How to Write a Novel: Where Writers Get Their Ideas

how to write a novelWhile writing a novel may take up a decent chunk of your life, authors of these voluminous tomes still seem like wizards—how do they do it? One look at a bookshelf may seem intimidating at first glance and you might feel worried that you’ll never be able to join the club to write a novel of your own.

The reality is that thousands of people write the darn things. The question you may be after is: where do writers get their ideas? In this article, we’ll take a look at some thought experiments and expert know-how from those who’ve gone the distance and lived to tell about it.

First, a Thought Experiment

Before we hear what the experts have to say, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on novels in general. Suppose you’re talking with a friend and you want to tell them about the last great novel you read. Chances are, unless you want to bore them to tears, you simply tell them a condensed, one-sentence version of what you read. Let’s take Henry Miller’s famously-banned novel, Tropic of Cancer. Could you sum it up in one sentence before I excuse myself? I think you can. Here’s my one-liner:

“One man’s explicit stream-of-consciousness narrative as he makes his way as a lovesick American expatriate in early 20th-century France.”

THE END. That sums up the plot, the tone, the subject matter, the setting, the protagonist, and so forth. Plus, it keeps your buddy in his/her seat so s/he can buy the next round.

That one-sentence description describes Tropic of Cancer pretty well. In fact, the rest of the novel is simply expounding upon this theme. Everything else relies upon Miller’s story-telling skills. My point is that, given this writing prompt, could you tell a compelling story? Henry Miller was notoriously autobiographical, leaving no detail left unturned, but the fact still remains that the idea of novel came from his own personal experience. That personal experience fuels the novel, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be the focal point. The focal point is, essentially, what the rest of the novel is based around.

Similarly, a novel like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is based around an idea of the future in which books are banned. Chances are that Bradbury didn’t time-travel, nor did he live amongst those times. However, he did build the story around a one-sentence description: “What would happen to society if a totalitarian state decided to eradicate all written knowledge for the ‘public good’?” Several thousand words later, that provocative one-sentence description leads us to an “inevitable” conclusion.

My point is that, despite these two seemingly-disparate authors having different plots and styles, the nucleus of the story revolves around a central idea. While Miller may have a memoir-esque quality to his work and Bradbury chose a more speculative “what if” style, both authors probably arrived at the same point: I’ve got an idea and I want to base a story around it.

The rest is just craftsmanship.

Don’t believe me? Well, let’s take a deeper look with one of the 20th centuries most popular authors.

On Writing

If you haven’t had the opportunity yet, I suggest you do yourself a favor and read Stephen King’s great resource on his own writing methodology, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Don’t worry, it’s free. In this candid how-to guide peppered with interesting anecdotes, King explains every part of the process of writing a novel. He leaves no stone left unturned, from the laborious editing process to where he gets his ideas for novels. For someone with such a prolific and haunting mind, he explains it in his typical matter-of-fact fashion: ideas come from everywhere.

For example, his first major success, Carrie, was inspired by seeing the girl’s locker room for the first time while a coworker explained to him the responsibilities of his summer janitorial job. When the memory of the girl’s changing room came back to him at another yet custodial job, the inspiration was set. All he had to do was write the rest of it.

Another time, he stopped off for gas on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, only to nearly fall into the river when his curious nature got the best of him after using the bathroom. Sliding down an ice-covered embankment after taking in his surroundings, he grabbed onto a discarded piece of machinery to save himself from being dragged away by a nearby river. The fall set a realization into his mind: what would happen to his car should he so suddenly disappear?

That’s how From a Buick Eight was born.

Even by his own admission, he had none of the rest of the story, nor had he any knowledge of how the details of the story should go. However, the one-sentence takeaway was so strong in his mind that the rest of the story materialized.

Do yourself a favor and read On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

Another Thought Experiment

Steven King may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the man certainly knows how to churn ‘em out. It is my belief that most beginner writers get hung-up on the craft when they should be thinking of where these stories come from. The answer is pretty clear:

Everything is fair game.

Essentially, you’re story-telling in a long-form. How you choose to convey the story and get your point (or lack of one) across to the reader is dependent on your imagination and your skill. This same concept of building something from nothing is akin to how musicians describe writing an entire song based off of a title. Form comes later, like a slow-cooking kettle on the backburner and almost as an afterthought.

Where do writer get their ideas? From everywhere. You might find yourself jiggling change at a laundromat’s soap dispenser and an idea strikes like lightning. Where do ideas come from? We don’t know. God? Personal experience? An artistic sensibility? Who knows, but the idea (or the ideas) remains the same: it comes from pursuing a central theme and providing a medium (the other words of the novel) that can transmit that idea to a reader.

Everything else is just craft, skill, and tenacity.

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