Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Starting Before the Beginning

So, regular readers know I am a bit obsessed with basketball. We had some wonderful friends in town last night and so I DVR'd the game and then set about trying to block out the outside world throughout dinner. I turned off my cell phone. I put my computer in an out of reach place. I had my girlfriend scout out the downstairs of the restaurant for TVs before I ventured down to the restroom (yes, she's wonderful. Also understanding.) And it worked..... until we were walking around outside and I looked into a bar and happened to see a bigscreen TV showing Billy Donovan with a net around his neck. A;LKDJF;LAKJF I about fainted on the sidewalk. Nooooooooo!! Anyway, congrats to the Gators, even if I didn't get to be surprised by the win. I still watched the game when I got home.

Anyway, the advice given in this blog has been mostly devoted to the art of the query letter, but really, that is putting the cart before the donkey. Aspiring writers agonize over query letters, they strive to make publishing contacts, they pour their time and energy into getting their book published. But actually, the absolute most crucial decision you can make as a writer happens before you take out your pen and write down, "Once upon a time in Borneo." The most important decision happens when you decide what you're going to write about.

Too many people assume that good writing is all you need, and believe what you write about isn't so important as how you write. Such thinking results not only in meandering 200,000 treatises on the peculiarity of our contemporary mores, but also in more mundane and unoriginal plots that aren't well thought through and thus, no matter how good the writing is, they are a tough prospect to sell. To put it short: You need a good idea.

When you're considering what to write about, you have to start with the assumption that everyone you're up against in the slush pile can write -- it's your idea that will set you apart. This may seem like really obvious advice, but an unoriginal or not-good-enough book idea is the basis for approximately 90% of my rejections. In a story-saturated world where it seems like every original idea is already taken, really great story ideas are very rare and precious. I find it much more agonizing to reject someone with a really great idea where the writing isn't there than I do passing on a project with great writing where there isn't a solid enough idea. I think this is because it's so hard to find a great idea. They're as rare as an intelligent conversation on The Hills.

So what can you do? One way to test your idea before you start writing is to tell it to someone out loud. If, after a short description, someone genuinely, involuntarily responds, "Wow, that's a great idea," you're onto something. If you have to include the caveat, "Well, anyway, it sounds boring but really, it's all about the writing," you might want to add some monkeys to the plot.


sex scenes at starbucks said...

You and your monkeys.

Len said...

I've long said that art does two things: It enlightens and entertains. And if you can only do one of the two, pick entertainment.

Annalisa said...

My dad does the same thing as you tried to do, but with not just basketball but also baseball and football. He records the game, does something else, and valiantly avoids radio, the Internet, and my brother so he can watch the game without knowing how it ended. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Actually, he also did this when the four of us were trying to read the fourth Harry Potter book at the same time (each of us would read a chapter and pass it on, unless one of us cheated, which we did). If any of us mentioned Harry Potter he'd cover his ears and shout, "No, no spoilers!"

The fact that good ideas are so rare is very sad for me, because I don't get many of them. It's so much easier to improve your writing than to become an idea machine. At least, that's what I've found.

How does one learn how to create good ideas? I only have a few guesses, which are these: read a lot, live a lot, and write a lot. Is that right? Because if there's some kind of fruit or vitamin supplement that gives good ideas, I'm totally on it.

rkcooke said...

This may be the single best piece of blogvice I've ever read.



Christopher M. Park said...

Wonderfully put, as always.

Oh, and Annalisa:
I've heard it said that all great novels are based on at least two great ideas, and I fully subscribe to that. I really doubt there is any single great idea out there that has not already been tred over many times before (depending on what you feel constitutes a single idea, I guess).

Finding unexpectedly brilliant combinations of elements for your story is probably the best way to come up with those killer ideas. After all, a school for wizards is a bit ho-hum. So is the "chosen one" motif. And the idea of a society of unusual people, living behind the veil of normal society... done and done again. Orphan stories have been done for hundreds of years. But put all these ideas together, plus many more and good writing, and you get Harry Potter.

Look at any great work of fiction, and you'll find numerous ideas both large and small that didn't necessarily go together before the work was written. Some genre fiction breaks this rule, just focusing in on a single idea, but the cream of the crop always combines elements in unexpected ways.

Just my thoughts; hopefully that is of some help.


Liz said...

I think Chris has hit the proverbial nail on the head. The twists are what add flavor and texture to those universal stories we've all read, watched and loved.

People are unique. We come with quirks and history. Interesting, offbeat characters forced to deal with odd situations are fun to read about...over and over.

Dot said...

I know what you're saying about good writing v. good ideas is true for debut novels. I do. I'm not wild about the fact that great writing isn't enough, but I accept the chilly truth of it.

But don't you find as a reader that you're drawn to great writing first? When I find a writer whose work I adore, it's because of his or her voice, and I want to read everything that person has written. The plot ideas have nothing or little to do with me continuing to read that person's work.

But I suppose that's the difference between already being established and trying to break through?

Mary Paddock said...

Well said.

Annalisa, Christopher Moore (author of "Lamb") once told a writer who was agonizing over whether to move on to the next project or continue editing her first finished (and really awful) attempt at a book that a good writer is always listening for stories. They are everywhere--in people's conversations, in history books, in the news. You just have to pay attention--consider the possible and the impossible and always wonder about what you're not being told (the rest of the story). He recommended writing the idea down when it arrives (unless you're driving, he added--then simply make a mark in the dust on the dashboard). If you do this, then you'll soon find that you hear (good) story ideas everywhere.

A Writress said...

This is of course why writers would love to get to pitch their ideas to agents rather than write 120,000 words, rewrite and cut down to 95,000, revise to perfect those, query, query, query, only to get a form reject or even worse - getting the response that says "Love the writing, but the idea is not really all it should be"...


Twill said...

I'm with both Dot and writress on this one. The reason you follow certain writers is not because their ideas are necessarily different, just because they have really interesting turns on existing ideas, or really good ways of expressing them, or bump multiple ideas together in interesting combinations. Or (more often) write characters so compelling that you just have to see what they are up to.

Shortage of ideas has never been an issue with me. They fall off the trees, for Yog's sake, and compost all over my yard.

I'm wondering what Nathan means when he says "idea", though. Is he talking about high concepts, set pieces, premises, themes, or what?

Bernita said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nathan Bransford said...


You make a very good point about being established vs. breaking in, and it's one I couldn't find a way to address in the main point. ULYSSES wasn't James Joyce's first novel, and INFINITE JEST wasn't David Foster Wallace's first novel. Jonathan Lethem started with science fiction. The types of works you can write after you're established are much different, and it's important to look at how people broke in. Odds are it wasn't with a novel that depended solely on style to succeed.

I'd read Don Delilo writing a phone book, but that's only because I know who he is and how well he writes. For a first novel, I'm sold by an idea.

And Twill-

Unfortunately my concept of "idea" is intentionally vague. It's just something, hopefully a great plot but not necessarily, that sets your book apart and makes it unique. It's hopefully something that will make people go "huh" and want to pick it up to read more.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I do think getting hung up on one idea and one project is a huge hindrance. The industry term "first novel" is a misnomer. I don't know many writers worth their salt who don't have a few trunk novels under their belts.

Without going into yet another diatribe about the value of writing short stories, I'll just say most good writers have LOTS of ideas and many are working on more than one at a time.

I am currently revising a novel, trying to sell another, and drafting yet another, all while working on my zine and enlarging my stable of short stories. Immerse yourself in various pursuits of your craft, and you're sure to hit upon a selling idea at some point.

Anonymous said...

I don't like being the dissident (I love it actually) but if a writer doesn't have ideas, he or she should become a journalist. Expressing new and innovative ideas is the purpose of a novelist.

But it's not the writers who decide which ideas get published, is it Nathan? It's the publishing industry and its gatekeepers who decide.

So please don't blame us writers for insipid stories--it ain't us, baby.

Love the blog.

Annalisa said...

Thanks for your responses, Mary Paddock and Chris! I have a lot to think about now. I do tend to go around living my life and finding stories. I notice an odd-looking couple walking together, overhear a funny argument between mother and son, I chat with a woman on the bus about her four adopted retarded children (true story) and squirrel it away for later use. My problem right now is using those ideas in the most deft, powerful way possible. And like Chris said, I think the key (or one of them) must be combining several great ideas in an excellent way. It really drives home the idea that you have to write in order to become good at writing.

Thanks for giving me so much to think about.

KingM said...

I missed this earlier because I was out of town, but this is great advice and I learned it the hard way. I too had those novels that elicited lukewarm response of the, "Good writing, so-so idea" variety.

Came up with an idea that everyone loved and bent all my writing talents to its execution and the difference was night and day. I had my pick of several agents.

j h woodyatt said...

"After all, a school for wizards is a bit ho-hum. So is the "chosen one" motif. And the idea of a society of unusual people, living behind the veil of normal society... done and done again. Orphan stories have been done for hundreds of years."

Wow, way to downsell that one. After reading that summary, I'm about ready to stab myself in the eyes to keep from having to read it.

thoughtful1 said...

Lots to think about here. I have been musing over the previous blogs about favorite characters and influential characters and thinking that maybe it is not just the idea but the people we fall for that makes a novel great. Too obvious? Well, I love ideas. But most of mine seem to come in small tasty kernels that don't go too far. Right now this whole issue of idea is my focus. I am a total newbie at this. Do I need to cast new ideas again and again into my writing pool? Or do I say to myself, this idea matters to me and attack the one idea again and again from different angles to try and develop it into a stream of characters and plot.

Lisa said...

Well, the monkeys that I've told about my story idea reacted with more happy chattering and less poo flinging. Now the trick is to write it while they're cavorting about.

(Thank you for this advice. I'm watching friends agonize over query letters and I'm still sorting out the final details for my story and thinking I'm going about it all wrong. Maybe not.)

Brian said...

James Patterson was once a great writer. His early Alex Cross novels sang. When I received two of his recent novels as Christmas presents I expected great reads.

Wow. The ideas were thin and totally unsupported. The writing was hack at best. Too harsh, you say?

Cross Country is almost a farce, a tv soap in disguise of a novel. Everyone else of consequence gets injured or killed because Cross does everything out of character to support a plot based on very dubious politics.

Okay, I thought, what about Run For Your Life then? Same thing, almost, but with a new "hero".

These two books showed me two things. I'll suspend plot or "idea" quibbles if the writing sings. Or I'll glide over lumpy writing if the idea is compelling.

But I will no longer trust "From the World's Bestselling Thriller Writer" tag line on a Patterson cover.

Anonymous said...

Hi guys...

One thing I heard is that once you have an idea...Boy meets girl, loses girl, gets girl back...then think about where to place that story and it might open up new ideas or flesh it out more.

Boy meets an archealogical dig. Can you picture more to that story. Inthe Arctic (maybe it's cruise liner in Alaska)...In the Swiss Alps...

Take your idea and place it in a series of locations - and see if one pops.


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