Tuesday, April 10, 2012

5 Signs Your Idea Would Make A Good Novel

First up, a little house cleaning! Here's what's new in the world of Rachel since last week:

Ok, now that's out of the way, let's talk writing.

In my post on plotting, I gave a lot of time to the idea of making sure you're writing the right book. I thought this was a pretty obvious step, but a lot of people wrote to ask how you can tell if an idea is strong enough to carry a book. My usual answer to this question was the vague and hand-wavy "you just can!" but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this response is a) stupid and b) wrong. 

True, I can usually just feel when an idea is right, but this isn't some magical writer-fairy intuition, it's experience. I've been writing for about 8 years now. In that time, I've started a lot of books, way more than I've finished. By this point, I've tripped up enough that I can get a pretty good feel for whether or not an idea is book-worthy as soon as I start the planning process.

Now, there's no reason you should have to go through eight years of false starts to build your own sense of whether or not a book will fly. The whole point of my writing posts has always been to save other people from my mistake. So, with that in mind, I sat down and had a good long think about how I actually know if an idea can hold up all the way through a novel. As it turns out, there are a few signs all my ideas that made it to finished books had in common, and now, without further ado, here they are.

5 Signs Your Idea Would Make A Good Novel

1. You can not stop thinking about it
You know how sometimes you get an idea that your brain will simply not shut up about? You think about it all the time, talk people's ears off about it, and get bouncing up and down excited at the possibilities the story/world/character throws at you. These are the marks of a really good idea. You know when book blurbs say "a story to capture the imagination?" Yeah, that's what just happened to you. Your imagination was captured. This is gooooood. 

An idea that can capture you so fully is an idea worth exploring. Maybe it's not a full novel yet, maybe it's just a world or a magical system or even a character. Whatever it is, save it. You've got a winner. Think of it as a spark, a flavor you can build a cake on or use in combination with other winning ingredients. 

Don't make the mistake of thinking every one of these ideas has to be its own book. The Eli books are actually a combination of several could-not-stop-thinking-about-it ideas. What you have is a hook, don't be afraid to blend it together with other favorite ideas until you have a concoction of pure win. 

You'll know it's ready when it starts writing itself, which leads us to...

2. It writes itself
This is part and partner with the can't-stop-thinking-about-it idea. Often, I'll know a story is a keeper when I start writing scenes in my head without really trying. When you've got characters talking on their own or dramatic events unfolding right before your eyes, that's a good sign. 

If these characters or events don't have a home yet, sit down and start figuring out where they come from. Or, better yet, try putting them into one of those settings you couldn't stop thinking about. Remember, you're just playing around. Nothing is final yet. See what mad alchemy you can create. Often, a little bit of world building is all it takes to cement the scenes that write themselves into the corner stones of a great novel. 

3. World building is fun, not work
This is more of a warning flag than a sign. Say you have an idea you're really excited about, but as you start putting down the basics, you start getting bored. Danger, Will Robinson! You are the author, you are god, if a god is bored with her creation, then something is very, very wrong. 

This isn't necessarily the death of your idea, though. After all, you were excited about the idea at one point. If you find yourself getting bored while world building, stop and try to figure out why. Are you working on a part of the novel that doesn't actually matter, or is there a fundamental flaw in your idea? 

World building is pure creation, and while it's not always manic writing excitement, it should always be fun. If you're not having fun, that can be the sign this idea isn't all you thought it was. However, if you're having such a great time you catch yourself going off and writing up things just for the fun of it, that's a great sign and a good indicator that this idea is worthy of being a book.

4. You can see the finished product
Lots of times when I am super excited about a book, I can already see the finished product in my mind. I can see the sort of cover I want, where it would sit in the bookstore, even the reviews. Most of this is wishful thinking of course (Why, Mr. Gaiman, I'm so delighted you liked my book!), but hey, I'm a fantasy author. Wishful thinking is my biz! 

The important part of this step is the idea of completion. It's easy to get lost in exciting ideas and characters who write themselves, but the most important deciding factor for me of whether or not a book can actually stand is whether or not I can hold the whole of the final product in my mind. Can I see the sweep of the series? Do I know what the next book is going to be about? Is this a stand alone? 

For example, I knew almost from the beginning that Eli was going to be a 5 book series. I didn't know what the plot of each book was, but I knew there would be one for each character. I could see the arc of the story, see roughly where my meta plot would need to start really coming in. If you can look at your idea and see roughly what it will be when you finish, even if you turn out to be completely wrong, that is a good sign that you've got a fully fledged story.

5. You can easily list why other people would want to read your book
This one is the trickiest and most subjective, but it's also the most commercial of the signs. When you try to sell a book to a publisher, an agent, or directly to the public, you're asking someone to spend their money (because remember, time is money) on your idea. You're saying "my book is worth your reading," and if you're going to make that kind of bold statement, you have to believe it yourself, and more, you have to know exactly why your book is worth reading.

If you can look at your potential story and immediately see what is good, unique, compelling, exciting, and fresh about it, without lying to yourself (First Rule of Thievery, the only person you have to be honest with is yourself), then you can safely say you've got a real winner on your hands. Go write that book!

There, I hope that's a better answer to the question. Thanks as always for reading!
- Rachel 


Unknown said...

Such good insights! Thank you for sharing crumbs with us minions. :)

unsocialized homeschooler said...

YES! Thanks so much for posting these signs! Now I know for sure to carry on with a lot of my stories...they may be good enough to turn into a good novel!
You are excellent at writing advice for writers!!! :D

Rachel Aaron said...

Haha, glad they're helpful!

Anonymous said...

Great post! I always am in a writing mood after reading your inspirational blog! :)

N. R. Williams said...

Hi Rachel,
I came over from Nas Deen's blog. I love your advice and I'll be linking to more than one post on my blog. I am so behind because of a long illness. Today was the first day I was able to write. So, I need to practice your triangle and get caught up.

LycoRogue said...

I've been beta-reading for an online friend since last December and recently she's had this thought nagging at her about an original work (we both usually write fanfiction). I went down your checklist and based on what she's told me I was able to go "yes" to each point! I instantly sent her the link to this post and told her to get her butt in gear and write some more! Thanks for the help. :D