Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

How to choose an idea for a novel

With National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) just days away, here's an excerpt from How to Write a Novel: 47 Rules for Writing a Stupendously Awesome Novel That You Will Love Forever, on sale now!

Rule #2: Think of an idea you love enough to neglect everything else you enjoy in life

The first step in writing a novel is deciding what in the heck you’re going to write about.

There are many horrible reasons for choosing what you’re going to write about, and only one correct reason.

The horrible reasons are almost always variations of one basic and colossal mistake, which is that you are choosing a particular idea because you think it will make you mountains of money.

Visions of endless mahogany bookshelves, of sparkling blingety bling, and of being featured in the New York Times Book Review with the headline “Wunderkind” motivates writers to do many ill-advised things, but perhaps the worst is when they cause writers to chase trends. Take this one to heart: if you’re chasing a trend (vampires! post-apocalyptic!), you’re already too late. (See Rule #7, if you are feeling particularly stubborn on this point.)

Avarice is what motivates people to write in genres they don’t particularly like. It pushes them to choose ideas that they don’t love enough to make it all the way through the writing of the novel. It’s what makes an already difficult process completely impossible.

Let’s get this out of the way: you’re not going to make mountains of money writing books. You’re not. You’re really, really not.

Okay. Well. Some of you will make mountains of money, but you’re most certainly not going to make mountains of money if you are setting out to try and make mountains of money.

The only reason for choosing something to write about is because you love the crap out of the idea.

When you’re choosing an idea for a novel, you’re choosing something you are going to be spending more time with than many of your best friends and your most demanding family members. You’re choosing an idea that will render your bathing habits irregular and your sanity patchy. You’re making a terrifically important decision that will shape the next six months to seventeen years of your life. You have to choose wisely.

In other words, it can’t be an idea you merely like.

Liking an idea will get you to page fifty. It will give you an initial burst of enthusiasm— a dawning feeling of “Hemingway’s daiquiri, I can do this!”—before you inevitably lose interest, your attention wanders, and you find yourself with an unfinished novel that you feel vaguely embarrassed about.

Liking is not enough.

You have to love the idea of your novel. Or if not your plot idea, then your main character, your setting, or some part of your novel that will sustain you through painful bouts of self-doubt and distraction.

How do you get to love?

Well, it’s tricky. Here are some ways not to choose your idea:

Don’t listen to what other people say you should write about 
It has become a fashionable conversational crutch to reward a particularly funny or gruesome anecdote, such as a harrowing encounter with baggage claim or an apocalyptic string of bad dates, with the words, “OMG, you should totally write a book about that.”

Do not listen to these people. Unless the person telling you to “write a book about that” is a publishing professional, assume the person uttering these words is merely being polite and is not looking out for your best writerly interests.

Do not write the novel you think you should write
Maybe you grew up in an interesting locale. Maybe you’ve had a Dickensian biography. Maybe your ability to dress kittens in capes is hailed far and wide.

Set it aside. You’re not going to get to your best idea by marking off checklists or by applying an algebraic equation to your life that goes, “I experienced X and it was rather intense, so therefore I will use it as inspiration to write about Y.”

That’s not to say that your real life can’t influence your central idea and the contents of your novel. After all, what is the point of writing a novel if not to settle old grudges by taking veiled swipes at people who have wronged you? But, it’s important to stop yourself from chasing after an idea by shaking your biography like a piggy bank to see what shiny things fall out. If this happens naturally, and you love an idea that is based on your own life, then absolutely go for it. Just don’t do it out of a sense of obligation or because it is the default choice when you fail to think of something else.

You’re not going to find your idea with a formula, and it’s not going to be immediately self-evident. It has to come to you.

Do not try to think of an idea so unbelievably original it has never even remotely been thought of before
I get it. You don’t want to imitate. You want to chart new ground and be the most brilliantly original new-thinking writer the literature world has ever seen.

Good luck.

Sure, maybe you’re a once-in-a-generation visionary who can conceive of whole genres that have somehow eluded the billions of people who have lived on this planet before you.

But you’re probably not. No offense.

Besides, even if completely new ideas weren’t logistically borderline impossible, they are also highly overrated. There were wizard schools before Harry Potter. There were mystical lands before The Lord of the Rings. There were helicopters with dorky names before Fifty Shades of Grey.

You don’t need to chase the trends that are already out there, but neither do you need a completely off-the-wall and unheard-of new idea that will astound everyone you meet. You do need a unique spin and a unique world that are completely yours.

Just don’t paralyze yourself by trying to break every mold.

So how do you get to the right idea?

By listening to yourself. By keeping the thought in the back of your head that you’re waiting for a really good idea for a novel. By eavesdropping on the people around you to see what inspires you. By letting your mind wander in the shower. By silently thinking, night and day, that you want to write a novel and that you are merely waiting for the right idea.

As you do this, you’re priming your brain for inspiration. You’re opening yourself up to the world so that the right plot hook or character will flow into you. With every insight you have and every life realization you make, ask yourself: Could this make a novel? Is there something here?

And 99.9% of the time the answer will be, “No, you idiot, that would make a horrendous novel.”

Keep asking. You only need that answer to be “yes” just once.

Along the way, you will likely have many false starts and hollow loves. You might not find your idea on the first try. You might start and stop writing a few novels, and you’ll start to wonder if you have commitment issues.

Don’t worry. This is not evidence of your inability to write a novel any more than that apocalyptic string of dates was evidence that you are unfit for marriage. You just have to keep at it.

When you do find the right idea, you’ll know it. You’ll just know. It will beat you over the head with its rightness and make you feel like you’re skipping through a tulip field while hugging a puppy, because you will have finally found an idea you love enough to turn into a novel.

You may still wonder whether you have enough talent, whether you can really do it, whether you can find the time or whether you will ever get anyone to read it, but your faith in your novel will be unshakeable. And then you can get started writing it.

Does this process sound daunting? Well, buckle up, champ. This was the easy part.

Read the rest of How to Write a Novel: 47 Rules for Writing a Stupendously Awesome Novel That You Will Love Forever. On sale for just $4.99 at:

Amazon Kindle
Apple iBooks
B&N Nook


MaryZ said...

I love my idea so much that I can't wait for NaNoWriMo to start on Nov. 1. The idea I love comes from something I hate.

treeoflife said...

I just purchased your new book on Kindle, and am pretty excited to dig into it! I've enjoyed your blog for years and I don't doubt this book will be one of the bestsellers in the genre.

Christi G said...

Although I completely understand that many writers aren't necessarily in love with their books the during the entire writing process (yes, it can be frustrating), I have trouble understanding why someone would start writing a novel they didn't LOVE. That initial passion is what keeps you writing. Thanks for sharing this excerpt! I'm looking forward to diving into your book!

Neurotic Workaholic said...

Very informative and helpful post! And I definitely agree that the idea has to be something that you're passionate about. The topic for my OTHER book (my dissertation) is something that I'm less passionate about (or maybe it's the dissertation itself that I don't like), which makes the whole process of writing about it much less enjoyable.

Anonymous said...

I have been benefitting for several weeks from your highly-acclaimed and recommended advice, which you have so generously given away.

It is well worth paying for, so I just bought the Kindle version. Your excitement and enthusiasm is contagious and inspirational. Thanks!

Julie Musil said...

Just finished this chapter this morning! I'm loving your book. Thanks for writing it!

Susie said...

Congrats on reaching number 1 on amazon in several areas! Great accomplishment!

#1 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Education & Reference > Writing, Research & Publishing Guides > Writing Skills
#1 in Books > Education & Reference > Writing, Research & Publishing Guides > Writing > Writing Skills
#2 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Nonfiction > Self-Help > Creativity

Joanna said...

I wish I'd had this book 5 years ago! Nathan, have a look at my post today:

Petrea Burchard said...

Thanks for sharing this. I was passionate about my idea for my first novel, even when I explained the premise to my friends and they stared at me, their faces blank. It's selling just fine.

But I've started two novels since then and, although I like them, I don't love them. It could be all I need is a twist to make one of them great. Or maybe I need an entirely new idea.

Okay, okay, I'll get the book! Looks like I need it.

Gretchen said...

Beautiful advice, Nathan. I love the humor you incorporate into it.

Matthew MacNish said...

I'm pretty sure Hemingway drank whiskey, but otherwise, this is spot on.

Nathan Bransford said...


Actually Hemingway's daiquiri has a long and storied history:

Jeanne said...

Hmm. What about post-apocalyptic vampire zombies? Yes? No?

No. GOOD. Because I am tired of that ilk and so glad it's off-trend. Now... to find the trend that will be the trend once the post-post-apocalyptic vampire zombie trend has passed...

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