#1. How to write your best selling novel, by a best selling author.
“I’ve got a great idea for a book.” Yes, I know, this is where I started the introduction, but stay with it anyway. Is that you? Have you ever said that? You have? Okay, go stand in front of a mirror, look yourself in the eye and ask yourself this: “What is my book’s great idea? Exactly.” If the person staring back at you can’t lay it out in a few concise, enthralling sentences, he or she is probably mistaking an idea for something considerably less tangible – perhaps a scene or the narrative that takes place in a possible chapter. Having an idea is fundamental to the writing process. Without one, trust me, all you’ll be doing is corralling a bunch of words on the page and hoping they lead somewhere cohesive. As they say, good luck with that.
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
– Ernest Hemingway
So what exactly is an idea? There are umpteen definitions and many of them are themselves barely tangible. I like this one: “An idea is a feat of association.” So said Robert Frost, an American poet of the previous century. (The full quote goes: “An idea is a feat of association, and the height of it is a good metaphor.”)
An idea is a feat of association – the pulling together of disparate threads to create something new. Perhaps that’s why I like this definition above others, because it also speaks to how to get an idea in the first place, which is something else I’m asked quite a lot – “Where do you get your ideas from?”
We are, each of us, the sum total of our experiences. These experiences include all manner of signposts from our life’s journey to date – our childhoods, the great films we’ve seen (and the bad), books we’ve read, dreams we’ve had, accidents we’ve suffered, the physical pain we’ve endured, the people we’ve been exposed to, our travels, our friendships, the good we’ve done along with the bad. I could go on, but you get the point. It’s within this rich stew of experiences percolating between our ears that these associations – fresh new ones – can be made. And it’s because of these associations that someone who hasn’t been abducted by aliens and flown to the Planet Xorg, where lordly grasshoppers rule from licorice thrones, can write eloquently and convincingly about the experience. The same applies to writers of serial killer novels, historical novels, whodunits and so forth. The book’s idea is simply what they’ve absorbed and reconstituted into something newly tangible. And of course, it’s these experiences that also infuse the characters they draw – the way they think and act. (I am often told that my most favorite character Vin Cooper, who drives six of my novels, is, in fact, me. I like to think that Vin is Vin and David is his own man, but of course something of the writer HAS to pull the levers of his or her characters. There’s no avoiding it. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that trying to avoid it will most likely lead to characters that are mere ciphers. More on characters coming up in a following session.
“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.”
No doubt you’ve also heard the axiom, “Write what you know.” Well, is it necessary to kill someone to know how a killer feels about the experience? I think, more accurately, you probably don’t know what you know until you reach down into that percolating soup and pull it out. (In this manner I have personally killed lots of people. Some I have killed over and over. As a writer, you are free to do things that people, who don’t exercise their associations, never experience.)
So, getting back to the nub of this particular session: the idea. Specially, what’s the idea for your book? Even complex stories can be reduced to an essence. My personal all-time-favorite book is Joseph Heller’s CATCH-22. It’s a remarkably complex, witty, funny, sad and subversive novel with far -ranging themes dealing with fear, psychosis, the impact of war and loss on the human condition, the nature of friendship and others, while it coins the notion of paradoxical situations with competing rules from which there is no escape (draw breath). But the book’s core idea is elegantly simple:
Yossarian, a WWII bombardier stationed in a squadron off the coast of Italy, is desperate and angry because thousands of people he has never even met before keep trying to kill him. Adding to this absurdity, the war is quite clearly coming to an end and everyone knows it, including the people trying to kill him.
If you haven’t read Catch-22, a real treat awaits. I’ve read it five times and I feel a sixth coming on.
Examine any great book and you will find a solid idea fortifying its spine. And more often that not that core idea will address something about the plot and the central protagonist(s). Taking the Catch-22 example, we know who Yossarian is and what his mental state is, which is a result of where he is. There’s also something crazy about his situation and how he views it, which hints at the book’s tone and manner. When you think about it, there’s quite a lot going on here, even in just these four lines.
So again, what’s your book’s idea? Can you set it down in under five lines? Does it address the character? The plot? The tone? The milieu? Does it feel fresh?
If your idea only does a few of these things, write it out again until you have the answers. You might have to write it out more than a few times. You might have to come back to it in a day or so and have another crack at it, but the answers will come. And so will unexpected and surprising new associations that you can gloriously incorporate into the whole. Trust me, a little time spent interrogating this core idea of yours will save you frustration and heartache when 30,000 words of your manuscript are tucked away on your hard drive and you’re wondering where to go next.
2. Do you have a backbone?