The Writing Process: Developing the Idea

Jan 10, 2011

With the What's Your Process Blogfest coming up next week (sign up here!), I thought I'd do a whole series on the writing process (or rather, MY writing process). On blogfest day, I'll do the biggie-- my process for rewriting.

But today, I wanted to start at the beginning: the idea.

There are a million ways an idea for a book starts. For Devs, it started with a quote from a movie. For BaB, it was another book I read. For TUGL, it was a conversation with my dad and husband about an article I'd read online. The point? Ideas can come from anywhere.

I've tried to train my brain to look for them. With every new thing I find fascinating, with every odd person I see on the street, with everything I read, I ask myself this: Where is the story in this?

Once that little spark of an idea takes root in my brain, it percolates for a few days-- or sometimes much longer. My subconscious works at it even when my conscious brain doesn't. I start to form a story from the initial concept. Who is my main character? A girl or guy? What's the setting? How does this, that, and the other work-- what are the rules?

After my brain has hashed out some of the basics, I create a new file under my "Shallee's Stories" file. The very first document that goes into this new file is my idea dump. I type out all the things my brain has come up with, and then I just let it go. I ask a million questions about all the details I've come up with so far, including a lot of "whys" and "so whats." I start developing the world. I start finding out about my characters beyond their gender. I try to figure out where the actual STORY is in all this mess of questions.

This usually takes days, at least. The very last thing I do is something new I'm trying out with TUGL. I got it from this amazing article by Donald Maas. I ask myself the questions he says to ask:

"The gift: Think about your favorite fiction…what element unifies it? In other words, what do you love best about the novels that you love?...Make sure that element’s strong in your WIP.

The challenge: What is it that you—yes, you—least want to accept, refuse to feel, fear is true, find unbearable, feel angriest about, or avoid at any cost? What do you see around you that makes you sick? What in yourself makes you terrified?

Go further: What’s the truth that underlies all things? What principle guides human behavior? What’s the greatest insight you’ve even had about yourself? Or even just this: What do you know about anything that nobody else does?"

I was amazed at how much of my actual story became more clear once I answered these questions, and how strong it made my initial story concept. Once I have this all figured out, I separate out the different parts of my idea dump into new documents so it's all organized.

Then I'm ready for my next step: characterization. We'll talk about that on Wednesday!

So, my friends, how do your ideas come? How do you develop them? Share with us-- or sign up for the blogfest next Tuesday, and give us the nitty-gritty details then!


Kittie Howard said...

Great questions and insight, Shallee. I particularly like the last question. And I really liked your file dump...yes, I like this a lot. Thanks for the tips. I'd participate in your fest, but, truth be told, hub's sick and I'm feeling scratchy and chilled. Tis winter *sighs*!

Abby Minard said...

Those are great questions to ask. I do exactly the same as you when I have an idea- I open a word document, and I title is "Possible _____ idea" And then I just write down everything in my head. My main character usually comes to me first with a vague idea of the story and her conflict. Then I add to it as I'm thinking of it (usually I'm writing a book at the moment, so I just write snipets). When I'm ready to sit down and write, I will do more detailed character sketches, world names and things like that.

Karen said...

I don't spend that much times on ideas when they pop in my head, usually. If I think it's a worthy idea, I write down my few thoughts in a little notebook. The ideas that won't get out of my head are the ones that I develop more. And usually I start by thinking out a lot in my head before I write anything down.

David P. King said...

Nice post, Shallee! The idea process is like a jolt that you experience when you accidentally shock yourself in an outlet . . . not that I'm speaking from experience, per say. I'm not much of a jotter. I brainstorm for a week, sometimes longer, then write a page breakdown of the whole story, then change it accordingly once I line up my characters. As for the idea that drives the story, I strive for the untouched. Difficult, but possible.

Lindz Pagel said...

Wonderful post! I know when any idea first spark's in my mind I write down as much as I can muster, then I usually let it steep for a while. Once I have let the idea mature, I go back with a more objective eye and start picking it apart. The "steeping" process can sometimes be very long, I just recently had a renewed jolt of inspiration for a premise I had let mature for almost two years. Anything sparks my creativity, I just have to be open to the energy at any time.

Jodi Henry said...

Love this post. It has been a while since I've been around. Kinda on an impromptue blgcation. Glad to be back.

I love Maass's book: How to Write a Breakout Novel. It has a home on my bookshelf.

I also love seeing where other people get their book ideas from, it makes me feel more...normal.

Strange things sprun my stories: a friends high school experiance turns into a werewolf story with the basic elements of her experience as the backbone. A question after reading a book or watching a movie. Art--painting, pictures photoshop creations.

So many things beg to be twisted into a novel.

Thanks for the post.

And you have an award waiting for you at my blog.


Plamena Schmidt said...

Great questions. I think about those to when I'm starting out.

And it's so true that ideas come from everywhere. Actually, I find that some days I have tons of new ideas, like when I let my mind wander, and almost tune into a different way of thinking than if I'm actually writing something out.

Julie Musil said...

Ideas pop in my head faster than I can write them down. I keep a folder of these random ideas. I recently decided to use some of your earlier advice and group different ideas together!

Saumya said...

I love this post and your blog! My ideas come from very unexpected places. I do have a problem deciding whether to take a particular idea and make it a new book or to find a way to include it in my first book (which I'm working on). I get a lot of ideas from song lyrics and poetry. That probably sounds random but I feel like they have a way of bottling up a story into a small space :)

I'm excited to be a new follower!

WritingNut said...

Oh my goodness... ideas pop into my head from all around and all the time! Sometimes it's hard to stay focused! Quite a few times I never know exactly what triggers them either.

nindogs said...

That is a great list of questions. I'm always getting bombarded with ideas and pieces of worlds and characters that have no link to my current WIP. I just write them down and continue editing. (:

By the way, you have a blog award here:

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Great post!

I love those questions at the end. They really made me think.


Emy Shin said...

This is such a great list of questions to ask yourself while fleshing out an idea. My process of developing an idea is the same. I'd get a seed for an idea, let it percolate for a few days or weeks or months, the start writing it down and trying to answer as many questions that pop up as possible.

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

I'm not 100% sure where my ideas come from. Anywhere and everywhere. Usually in the most unexpected places.

Lola Sharp said...

People always do ask me where my ideas come from, and my response is always the same: where don't they come from...because, dude, anything ANYthing can spark an idea. But ultimately it comes down to this: 'what if/next?' for me. If that rail of thought leads to something that niggles for a few days, expands, festers, then it ends up in my idea notebook.

If it continues to fester and take on a life of its own in my head, it moves up the priority ladder.

I enjoyed all Maass's books.

Love this post, Shallee. :)
Have a wonderful weekend,

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