The Write Way: One Idea and a Million Stories–Which One Will You Tell?

Thumbnail image for Secrets.jpg“Pssst. . . I have a great idea for a story, but I don’t have time to write it.  I’ll tell you what it is and we can split the royalties.”

You think I’m kidding?  I’m not.  Every novelist has heard this offer.  Sometimes in the dentist’s chair, sometimes at a party, sometimes from a neighbor walking his dog.  Everyone who has never written a book has at least one idea that would make a fabulous novel.

And everyone who has never written a book believes just having an idea is worth at least half the profits.

Come closer and let me whisper in your ear. . . Ideas?  Ideas are the easy part. That old saying, “a dime a dozen?”  It’s not just a cliche. Figuring out what to do with ideas?  That’s the part that makes those of us committing ours to paper crazy.  All those famous literary figures with alcohol problems?  Not a coincidence.

Today I’m not blogging about characterization or plotting.  I’m not explaining how to break a story into scenes, decide on the viewpoint characters, describe the setting in a way that transports the reader to that precise fictional spot.  Today’s the day I tell you a secret, too.  That idea?  The one that seems so clear cut and simple and valuable?  That idea can be a million different stories depending on how it’s treated.

For purposes of marketing, fiction is broken into genres.  Walk into almost any bookstore and you can target the kind of book you most prefer by labels on the aisle or overhead.  Then you can go straight to your favorite, make a choice, and leave the shop happy–leaving the bookseller happy, too–all in a few minutes. Sometimes capitalism rocks.

But genre isn’t just about the way a novel is marketed to readers, or even to publishers at the manuscript stage, genre is also the way that you market the idea to yourself.  Almost any idea can be manipulated so that it fits on almost any shelf in that store.  The key is to decide where it best fits, and what you, as author, must do to put it there. 

One of the most surprising things I discovered early in my writing career (back when I was scratching my books on dinosaur pelts)  was that if an idea wasn’t working, I didn’t have to change it.  Instead I had to reset it. If the idea excited me, I simply had to find a way (simply?!) to set it so that the reader was excited by it, too.  I had to move it to a more intriguing location, add a subplot, change a character’s background or motivation.  The change had to be major. Tinkering with a novel?  Rarely a good idea.  Tinkering is like trying to fix an engine with a blown gasket by cleaning the spark plugs.  A waste of time.

Sometimes, though, an idea needs an even bigger overhaul. To belabor the car metaphor?  Sometimes we have to turn our Buicks into Porsches. That contemporary romance you thought you were writing?   Maybe it’s a historical.  Try setting it in Victorian England, amid the squalor of London’s streets, and maybe the story will finally come alive.  Or maybe you need to add a dragon or two and abracadabra, you’ve begun a sword and sorcerer fantasy.  An intriguing murder, and that one good idea could become a mystery series.  Cradle that one great idea in a coming of age story, and perhaps it will be the fascinating literary journey it was always meant to be.

So pssst. . . Don’t throw out your good ideas, and don’t tinker.  Certainly don’t offer to sell them to a working author who has enough of her own.  Keep what intrigued you in the first place, then see how many interesting ways you can put that idea together.  Finally, choose the way that’s working.  How can you tell?  Here’s another secret: You will know.  You’ll look forward to working on it every spare moment.

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