So you want to write a novel, but you don’t have a story yet. Everything you think of has been done before. What do you do?
Gavin posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I’m halfway through reading your ‘writing fiction for dummies’ book and I felt the urge to contact you for advice on what I hope is a common issue for many aspiring writers.
I say ‘hope’ because I hope you have the answer
Essentially I want to write a novel, but I have no storyline. Anytime I concoct a storyline in my head it feels stereotypical / not unique. On my computer I have Snoflake Pro open and an MS word document open. Both empty but for a blinking cursor.
I suspect i am suffering from having not discovered my creative paradigm as you describe. I purchased your Snowflake Pro with the belief it underpinned the logical approach I take to nearly everything I do. I seem to be drawing a blank though.
It may be an impossible question to answer, but do you have any tips or methods to share in terms of how does one decide on what story they want to tell.
Not unreasonably, your book and software probably assumes the reader has a storyline, so the more I progress through the book the more I feel I am not ready to progress. Sometimes I feel there are concepts in the book where it would be infinitaley easier had I nailed my storyline already.
I guess the one-liner here is “you know you want to write, but you don’t know what to write about”. Is there a method to even narrow it down?
The genres that interest me are Spy, Thriller, Military, Private Eye stuff. I feel this where I belong based on my own interests and fairly average military background.
The story-world time period also seems to present a challenge. Modern day stuff feels so saturated and unless you are Tom Clancy probably difficult to research. World War II era would be easier to research and I already have alot of foundation knowledge in that area, but I am bit skeptical on the market demand for WWII Fiction. My childhood fantasy world consisted of a private eye scenario with a dingy office and a hot assistant, and whilst I get a surge of creativity down this line, it feels so overdone. In some ways it is all a bit intimidating. Perhaps it is just a state of mind I need to get into whereby it doesn’t matter?
I don’t know, is the answer that ‘overdone’ is OK? There is always a market for the overdone as long as you can do it well? If I went down this path is it recommended to at least identify and implement a differentiator or variation?
In any event, I hope these questions are not inappropriately soliciting free consulting but I have grown to view your book as my early mentor and as a result felt comfortable enough to pose the question. Ironically, writing this email has helped me somewhat but I would truly value your insight.
Thanks and Best Regards.
Randy sez: Wow, that’s a long question, Gavin. Actually, at least two questions, if I’m not mistaken. Fortunately, both of them have short answers.
The first question has to do with originality. What if the story you want to write has been done before? The answer to that is, welcome to reality. Every story idea has been done before at some level. Your problem is to find a way to do a story that’s been done before in a way that hasn’t been done before. That’s the problem every author has every time they sit down to write a new novel.
I wouldn’t worry about this too much. Even if it’s been done before, take it and run with it and see what you come up with. An old story can seem very different if it’s got a fresh new character or a different storyworld or some new spark that makes it unique. Sometimes, that new spark only comes as you write. This is especially true for seat-of-the-pants writers, but I think it’s true for all of us. Most of my ideas come to me while I’m actually writing the first draft. Yes, even when I’ve got the high-level plan for the book mapped out. That’s not a bad thing, it’s a good thing.
The second question is this one, which I quote: “you know you want to write, but you don’t know what to write about”. Gavin, I think the solution to this is to read more. You know in general the sort of story you want to write, but you don’t know exactly what yet. You have no story burning a hole in your brain begging to get out.
So go read a bunch more books. Nothing inspires me like reading a new author or a new genre. If writing fiction is in your blood, then at some point you’ll find a book or an author and you’ll say, “Man, I’d like to write a story kind of like that, only way different.” And then you’ve got something you can run with.
But what if that never happens? What if you never get obsessed with an idea for a story? In that case, my guess is that writing fiction is not in your blood, and it might be best to try something else. There are many other ways to be happy in life than by writing fiction.
At some point while I was in graduate school working on my Ph.D. in physics, I realized that I’d never be really happy unless I gave myself the chance to write one particular story. It’s a long story that has so far spanned several novels and still isn’t complete, but it will be someday.
If that never happens to you, Gavin, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. But it might mean that you aren’t cut out to be a fiction writer. If that’s the case, then there’s some other thing you can do with your life that you’ll love far more than writing fiction.
If you’re a novelist, the one thing you can’t do without is passion for your story. Without passion, nothing you write will be good. With it, you won’t be able to keep yourself from writing.
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.