I started October with just half of a story in my head, and that made me nervous.
This is the month to plan for November, the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). 2017 will be my sixth year writing (at least part of) a novel while thousands of people around the world are doing the same thing. While there have been years when I jumped into November with no preparation at all, I’ve found that my NaNo experience is much more successful if I do at some planning beforehand.
And thus: my worries about only half a story.
Even the simplest stories need at least two ideas to make them interesting. A one-idea story just won’t cut it. Consider, for example, if J. K. Rowling had been satisfied with a single idea:
- “Eleven-year-old Harry discovers that he’s a wizard, and heads off to wizarding school.”
I mean, that’s okay, isn’t it? It could be fun to watch as Harry attends a fantastical school, makes new friends, and learns how to cast spells and make potions and play Quidditch so on. That might’ve been an okay book. But luckily, Ms. Rowling didn’t stop there. She added a second idea to round things out:
- “The evil wizard Lord Voldemort plots Harry’s destruction as part of his return to power.”
Without He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, the Harry Potter books would be dull exercises in blah-ness. That’s because the first idea above doesn’t introduce any compelling conflict into the story, aside from the everyday kind everyone encounters in junior high and high school.
When October 1 rolled around, I had the first idea for my NaNoWriMo project, but I still hadn’t figured out the second one. In other words, I had what I thought was a cool setup, but I wasn’t really sure where the conflict would be coming from. Since November is fast approaching, I needed to do something about this, post-haste.
I tried several times to brainstorm by myself. Primarily, this involved sitting at my keyboard and banging my head against it. I tried puzzling things out during my daily runs, but no new ideas surfaced. Another technique I tried was thinking things through right before I went to bed, in the hope that I would wake up with some new inspiration.
None of this worked, so it was time to take my brainstorming to a new level.
Bringing in a Sounding Board
If you involve another person in the brainstorming process, it’s critical to find someone you trust, who will listen without judging your ideas and respond like both a reader and a writer. I chose a member of my writing group—let’s call him “Mike.” (After all, that’s his name.) I told him where I was in the process and explained what I was looking for. Then I took him to lunch, because who doesn’t love free food?
The ground rules were simple: listen to what I thought I had, and make suggestions based on two things:
- How much the possible book idea would interest you as a reader.
- How feasible the possible book idea seems to you as a writer.
By the way, it’s entirely possible to do partner brainstorming with a non-writer. Non-writer/readers are sometimes even better at this because they have an easier time focusing on what works and what doesn’t without trying to fix whatever seems broken with your idea. But I trusted Mike and decided to go for it.
I began by telling him my idea, where it came from and where I felt like it was taking me. I set out a few structural possibilities: options A and B for the main plot, options X and Y for the bad guy. We talked through the various possibilities. following them through to their logical conclusions. Some of them worked, most of them didn’t. It felt a lot like picking up puzzle pieces and test-fitting them to see if they clicked. In most cases, they didn’t. Something still wasn’t working.
Drawing a Blank
“I hope I didn’t just waste your time.”
That’s what Mike said to me as we headed back from lunch. Our hour together didn’t produce any big answers, but at least it identified the questions. At one point, Mike reminded me of the critical questions every writer should ask when formulating a novel:
- What does the main character want?
- What will hurt him the most?
- How is he going to be different from the beginning to the end?
These questions were so important, I typed them verbatim into my notes. In truth, I’d thought a little about this stuff, but I hadn’t really pondered it carefully. The questions occupied my thinking for the rest of the day, and they followed me out later that evening as I took my dog for a long walk. When I wasn’t actively considering them, I think my writer’s brain was cogitating on the problems we’d discussed. I’ll figure it out eventually, I told myself. It’s still two weeks until November.
Coming in a Flash
At around 10:15 that same night, I was curled up in my comfy chair reading someone else’s book. (One of my favorite authors has a new book out, and I’m re-reading his entire series before I crack open his latest.) The dog came in to beg for attention and suddenly it was all there—the whole plot in a flash. I got so excited, I almost fell out of the chair. On the dog.
I immediately opened up my laptop and typed out the story idea as it had come to me. The solution wasn’t any of the scenarios Mike and I had discussed at lunch. In fact, it was entirely new. But it solved all of the problems we’d agonized over, and it opened up some fun new possibilities. It was exactly what I’d been hoping for—totally worth the price of an Italian sub combo.
Once I’d slammed out my quick-and-dirty outline, I checked Facebook. Someone had just tagged me on a list of quotes from another favorite author, Neil Gaiman. This one really stood out:
“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
I never expected Mike to spoon-feed me the perfect “second idea” to round out my NaNoWriMo project. What I really hoped was that he would listen to my thoughts and then ask questions borne out of a reader’s intuition and a writer’s sensibility. I knew he would consider the possibilities I was throwing at him and give me live feedback about whether they worked for him or not.
It worked—I got my inspiration. And I still have two weeks to flesh out the ideas.
NaNoWriMo, here I come.
David Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, volunteers with young people, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play was subsequently published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.