I've Got An Idea....Now What?


If you're like me, then you've been writing since you can remember. Short stories about bunnies, your friends, your family vacation, etc. Anything was grounds to write. I remember I used to hate essays because I had to write about my life as it was...no embellishments. As an avid fantasy and science fiction reader, I have a love of all things fantastic and unbelievable. I did not feel that my life fell into either category.

First Attempts

My first idea for a full-length novel was a murder mystery. Yeah. Don't laugh. It was "amazing". It had a beginning, middle, and end and took about 45 pages to tell. Not very long. But in my excitement to tell my story, I didn't tell my story. I don't know where that draft is now but if I could look at it I'm sure that I would see a quite a few fatal flaws.

  1. Pacing. My story, while it had the basic structure that make a story (beginning, middle, end) lacked proper pacing. It was detailed in some parts. These were the parts that I had clearly envisioned when I was first writing the story. I knew the location of the scene, who was there, what they were wearing. I knew that one character was lighting a fire while the other was reading through documents of inheritance after the passing of her father. Details. But the connecting scenes, while important, were passed by to get to writing the parts that I wanted to write the most.
  2. Dialogue. My characters seldom had anything to say. They did a lot of things, discussed options, etc. but I didn't know what words were actually used.
  3. Clichéd Plots. I love clichés. Don't we all? That's what makes them clichés! Scenes with a love triangle. Two people find love right before one is murdered and they never are able to make up for lost time. Etc.

All of these things worked together to make my story uninteresting and empty. But I learned from these things (I hope) and tried to work on them.

My second attempt at the story changed the venue significantly. I had left the murder mystery untouched for years and my genres of choice had moved to fantasy and science fiction. Murder mysteries can live within these two and often do. I repurposed my story and made it much more grandiose. There was a princess, king, and murdered queen. The queen, as it transpired, was murdered by a deranged tutor who wanted the king to herself. Mix in a few girl power moments for my main character and you've got a solid beginning and a choppy novel.

I finished that version at 90 pages. Not bad. But the content was still heavily flawed with the issues mentioned above. I had improve drastically on the dialogue, meaning I made my character's converse on paper, but the things they said were flat and lifeless. My characters were not alive.

The Fix

The first thing I decided was to study the authors that I admired. Why were their stories successful? What made them stand out to me? Choose some of your favorites and do the same it will help you decide on what you like about their stories so you can write a story that you would actually like to read. Because if you don't want to read it, why would anyone else?

Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card

Character. After reading Ender's Game, I was so thoroughly impressed I read and reread the book to absorb the parts that I had missed. What I loved so much was that I felt for Ender, though he was from a futuristic Earth. I loved his honesty. Card had Ender react in ways that seemed...Enderish. I'd read something and know that Ender would have said or done it. It made sense from what I knew of him.

World. Ender's world was post-war and the military ruled much of the planet. Reproduction was strictly limited and children were "monitored" at an early age to test them for traits that would make them succeed in battle school. The entire book was full of wonderful scenes and the culture of battle school was all its own–a sort of military boarding school.

The Harry Potter Series, by J. K. Rowling

Character. The famous Harry Potter and friends. I loved this book series for its bold characters. One thing that consistently irritated and elated me was the flawed character of Harry. He was selfless yet stubborn to a fault. Many times he'd get himself into trouble when, if he'd just asked for help, or told someone an issue he was having, he wouldn't have put himself into harm's way. But that's what makes Harry's character believable. His flaws.

World. Earth! But with hidden places we didn't know existed and would never have been able to find. A brilliant use of what is known to bring about something new.

The Dragonrider's of Pern Series, by Anne McCaffrey

Merging Genres. I used to read these stories in junior high school and I never realized what made them stand out to me until I was older. McCaffrey successfully blends fantasy with science fiction. Early in the series, McCaffrey introduces dragons. Add to that a medieval setting, complete with bards and lords and you have a solid, other worldy, fantasy. Then come the questions into the origins of their world and a joint effort on the part of all of the people to uncover ruins in the south. What do they find? Computers, communication stations, and <gasp> that there is a ship orbiting their planet still. Enter the world of science fiction.

World. Pern. A colony of Earth that had since fallen into disarray after the destruction caused by the moon that drifts near Pern every few hundred "turns" and spews life quenching "thread". Great use of the concept of a Dark Age on a colony where enough time had passed that people no longer knew from whence they had come or that their great beasts, the dragons used to fight thread, were the result of biological engineering by the original colonists.

The Lord of the Rings Series, by J. R. R. Tolkien

No fantasy list would be complete without The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was a master at world creation, even going so far as to create languages for his people. This, of course, makes sense given his occupation as a linguist. But it goes to show the depth of his creation.

Character & Culture. Tolkien showed me that there is much to learn from the geography of a land. The geography develops the culture, the culture promotes a certain type of character and formulates beliefs of a people group. Gondor, the defender of the borderland against Mordor, is nearly entirely made up of men of war. Their culture centers on the blade and strategies of war. With each step away from Gondor, the characters grow less vigilant until you reach the Shire, sheltered from all the troubles of Middle Earth.

The cultures he built are distinct and rich. The characters he created were molded by their culture and shaped by their circumstances. Frodo from the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring is a much different Frodo from the ending pages of The Return of the King.

World & History. The sheer expanse of Middle Earth is mind boggling. The Mines of Moria and the dwarves who had died there in an attempt to reclaim it. The elves and the wars on Mt. Doom with the last alliance of men. Isildur's Bane (the word "bane" automatically makes me think of old english stories). Gollom and his discovery of the ring.

So much history! The world is rich with it. And in the back of the reader's mind there is the knowledge that Tolkien was holding back. I knew that there was even more to the world than the story would allow him to tell. The depth of the story and world is amazing.

Magic. Though there was magic in the world, and some are able to use it, very little is done in the form of "showy" magic. Gandalf fought Saruman, but at Helm's Deep, he didn't just raise his hand turn the orcs into dust. Tolkien chose to put magic in the story, but not to make it central. There is much that is left unexplained about Sauron and the forging of the rings, but the reader accepts his omission. He gives so much to the story, one scarcely notices the explanations that are not there.

What did I learn?

I scrapped my entire story and started over, but not from scratch. I was able to use my previous story as the history of the world I created. Then I started verbally sketching the results of a world that would come after.

If you have an idea, a fledgling idea, remember that you must nurture through actively pursuing the truth of the characters and plot. Do a few short stories within your world. Take the scenes that you had envisioned and write a brief outline. I make it a point to ensure that each of my chapters has a beginning, middle, and end. Taken on its own, each chapter could stand as a short story in my world (albeit a series of cliffhangers, but they could work).

Each of the authors I mentioned above had a thorough understanding of the setting in which their characters lived. They knew that if a character tripped, gravity would pull them down. They knew that if a character traveled from east to west on a continent it would take <blank> months. They knew their worlds.

Each author used third person limited when writing. When Harry Potter is narrating a scene and wondering where Ron is, we, as the reader, don't have any idea either. Sometimes the authors would switch back and forth between characters to tell a different side of the story, or to create suspense, but at all times they stuck completely to the perspective of the character to which they were bound in a given scene. When Ender fights Bonzo at battle school, he has no idea that the outcome would result in Bonzo's death. Nor did he know throughout the story that he had killed Bonzo. It is revealed to the reader through a conversation between two commanding officers, but Ender never laments what he did to Bonzo. Had he known what he had done, it might have damaged him irreparably. Choose a perspective and stick with it. Don't switch from first to third person...believe me I've tried and it's not edgy or cool. It's disorienting.

Songs are used frequently throughout all of the fantasy books mentioned above to teach lessons and remind the reader of prophecies or knowledge that was lost. Again, these point to a history that the reader doesn't fully understand but knows is there.

Dialogue is meaningful and true to the characters who speak. You wouldn't hear a king speak like a valley girl. You wouldn't see a peasant walk up to a king, throw his arm around his shoulder, and ask him about the weather.

All of these things must be thought through and decided at an early stage. Even if you are not writing fantasy, the culture and customs of a society are important to the development of a believable world...even if that world is Earth.

So you have an idea. Sketch it. Diagram it: What happens? To whom? Where? Know your characters. I've even gone so far as to classify my characters with the Myers-Briggs system. This is useful when you have multiple characters and need to know how they might react in given situations. The more you write, the better your understanding of your story will become. Or, if you're a planner, the more you diagram the better you'll understand the events that lead your characters from point A to point B and why so and so would give his life to save someone he despises. Above all: persevere! Writing is hard work! Especially if you want to do it well. The crafting of a tale can take years in the making. Don't expect that you'll sit down and the first draft you write will be absolute perfection. It won't be. But it's a start!

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