How do you experiment with novel writing? I’m so glad you asked. There’s a lot you can do. Start by brainstorming. Sketch a few characters. Poke around and see what kind of research this novel might require. Draft a few scenes. Write an outline. If you keep going through these motions and can’t shake your excitement, then you are finally . . .
Writing Your Novel
At this point, you’ve already started writing your novel. But suddenly, you’re not just writing a novel. You’re deeply, passionately, obsessively writing your novel. If a couple of weeks go by and you haven’t had time to write, you miss your characters. When you get stuck on a scene, you simply work on some other part of the story because you’re so obsessed. You have to fight the urge to tell everyone about how the story is coming along. Your trusted buddy, whom you bounce ideas off of, is starting to think you’re taking it all too seriously. “Maybe you should watch some television a couple nights a week,” he says, looking concerned.
This is a story that’s captured your full attention. And that’s a good sign that it will capture the attention of readers. You are ready to commit.
Many (or most) of your novel writing ideas might end up in the trash or in a bottom drawer. But every one of them will be worth it when all of that idea generating, planning, and experimenting finally pays off. Every idea that doesn’t work will pave the path to the idea that will set you on fire.
So no matter what, no matter how many ideas come and go, no matter how many drafts you discard, never give up. Just keep writing!
Terrific post, Melissa. A novel can take years to write and to keep the stamina going it has to become real and obsessing. These are great tips for finding a novel you can put your heart in as well as your head. Trouble is, if you immerse too profoundly, it can become like a spell that’s hard to break out of… 🙂 I’m tweeting this
Thanks so much, Roz! I’ve had so many novel ideas that fell by the wayside, and last year I finally came up with something that I have become obsessed with. It’s so much fun!
I do keep all of my ideas in a notebook, but the thing I’m struggling is the “love” aspect you mentioned. I have a ton of ideas, but I don’t love any of them. My last project, I loved. I couldn’t wait to start writing the first draft of that puppy. Now I just can’t find an idea I want to write that bad. I do think I need to go back to my roots and figure out why I love the books I love and the movies I enjoy watching repeatedly. This may help me bring zest into an old idea. Thanks!
That’s awesome, Hannah! I was thinking about my own struggles and successes with ideas and was hoping I could come up with some tips to help other people identify their best ideas. I truly believe that the stories you love most will hold clues to the story that you will love writing. Good luck to you!
What a great post.
I’ve found that the best way for me to figure out whether or not an idea is worth pursuing into a novel is basically what you said–by testing it out. The idea that sticks and you are able to keep writing (just as you said) is the right one. 🙂
Yep, every idea needs a test run!
This is some of the best advice that I’ve read on the topic of finding/choosing a story idea. I’ve read many other posts and articles on this topic and most say to pick a story idea and stick with it. I especially love the suggestion to experiment with all of your ideas. That makes so much sense!
Thanks, Katie! I’m glad you found this helpful, and I hope you’ll come back soon!
The first time I attempted a novel, I was shocked at how many things and ideas have to go into one! And I also realized that I damn well better like the topic and characters I’ve chosen because they’ll be with me a long time. I’ve recently started in on a new novel that I’ve been thinking about and had a few false starts on for a couple years. The idea wouldn’t let go of me, so I realized I better get to it. Thanks for a great post.
Thanks, Charlotte. I suspect many writers learn this the hard way, but it’s true that we have to spend a lot of time with our characters and topics, so we better love them! Thanks for sharing your experience.
I’m working on creating a binder of all my ideas, from the “seeds” (little images and sentences you get in the most awkward moments) to full fledged-ideas. I think if I have something to flip through, I can solve writers’ block in awkward moments AND be able to keep track of what works and what doesn’t.
That’s an excellent idea. I often make binders for big projects, and I’ve found them to be quite helpful (and inspiring). Have fun with it!
Greetings Melissa. Would just like to say great post, it has given me something to think about. I myself am a young aspiring writer however while I have many ideas (I got at least 23 notebooks chock full of ideas) I cannot seem for the life of me find one that will not bore me over time. I have not found the one that I will obsess over. Oh sure I will love the idea when it first comes to mind, I will write it down and then think it over after a day and then after that, I will forget about it, and when I attempt to go back to it…I am incredibly bored. I really am having a problem with finding an idea that will truly grip me.
Sticking with an idea is part passion and part discipline. You might try writing and finishing a few short stories (aim for about 2,000-10,000 words each). Forcing yourself to complete smaller projects is not only good writing practice, it helps you learn what is involved in seeing a project through to completion without having to make the long-term commitment that a novel would require.
I also highly recommend signing up for NaNoWriMo. I was exactly where you are about four years ago, feeling like none of my ideas were intriguing enough, like I’d never be able to finish a novel. Through NaNoWriMo, I spent 30 days completing a 50,000-word rough draft for a novel, proving to myself that I could do it. I also learned what it takes, which was invaluable. Good luck to you!
You have shared a lot of food for thought that my mind can chew on for a log time. Being a short story writer, I had not considered the long relationship any future novel and I may have. Thank you for pointing it out.
Well, some authors crank out a book in a month (or a few months), so it depends on how fast or slow you write and probably on what you write (epic fantasy probably takes longer than contemporary romance). But in my experience, it helps to give some thought to which project we choose to develop, since most of us will spend a lot of time with that project! It’s too easy to get carried away by every idea that flutters by.
Hi, Melissa: I’m sorry to ask a stupid question, but I don’t quite understand what you mean by the emotional sensibility of the story or story idea. Could you explain it, please, or point me at another post where it is explained (my searches keep taking me to Jane Austin period novels!).
I was referring to the emotional tone, quality, or flavor. Is it sad or happy? Does it alternate between dramatic and thrilling? Basically, how does it make the readers feel?
Hope that clarifies.