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How to Find Your Novel’s Idea

You want to write a novel, but don't know what it's about? Let's fix that.

I'm Grayson Taylor, and in this post, we're talking about ideas. Where they come from, how to organize them, and how to pick which one is right for your novel.

Whether you want to write a novel but have no ideas, or have too many ideas to choose from, I'm going to share several tips that have helped me, and can help you get more ideas, sort those ideas, and identify what makes one idea better than the rest. Let's get started.

Finding Ideas

All right. First things first: you have to find ideas.

And when I say ideas, I mean a lot of ideas. You're going to have to get through a lot of really dumb, bad ideas to get to one that is really worthy of being a whole novel. This is one of the few times that ‘quantity over quality’ is actually good advice. After all, the more ideas you have, the higher probability that one of them will be good.

To find ideas, you can’t just wait around passively and expect a great idea to come to you. That’s probably not going to happen. Instead, you need to be finding ideas in life all the time.

So, how do you actively pursue inspiration and look for ideas in the world around you? An important aspect of that is getting outside your comfort zone and going to new places. I get a lot of ideas just by going outside and visiting places I’ve never been before. The ideas I get might not even be related to the locations I’m at, but something about being in a new place really can stimulate your imagination.

In addition to going to new physical locations, you can go to new… mental locations, I suppose? It’s good to expose yourself to new ideas. Be reading things, both fiction and non-fiction, because both can contribute to new ideas. Essentially, new knowledge and new experiences equal new ideas. So always be on the lookout for ways you can introduce something new into your life that will spark your imagination.

Here’s a little tip that can help with that. Dedicate ten or fifteen minutes every day to learning something about a topic you’re interested in. It could be anything, from science to Greek mythology. Whatever the case, find ways to explore the world around you. Delve deep into topics that intrigue you. After all, it might take a little bit of digging to find something that really inspires you.

On a similar note, engage with what you consume. Don’t just passively take in movies or books or music; instead, examine and learn from them. Of course, there’s a fine line between inspiration and plagiarism, but at this stage, you don’t need to worry about that.

In addition to thinking about singular projects, you can think about combining multiple ideas from different things you’ve seen. Often, a lot of great ideas come from merging two things together. If you really like a concept of a particular book, and you really like the location of someplace that you’ve been to, you can merge those two and come up with some new idea.

Now, when I’m talking about ideas, and idea can be pretty much anything. It could be an idea for a character, a plot, a concept, a location, it could be anything, it doesn’t really matter. At this point, you’re just trying to collect a lot of material to work with. Any kind of idea can be the spark for a story. My own books have sprung from different kinds of ideas, whether locations or characters or a concept. And no idea is too small of an idea. Don’t just dismiss something because at first glance it looks like it couldn’t be a full story.

Another tip, though you may have heard this one lots of times before, is to think of the story you would want to read. It’s important to be passionate about your ideas—we’ll get to that later—so think about the kind of story that you would want to read. You can take different elements from your favorite books and movies and TV shows and stories of all kinds.

If you’re having trouble coming up with any ideas, you can think of certain elements that you would want to write about. For example, you could determine what genre you want the book to be, or you could think of a theme, a certain question or message that you want to convey or explore in your book. You could also think of the kind of characters you want in your book, or the atmosphere, or the location, or even just a title. Even the idea for a title can be the launchpad for an entire novel.

Though finding ideas is a stage that happens before you write your novel, I think it’s a stage, or rather a mindset, that continues throughout the rest of your life, and the writing of your book. Later on, when you’re writing your book, you’ll need more ideas to expand the world and create new characters and fill in the gaps. So always be on the lookout for new ideas.

Okay. This is all a little bit abstract. So, let’s get into the details of how to record and organize these ideas. After all, if you forget an idea, it’s not going to do you much good.

Organizing Ideas

The second part of finding the right idea for your novel is recording and organizing those ideas.

You can have hundreds, if not thousands, of ideas, and they may even be good ones, but if you’re not actually capturing them and organizing them in some way, it’s going to be hard to find the right idea. If you’re like me, you don’t want a mess of different ideas filling up your brain. Instead, you need a way to capture those ideas, and ideally, a way to organize them neatly, which will come in handy later.

Okay, first: write down your ideas. Whenever you’re going somewhere, make sure you have something to write on, whether it’s a notebook or a device. Now, a lot of these ideas won’t necessarily be worth capturing, and they’ll probably end up in the trash anyway. But I think it’s important to build up a substantial collection of ideas. Something might seem like a really bad idea now, but maybe a few months from now, you’ll look back at it, and it’ll spark something for you, creating a better idea, or inspiring you to look at it in a new way. You never know when inspiration will strike, so it’s always important to have something you can write on nearby. I even have a whiteboard next to my bed so I can jot down any ideas that come to me.

Now, you can just write down all your ideas and leave it at that. But personally, I would find that a bit overwhelming. After all, you’ll hopefully be having lots of ideas, and you need some way to sort through them to find the good ones. Let me give you a little peek into how I organize my ideas.

First, I have one document just called Random Ideas, where I jot down exactly what it sounds like, all the random ideas I have. These don’t necessarily fit into any book I have planned or that I’m working on; they’re just random ideas that I might use at some point, and just as likely might not. Some of these are just little details that I could use in any story; others are ideas for an entire book or maybe even a series. A lot of my ideas are in the form of a 'what if?' question. Some of these are just images that popped into my head that I thought looked cool and I could maybe work into some story at some point. Really, this document is just a dumping ground for all kinds of random ideas I have. I would recommend you have a similar dumping site for all your miscellaneous ideas.

To keep things organized, I type up all the ideas I write by hand into this document. Now, if I have a lot of ideas for a certain concept or story, I’ll create a new document with all of those ideas so that they can all be in one place. I also have an ideas document for any story that I’m working on, whether it’s a short story or a novel, and any future books I have planned.

Again, a lot of these ideas didn’t come from nowhere. I was inspired by different things I saw or experienced or read about. I would recommend you sort your ideas into different documents like these. Of course, you don’t have to record all your ideas in a digital space; you could use one notebook that you use to organize all your ideas, or a separate notebook for each kind of idea or concept. The important thing is to find a system that works for you, so that any time you have any kind of idea, you’ll know exactly where to put it. And this will make referencing your past ideas a lot easier (which, believe me, is important).

Selecting Ideas

All right. So now that we know how to find ideas and organize those ideas, let’s talk about how to find which one is the right one for your book. Chances are, if you’ve had enough ideas, there will be some standout ones. You should pay attention to any ideas that you’ve written a lot about or researched or found yourself thinking about a lot.

Now, when we’re talking about a book idea, that’s kind of vague. As I said earlier, an idea can be an idea for a character, an object, a location, an atmosphere, basically anything. I’m talking more about a synopsis; that could include characters or a location, it could not. It could include a plot, but it might just be as simple as a concept. Whatever the case, this is an idea that could, in theory, be expanded to be a novel.

When you’re looking through your ideas, you’ll probably already have some favorites. I would recommend coming up with a list of your favorite ten or so. Then, it’s time to narrow them down.

Here are three criteria I would recommend for deciding which idea to use for your book.

#1: It's a Good Idea

That’s very vague. Of course you’re going to pick a good idea! Isn’t that the point? So, what do I mean by a good idea? I mean an idea that other people will enjoy reading about, an idea other people will like.

There is one exception to this rule: if you’re writing this book for yourself, and only for yourself, it doesn’t really matter. You can write whatever you want! If you’re writing this book simply for your own enjoyment, and don’t intend to publish it or have other people read it, then by all means, write whatever idea you want to, no matter how stupid it is.

But for everyone else, it’s important to keep the reader in mind. You may want to write a dramatic space opera about dancing goats, but is anyone really going to want to read that? Maybe. But the point is, you need to make sure this idea is one that other people are going to enjoy.

One way to test this is by taking your idea to other people and seeing if they like it. Ask them if they would want to read a book about that. Now, you have to be careful who you ask. After all, some people you know will just say, “Of course I love that idea!” because it’s coming from you. Be sure that your sources on this are being honest. It would really suck to write a whole novel and then realize that you’re the only one who likes it.

#2: You’re Passionate About It

Though some degree of doubt or reservation about an idea is fine, you have to be passionate about this idea. After all, you’re going to be writing an entire novel about it, which is no small feat. This idea is the spark for your novel. You’ll have to come up with lots of ideas around it—characters, a world, a plot—so you should be sure it fits your taste.

You might realize as you’re thinking about your idea that you don’t love it as much as you thought you did. You might prefer a similar idea, or a completely different one. Whatever the case, make sure you’re willing to be really dedicated to this idea.

#3: It's Big Enough To Be a Novel

Make sure your idea is big enough to be a novel. After all, you’re going to have to write hundreds of pages about this one concept.

Of course, a novel can branch out from a very small idea; in theory, anything could grow to be a novel. However, some ideas are better suited for different lengths. You might find that your idea would actually work better as a short story, instead of a whole novel. It might even be suited best for a piece of flash fiction, which is sometimes only as short as a few paragraphs.

If you’re having trouble seeing whether or not your idea will work as the basis of an entire novel, try writing it in a shorter form first. Try writing a short story based off of your idea, and see if you’re still passionate about it, and if there’s more story to tell. If there is, then there’s a good chance it’ll work as a novel. And if not, it’s probably better suited for a shorter format.

Those are the three criteria I would recommend you use to judge your ideas for a novel. Of course, you can add your own as you see fit.

And when you’re selecting an idea for a novel, keep this in mind: there’s no such thing as a perfect idea. You’ll probably never find one that you’re completely satisfied with. It just has to be something that excites you enough, sparks your imagination. Essentially, you have to learn to settle for an idea that’s good, but not perfect. After all, perfection can often be the enemy of progress.

So those are my tips on finding ideas for your novel. Of course, everyone has a different process; yours might look a lot different from mine, and that’s okay. Feel free to experiment; not only in how you find your ideas, but in how you organize them and even select them.

Finding the right idea for a project as large as a novel can be an intimidating task, but I hope I’ve inspired you to go out and find your own ideas, and maybe given you some tips that can help with your process.

Tell me in the comments below which tip was your favorite. If you want to watch the video versions of these blog posts, head over to my YouTube channel here, and subscribe for more videos on writing and publishing.

– Grayson Taylor


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