Friday, June 21, 2013

So You Want to Write a Book...The Idea Hunt


 In the last post in this series, we tackled some of the big-picture ideas you need to think about before sitting down to write a book.

I assume that because you moved on to this post, you've spent hours upon hours agonizing over every little detail therein. No? Well, I hope that you at least thought about the points raised and figured out that yes, you do indeed still want to write a book.

Once you've made that commitment, you're going to need something to write about.

You need an idea.

As any writer who has finished a book knows, ideas are the essential currency of our trade. An idea that I had is why you're reading this post right now.

I also realize that a lot of times ideas are tough to come by, especially when you're sitting in front of the computer, "ready to write."

Most folks have been taught to either repress their creative brains or redirect their creative side's efforts toward other, less rewarding tasks through years of schooling and work.

You know the ability's there; it shows itself in the worst times, while you're on the subway, or in a meeting, or waiting to get an oil change. That "aha!" flash of brilliance that would make a great jumping off point for a story, or a fine premise for a non-fiction book.

You try to will yourself to remember those moments, those hints of genius, through sheer brainpower and memory.

Unfortunately, most of those ideas are ultimately lost to the ether, forgotten amid piles of bills, soccer practices for the kids, and increasing demands at work.

You know..."life."

Fortunately, there's help for you yet. It's a little something I like to call "The Idea Harvest."

The Idea Harvest

You're going to have to do a little bit of work for this one:

1) Go out and get a little notebook. I like the smaller moleskines since I'm a bit rough on notebooks and they have a leather cover, but you can get small, pocket-sized notebooks at Target or Wal-Mart in packs of 2 for $2.

2) Get a Decent Pen. My favorites are UniBall Signos, preferably in blue so that I can use them for editing proofs if need be. They write smoothly and retract, which prevents mishaps like your Pilot V5 leaking all over your jeans pocket because you forgot to put the cap back on (I still wear those pants like a badge of honor to this day).

Once you have both, carry them around with you everywhere. Get into the habit of writing those ideas down. Even if the idea seems stupid, or it's a joke, or just a line of dialogue, write everything down in that notebook.

Before you know it, you'll be using the other notebook in the two pack.

"Hey Gramps, (since I'm sure all of the kids still go around calling thirty-year-olds "Gramps") I have something called a smart phone." Yes, yes--I'm well aware. I have one too. I even use it sometimes if I can get enough light and my reading glasses to sit just right...

Admittedly, I don't carry around a notebook often for this specific reason--I have something to capture ideas near me pretty much twenty-four hours a day.

But let me ask you: you also have a smartphone with you constantly, but how many notes have you taken with it? How many voice memos have you dashed off to yourself all this time? A few? Maybe?

That's what I thought.

The whole point of this exercise is to get you to carry the notebook around as a reminder that you should be jotting ideas down. Only after you have that beaten into you by months of carrying notebooks around should you wean yourself off of it and go back to using your phone to take notes.

Um..."Book Ideas?"

Right! Now that you've started taking down copious, insightful, hilarious notes, you should have plenty of them. Or maybe you've always had a great premise for a novel, but didn't know where to start or where it would go.

That's totally fine.

The next step is figuring out how you can put together an entire book relying on some of those disjointed, seemingly unrelated ideas that you're writing down. More appropriately: you have a premise, so how do you fill it in with ideas.

Non-Fiction Books: Make an Outline

Outlines are the lifeblood of non-fiction books. It's the rare non-fiction piece that can be insightful and entertaining without an outline. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one of the few that comes to mind, and that's about a lunatic genius who gets hopped up on all kinds of drugs and hallucinates 3/4ths of the book, anyway.

Outlines work in non-fiction for a good reason: they're a great way to organize your thoughts into a cogent whole. Heading, subheading, supporting points. BOOM! Each chapter gets its own heading. If you decide to go with a traditional publisher, they'll want to see an outline anyway. Outline, outline, outline.

If you find yourself stuck after three or so ideas for chapters, don't worry: all that means is that you need to focus your idea harvesting for the next few days, weeks, months, etc. Think about the book whenever you have free time in short, directed microbursts. What could you provide that would be helpful to your readers?

That raises another good point: ultimately non-fiction comes down to one thing: value.  What kind of value are you giving your reader? Especially in a world where tons of great content is available for free, how will you make your stuff stand out?

Fiction: Plotter vs. Pantser

No, that heading doesn't refer to what you think it least I don't think so...

Fiction writers tend to fall into two camps. There are those who plot out every twist and turn ahead of time, writing incredibly detailed outlines to the point that they just need to "fill in the blanks" come writing time.

Then, there are those of us who prefer to create characters and throw them in a situation, with little or no idea of how the book is going to end, and see what happens.

As you can probably tell, I tend more toward that "seat of my pants" style of writing, as do Stephen King and Dean Wesley Smith. Joe Konrath is more of a "plotter," writing meticulous outlines for his thrillers and mysteries.

While it's absolutely true that I'm a "pantser," I still find that I write better when I have a loose idea of where I'm going to go. Most importantly, I often need a mental picture of a book's final scene to keep me going (no worries, JWATT readers, I can tell you exactly how books 2 and 3 are going to end right now, if you put a gun to my head. Please don't, though...).

So as a crutch, before I start, I make what is called a "mind map" to keep the story chugging along should I get stuck. To the right, I've put up a picture of a mind map for a story in my forthcoming Debt of Souls series that I decided not to write. I've been using these things since high school--for whatever reason, my brain learns better following the trail of bubbles from start to finish.

I'm not terribly loyal to these mind maps; probably 75% of the stuff in them makes it to the page. Nonetheless, they're there in case I hit a roadblock or get bogged down in a scene.

Then again, like DWS, you might get bored if you know where a story is going before you start, or, like Konrath, you might feel lost without an outline. I tried outlining, and it was far too constraining. I've tried going the other way and not mind-mapping at all, but my brain seems to come up with the last scene of the story shortly after I start anyway.

I'd suggest trying both approaches, seeing what works better for you, and going with that.


"Homework? Boo!" Fine--go ahead being one of the millions of people like younger me who whines and complains about wanting to write a book without actually ever doing it.

Do some prep work on your idea. If it's a non-fiction book, write a detailed outline of your idea. Try to anticipate questions that others might have along the way and answer those in your prose.

If you have an idea for a fiction book, try outlining it or mind-mapping it before starting. Some people like doing character sketches--I've found these to be a waste of time for me, but others swear by them. Fiction writing is a lot more of an art than a science. Keep that in mind as you start to put fingers to keyboard.

Do you have any writing tips that help you? Leave them in the comments.

Next time: tools of the trade.

 D.J. Gelner is a fiction and freelance writer from St. Louis, Missouri. Check out his books, available at his Amazon Author Page and on Nook, iBooks, and Kobo. Follow him on twitter (@djgelner) or facebook (here). E-mail him at


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