Ideas underpin any piece of fiction. They make the difference between the book that doesn’t get sold and the bestseller; they also make the difference between the bestseller that a couple of years later you find on the second-hand bookshelf, and the bestseller which is read again and again and made into box-office-shattering films.
Get the ideas right, and the rest will come much easier.
But what ideas? Do you just dream up some clever ideas and then hope for the best? No, there are ways of approaching this which will get you to the core of the matter far more quickly. These questions are designed to pilot you through towards a treasure-trove of powerful ideas which will help you write a successful piece of fiction.
1. As a writer, do you have well-laid-out plans for the next 5 to 10 years?
If you do, it’s likely that you have struck upon an idea or set of ideas which will sustain a successful piece of writing; if you don’t, then all is not lost. This is because the motivation you have as a writer is intimately connected to the central ideas or themes you want to communicate in your work. If you consider, deep down, that your ideas are not important enough or powerful enough, it’s likely that you won’t make the time to push various obstacles out of the way and get writing actually happening. This is what is known as Hyper-critical Situation # 1 in the e-course How to Write Stories That Work - and Get Them Published!: you don’t have enough horse-power to make the changes you need to make to write your books.
2. Do you find it easy to set writing goals and work towards them?
See # 1 above. If you find it easy, you are inspired; if you find it difficult, all that means is that the other forces in operation in Life - family pressures, health, money and all the rest of them - are stronger than your drive to write. What can you do?
To overcome this kind of inertia, you need to tap into deeper, more profound levels of thought and imagination than you are currently. Does that mean that your current writing is worthless? No, far from it: but you are on the edge of a creative volcano, watching the slow cooling of the lava when you could be in its heart, manipulating the explosion.
3. Does your writing regularly meet targets?
See # 1 and # 2 above. If you can knock out a draft chapter followed by another and another, it indicates that you’ve contacted some kind of creative river within yourself. This doesn’t mean that you have to rigidly meet all targets or run your life like a machine, but it’s a measurement of something more fundamental occurring in your writing life.
4. Do you think your fiction reflects your vision of life?
Now we get to the heart of the matter. Throughout the history of literature, one thing stands out when you examine successful authors: all of them had some kind of consistent vision about Life. These things may have changed and evolved over time for them; they may occasionally be hard to summarise or even express in terms apart from their fiction itself; but, at the time of writing, a stable vision underlaid the piece of work.
Think of Shakespeare’s Tragedies; think of Donne’s poems; think of Forster’s novels. Think of any piece of successful fiction that you like. They all have themes, and by themes is meant that they all rest upon a foundation of powerfully held ideas. The ideas may not be the personal beliefs of the author - it’s hard to conclude that Shakespeare himself viewed Life tragically, or what exactly went on in Donne’s love life, though thousands of words of speculation have been written about both - but for the time that the work was being created, they formed the basis of it.
The mechanics of how this works and what exactly happens, machine-like, in any work of fiction, poetry, novel, short story, play or film, is discussed in much greater detail in the book How Stories Really Work.
5. Are you in apathy about your writing?
Considering the above, it’s entirely feasible that many would-be authors sink into a listless state. Where does one start in creating a foundation ideas for a piece of fiction that in any way approaches the grandeur of, for example, Hardy’s melancholic view of Life, or Tolkien’s or Graham Greene’s Catholicism?
The truth is that you will already have these ideas in some form. It’s quite possible - even likely - that your existing fiction already reveals some of the underlying basis upon which it can develop to be better and more powerful. Like an untrained coal-miner, you’ve probably walked right past seams of coal in your material without realising what they were.
6. Are you happy with your writing?
On the other hand, if you are happy with what you have written, then chances are that you are already drawing on the fuel of powerfully-held ideas to drive your fiction. You may not have realised why you admire a particular turn of phrase in a piece of your writing; you may not have stopped to think why a specific chapter resonates with emotional power. Understanding what is working in your writing can lead you to discover even more of it - and then you can get every part of your work to shine.
7. Are you overloaded or stressed by your writing?
A sense of overload or stress connected to writing is another indicator that you haven’t yet tapped into the motherlode of ideas that you need.
There are two basic kinds of stress associated with fiction writing: the first arises when you have written something and simply can’t figure out why it’s not working as you would wish; the second is when you have figured it all out and are bursting to write more, but have to abide by the rules of normal human society and eat and sleep in order to keep on functioning as a human being. The first kind of stress is quite introverting and normally resolves when underlying ideas are tapped into; the second will always with us!
8. Do you have well-developed minor characters?
Why are we talking about characters? Don’t they come later? Yes, they do - but again, minor characters can act as symptoms of an underlying problem with ideas. If your smaller or less important characters are acting as they should, and seem to ‘fit’ and perform well, then, just as a blood pressure is a good measure of a whole range of health issues, your work is probably on the right track. If these smaller figures are irritating you and seem bland and even repellent, then a ‘story doctor’ can almost guarantee that something more fundamental is wrong.
9. Is there at least one character you are completely happy with?
See # 8. The establishment of one character that works is something of a milestone. That’s because a character can act as a primary conduit for ideas.
10. Can you see yourself writing fiction for much longer?
If you can, then move on in the confidence that some basics are established; if, however, you want to ‘pack it in’ and give up either right now or in the near future, you need to refer to the earlier questions in this article and do something differently.
How do you go about putting together ideas that will effectively power your work? The e-course How to Write Stories That Work - and Get Them Published! will help, as will the book How Stories Really Work.