How do you develop your idea for your novel in the earliest stages when it’s horribly unfocused and vague? Are there any steps you can take to speed up the “composting” phase?
Sarah posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I am planning my first ever writing project – a fiction novel for teens/young adults. I stumbled across your snowflake article which has been an excellent starting point, and having read that article, I can see that my idea is still “composting “. I have ideas for characters and mental glimpses of scenes, and a theme that will underpin the whole story.
As keen as I am to get started on my snowflake, I am not ready yet, and I am wondering if you have any tips to help with composting? Any tips on character development or the story pre-snowflake stage? If so, I would love to hear them.
Randy sez: A little background first on what I’ve been up to lately: I was at the ACFW conference in Dallas last week where I had a chance to hang out with about 700 novelists, editors, and agents. It was great fun and some friends of mine even cajoled me into going swing dancing with them. I also had a chance to reconnect with one of my college roommates whom I hadn’t seen in 32 years. That was really cool.
One thing that I was reminded of at the conference is this: Every writer has a different process for developing story ideas. Sarah’s question is about what to do before starting my widely used Snowflake method of designing a novel.
I should make it clear here that many writers don’t Snowflake. If you’re a seat-of-the-pants writer, you just sit down and start writing, without doing any planning, any composting. That’s OK if that’s the way your brain is wired.
I’m a slow starter, so I take forever to get started on a project. Here’s the way I do it when I’m working on a novel without any coauthors. When I think of an idea for a novel, I write down the basic idea on a pad of paper and put it in my filing cabinet under “Ideas for Novels”. Then I let it sit for years. Whenever I get more ideas for the book, I’ll take out the pad and write them down. I may discuss the idea with friends and write down their suggestions. But I don’t have a very orderly process for this phase of the project, which I call “composting.” It’s what happens in the cracks while I’m working on other projects.
Composting this way is really just slow-motion brainstorming. Sarah, if you’re not as slow as I am, you might prefer to just make time to do real brainstorming. You can do this with a group or alone.
To brainstorm in a group, get a bunch of writer friends together and tell them your basic idea for your story. Then ask them for ideas. Let them talk. You just write it all down as fast as you can scribble. You’ll get all sorts of crazy ideas. You won’t be able to use most of them. That’s OK. The idea here is to jiggle your neurons. It may be that NONE of the things your friends suggest are usable — and yet hearing them all will get your own creative juices rolling. That’s the goal.
To brainstorm by yourself, open up a document in your favorite word processor tool and give yourself a fixed amount of time — say five minutes or fifteen minutes or whatever. Then just start “freewriting”. The rule is that you have to type as fast as you can, typing whatever comes into your head without censoring. Don’t fix spelling errors. Don’t delete anything. Write like a demon, whether it makes sense or not. Fast, fast, fast, no stopping. Again, a lot of it will be completely useless. But the goal is to pick out the golden nuggets. You can do this every day or every week until you’ve got enough nuggets in place that you think you’re ready to move on to the next stage.
I’ve coauthored two novels with John Olson, and the composting we did was in a series of very intense conversations we had, either on the phone or while walking around the lake near his house. John usually set the stage by framing a question about the story that we needed to answer. I’m pretty good at generating all sorts of random and crazy and useless thoughts, most of them incoherent. John is good at synthesizing all that random nonsense into an actual idea. This usually takes quite a while. It’s not uncommon for us to talk for an hour or two and come up with only a few good ideas.
Compost is wherever you find it, Sarah. Don’t be afraid to come up with bad ideas. They’re often stepping stones to good ideas. You can compost ideas slowly, as they come to you over months or years. Or you can compost them quickly, by setting aside time specifically to compost.
As a little side note, John and I recently came up with an idea for a software tool that will help novelists compost their ideas more effectively. We’re going to build it for ourselves and then if it works well we’ll make it available to the world on our web site at a reasonable cost. This tool is still in the planning stage so I don’t have any information yet on when it might be available. But it’s something I desperately need for myself, because I’m awfully slow at composting and this tool would speed things up massively.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.