Writing My First Novel: Finding and Exploring Ideas
Maria V. Eyles
(a.k.a Maria Christina Vidale)
“I want to write a novel someday” is a dream for many of us. I finally fulfilled my dream and have published my first novel, God’s Beautiful Dream by Maria Christina Vidale. (See article below for more about my novel.)
It sounds easy, but how do you start? Where do you get your ideas? Or maybe you have too many novel ideas and can’t narrow them down.
Starting your novel raises your chances of finishing your novel. You can’t finish what you never started.
Here are a few techniques to get your creative flow primed for starting. They really helped me, and continue to help me stay creatively healthy.
The Nugget. Search your mind and writings for a nugget that fascinates you. I started my novel, God’s Beautiful Dream, based on a description of a young woman standing in the sunset in Paris, soaking in the rays, while someone watched from a balcony above.
Years later I came across this scene and it intrigued me. Who was that young woman? Who was watching her? A man, of course, who wondered what was happening to her. The idea evolved from there. The woman was on the verge of having mystical experiences (unbeknownst to her) and the man became a young priest struggling with his faith. There was a built-in story, with tension and possibly conflicting goals.
As Luke and Maya’s story evolved, it became too big for the short story I had intended it to be—and the novel evolved naturally on its own.
Start with a character who intrigues you. Maya spoke little, yet she stood there in the sunset hugging a story. But Father Luke was different. He talked to me quite frequently. Luke was the voice of my own spiritual conflicts. At the same time, he had his own struggles apart from mine. In the process of writing, we tried to work on them together.
Splice together different eras of your life. Experiment with your own story. What would have happened differently if you knew Person Q during Era 3? What if Person A had ever (or never) met Person Q? What if you had made a different career choice? What if a major incident in your life turned out much differently? Take people and/or incidents from the distant past and put them together with others from the recent past. Ask “what if?” As with all fiction, make sure you create original characters and story lines based on a variety of people and contexts so that they are not identifiable as real people. Nor is it a good idea to write a novel straight out of your own life without doing a lot of disguising and reworking of the story. Remember, this is called fiction for a reason.
Once you have your best idea, it’s time to explore it. For this, I find freewriting the most useful. For me, great ideas come out in freewriting more easily than they do while trying to painfully outline a story.
Peter Elbow developed this method. Take an empty pad and a pen. Write a key word on the paper, or start with a sentence about how you are feeling (“I’m feeling blocked right now.”) Time yourself for five minutes. Then put the pen on the paper and write anything as fast as you can. You may repeat your key word or your sentence dozens of times if you want to, but keep your hand moving and the pen on the paper for five minutes. Don’t stop or go backwards and don’t erase; simply keep repeating your last word until something else shows up. If you feel like you’re going to stop, just keep rewriting the last word you wrote until something else comes along. At the end of five minutes, your hand should be sore, your paper should be messy, but your mind should feel clearer.
If your freewriting produces only one good idea, it hasn’t been a waste of time. It if produces nothing fruitful, it has started to unblock your mind or to clear out emotional clutter. Either way, you can’t lose.
This method is good for unblocking and for exploring. The pen moves fast so that your brain can unleash what it wants to say without your logical mind blocking or editing it. When you are done, read it. Then try to find at least one word, sentence or section you can explore again, either by freewriting or by normal methods. If not, throw the paper away and start anew.
The beauty of freewriting is that you are writing without judging or censoring. “Just writing” is a good habit to get into.
Once you have one or more energetic ideas for your novel, you are on your way. The next step varies by person. You can just start writing or you can make an outline of your story or you can write out scenes. We can talk more about these steps in an upcoming article.