Vicky Newham

When does an idea become a story or a novel?

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Have you ever had an idea for a story, optimistically hoped it might make a novel and then found to your dismay that it petered out? Have you tried to squeeze it, invent sub-plots, import compelling characters – only to find that it just doesn’t have any more life left in it? Conversely, have you ever started writing about a teensy idea and then found that it has mushroomed into a novel length plot? Ideas are funny like that, aren’t they? Unpredictable and unreliable.

I’ve been thinking recently about what we choose to write about and why, when we decide that a particular idea is viable as a long term project and what we do if we have a number of competing ideas.

What about you? Say you have an idea. You want to write about: a place where people are kept underground; a woman who gets the job of her dreams but turns it down and walks el camino de Santiago instead; a group of people who don’t know each other but who are all connected by a crime; a teenager whose superpower is to show others how to deal with fear. (It’s okay: they’re shit ideas. I’m just hypothesising)

Do you consider:

  • How much the idea, themes and plot interest you? After all, if you are going to write a novel, you will be spending the best part of a year with your idea.
  • How your idea and plot may fit in with the publishing landscape of the moment? Do you analyse publishing trends and try to emulate or predict what is/will be successful? It can never be a bad thing to keep an eye on the market but writing to it, seems, in my opinion, a risky endeavour. For one thing your assessment may be off, and, secondly, things change quickly.

Is it the case that some ideas will never be more than a (small?) collection of related thoughts around a theme? An image or a recollection? Or is it possible that the idea itself isn’t necessarily ‘to blame’? It’s simply that the idea itself hasn’t been given enough time and room to grow into a plot? I think that both can be true.

From what I’ve read, and heard others say, I gather that writers tend to fall into various ‘camps’ when it comes to ideas. Some say that they find it hard to get inspiration, to come up with what to write about. Others say that they have lots of ideas, often too many, and have difficulty deciding what to write about or sticking to that idea when a new one pops into their mind.

I tend to have a lot of ideas for things I want to write about. These can be things that interest me or bug me in some way. For me, writing – whether it’s fiction or non-fiction – is exploration. Of life, of my life, of people and relationships, of situations and predicaments and strange phenomena. Generally, I write down my ideas but I also forget a lot of them as they pop up at inconvenient times, for example: in the middle of the night; when I’m out with the dog; driving or in the shower. Some ideas return to me and then I know that I’m onto something. But many arise and fall away. And that’s fine.

Sometimes I find a plot forms itself around an initial idea, sometimes I have to flesh it out. I am usually itching to get writing and when this happens I write my way into the story to find out what that story is and where best to start it. This may involve simply letting the characters emerge and act and speak. If I am considering writing a novel, however, I like to map it out in my mind first and then on paper to see whether it has potential. Particularly with crime novels, I like to know that I can explain the crime(s) convincingly. Often, at this point, I can see that it’s just an idea, something which I can use for a piece of flash fiction or a short story, or maybe develop at a later date for a longer project.

Recently I’ve had to decide what I want to focus on. I needed a break from the novel I started for my dissertation. It was such an intense period of writing, re-writing, reading and more re-writing. Then NaNoWriMo came round and I was torn between using it to finish the first draft of that novel and using it to write something completely new. I had an idea for a ‘something new’ and finally plumped to write that for NaNo – and adored writing it. However, I had loved writing my dissertation novel too. When NaNo was over I finished the first draft of that novel and then faced a dilemma. Should I re-write the NaNo novel or return to the first draft of my dissertation novel?

People advised me to choose the one that touched me the most. Good advice but the difficulty was that I really like both novels. Each comes from the heart but in completely different ways. They are also different in genre. One is crime fiction, a police procedural, and one is a science fiction crime hybrid. I think that they both have potential. Neither has run out of steam (yet!). In the end I decided to go with the novel that I started for my dissertation. I know exactly why I wanted to write it. I feel as passionately about its themes as when I started writing it. Have I thought about where it might fit in the market? Of course. But my main motivation for writing it is to explore, through story, phenomena which are important to me and which I think matter in the world.

I’m not really into waiting for the muse. It’s not how I see writing. My ideas come from ‘out there’, ‘in here’ or a combination of the two. It’s simple. There are so many things in life which intrigue me and arouse my curiosity. Of course that doesn’t mean that they should all make it into a book … and they won’t.

How do you choose which ideas to run with? What do you do if you have competing ideas which you like equally? Have you ever started something and had to abandon it? Or found that something has grown beyond your expectations?

Vicky Newham © 2014

Author: Vicky Newham

Vicky Newham is a writer, living in Whitstable, Kent. She writes crime fiction, psychological thrillers and science fiction. Her main projects are novels, but she also writes short stories, flash fiction, non-fiction articles and some poetry.

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