Help! I have too many book ideas!
Should I just pick one, or write them all?!
Last week, I talked about how it took me four drafts and seven years on one book to learn the difference between revising and rewriting. My agent diagnosed the problem immediately when she read my very first draft: “Michelle, this is three book ideas rolled into one.”
This is something I think that all authors deal with on some level, but especially if you’re writing a book for the first time: you decide you’re going to go for it, you’re actually going to write a novel, and it’s like you give your brain full permission to go bonkers with the creativity. All these incredible ideas come flooding in and you get so excited and it’s truly a wonderful feeling—but it can also get you into trouble.
This typically plays out in two ways.
You excitedly try to cram all of these ideas into one book, like I did.
You starting writing a book based on this idea, then you flit over to that idea, then you get THIS OTHER EVEN BETTER idea, and soon you have six opening chapters and a complete lack of desire to finish any of them.
I hate to admit it, but this is a lesson I’ve had to learn the hard way many times.
Because that story from last week? That wasn’t the last time I crammed a bunch of book ideas into one. A few years later, I started brainstorming this book I was super excited about. I spent a few months just working on developing the idea, or ideas, which included….
Something I inadvertently stole from His Dark Materials and I’m too embarrassed to even tell you what it was!
A couple whose destiny to meet was disrupted ala Back to the Future!
A character struggling with parental abandonment!
A character who is an orphan!
A character with a parent in prison!
A character who has parents but they’re terrible!
Photography with a paranormal twist!
One particular parallel universe entirely inhabited by ghosts trying to enter OUR universe!
A secret society!
A school for children with a certain secret ability!
Now, I’m not saying someone couldn’t write a book with all of those things and make it work. But I wasn’t taking a single, core idea for a story and developing it. I was taking random awesome stuff I loved and wanted to write about and cramming it all into one book.
To my credit, at least I actually realized I was doing it this time! This was about a year after my agent finally convinced me to shelve that book I talked about in my last post, and two years before I finally rewrote it and sold it.
So...I dug through my old emails because I remember one of my critique partners was a sounding board for me as I worked on this, and in one of my (insanely long) messages to her about casual loops in time travel, I said:
“But the problem now is that I keep learning cool sh** like this and I want to incorporate ALL THE THINGS and it's getting out of control.”
Good job, Past Michelle! You caught yourself. I never wrote that draft with all that stuff. Instead, I decided to look at this book idea, or rather, these book ideas, and apply the lesson my agent taught me.
That’s step one of this process: FIND THE EMOTIONAL CORE.
What is the core of this story? What is it really about?
And of course, the core of my story wasn’t all the cool alchemy time travel ghosts parallel universes secret societies stuff. For the core, the heart, we need to look at our characters. So I thought about which character’s inner journey excited me the most, and I landed on the one whose mother had left, and she was dealing with a lot of bitterness and resentment.
I started a new document and wrote that down. I let myself brainstorm a little bit more about her, freewrote from her perspective about her mother, her father, what she wanted, and I started to identify what she needed, too. I started to see how her arc was going to play out, and what she was going to learn.
One thing I knew early on was that I didn’t want her mother to be redeemed. Obviously, mothers and fathers can and do have extremely valid reasons for getting divorced. It wasn’t that this character’s mother had left her father—it was that she didn’t give a thought to how much it would hurt her daughter. And she never does. She never apologizes, because she truly doesn’t understand or care about how her actions affected her daughter. This mother character is selfish; selfish people exist, and her daughter’s resentment was justified! But I didn’t want my protagonist to just continue feeling resentful. So what does this transformation look like?
In brainstorming all of this, I saw that this character’s WANT was going to be for her mother to apologize, preferably tearfully, with a lot of begging for forgiveness. But that was never going to happen. What this character NEEDS was going to be to accept and understand that her mother was a selfish person and that that did not mean the character herself was unworthy of love and acceptance.
Now I had a character arc. Now I had the core of a book idea. Onto the next step: FIND THE PLOT.
I don’t mean outline it; this is way too early stages for outlining. I just mean I took that character arc, kept that transformation she was going to go through in mind, and looked at all the plot elements I had crammed into that first idea to see what would fit with her journey, what clicked, and what didn’t.
I immediately nixed the time travel stuff and decided to save that for another book, because it had nothing to do with this character. So out went the parallel universes and the steampunk elements, too. But I did feel that this story was going to fall under the speculative umbrella. This character with the mother issues in my original idea also happened to be the one who was obsessed with photography. So I kept that, and I thought oh, hey, what if she loves photography and her mother is a photographer? And now she hates that she shares this passion with the mother she resents so badly? I saw the potential for even more internal conflict there as this poor girl can’t even turn to her favorite hobby for comfort because it just reminds her of Mom.
Now, in that original mishmash of ideas, there was a special camera that could capture photographic evidence of ghosts. I thought okay, maybe this is a paranormal story. I had ghost hunters, too. Ghost hunting could help me shape a plot. And what if Dad was a ghost hunter? What if he hosted a ghost hunting show? What if Dad was also struggling with Mom leaving and he took a new job on a ghost hunting show so he and his daughter could literally run away from their problems and travel around the world visiting haunted places? What if the show’s ratings were super low and they had to save it from getting cancelled?
You see what I was doing? Spinning out these what if questions until I started to see how the structure of this story might look. Dad takes this wacky job and the main character says goodbye to her hometown and sets off on this adventure; that’s the inciting incident. Low ratings and threat of cancellation, okay there’s some stakes to start with. I kept spinning out what ifs until I could see the twists and turns the story would take, and I had at least a vague idea of how it might end.
Onto step three, which honestly I did in tandem with step two: WORLD-BUILDING.
Obviously this was turning into a paranormal adventure, what with all the ghost hunting. What if that was the thing the main character had in common with Dad, and she throws herself into it even though she doesn’t really believe in ghosts because it’s a way to distance herself from Mom? Do ghosts actually exist in this world, or is she going to expose these haunted places as being not so haunted after all? What about the camera? I clung to this idea of a special camera that could take pictures of ghosts for awhile, but as the story started to solidify in my mind, I realized that didn’t really fit anymore. I didn’t have an explanation for it or really even a reason for having it, it was just a cool idea I was clinging to.
So how does all of this help you figure out what your first novel is really going to be about so you can actually finish a draft? Regardless of whether you’re flitting from idea to idea to idea and starting this new book then opening another document because THIS book is going to be even better, or your just taking all of the amazing ideas that come to you and revamping your outline or brainstorming even more before you start your first draft, recognize this for what it is: procrastination.
That’s not to say all of your ideas aren’t good. I mean, they probably are. But this part can literally go on forever. There are I can’t even guess how many people out there with hundreds of thousands of words of brainstorming, plotting, and unfinished manuscripts, and this is why.
So right now, let’s take a few minutes and see if we can figure out what your first novel is really going to be about. Keep in mind that it’s completely normal if your answers to these questions are somewhat unformed at this stage. Just write whatever comes to mind.
1. Write down who your main character is and what their transformation will be. Their transformation is going to be what they learn, what they discover they truly need. How are they different at the end of the novel compared to the beginning.
2. Write down one thing that happens to them at the beginning of the story that changes everything. This might be them leaving home, a new person coming into their lives, a piece of information they uncover, the loss of an important person...something that wasn’t in their control.
3. Write down three choices they make or actions they take at some point in the book. The first is in reaction to the thing that happened in number two. The other two happen later in the story. You might not even have justification or context for these choices or actions yet, but if you have a vivid scene in mind of your character being proactive, write it down.
4. Write down three world-building elements that are inextricably tied to this story, as in, this character and her journey and those actions and choices can’t happen without these elements. Hunting ghosts was tied to my character’s plot because it was her and her father’s excuse to run away from their old lives and unresolved issues. A magical camera was a fun idea but it just didn’t fit with her story.
What you’ve got right there, what you wrote down? That’s your story. You might have to let go of some things you really love, but remember, you can always use them in your next book. Open a doc and jot them down real quick so you don’t forget.
Then put away those ideas for now, and get back to work on this one.
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