[Disclaimer: This is round one of a series I intended to be “From Idea to Draft”… until I didn’t get to the draft. So it’s just about working to develop ideas–but if you notice some random allusion to the series intention, that’s what it’s about. More on that here.]
Most writers would probably say their most frequently asked question is: “Where do you get your ideas?”
And it’s a magical question, because it’s a mysterious process. Where do these complex narratives, original characters, and beautiful worlds come from? Some authors speak of divine inspiration, of the sudden strike of genius, and it seems like the characters and plot just spill out effortlessly from within as though it began fully-formed.
For some writers, who write more instinctively and develop their ideas through multiple drafts, getting the idea may be the only thing they need to start writing. And the process of getting from that idea to the finished product is almost beyond their control.
But for the rest of us, where we get our ideas is only the first half of the real mystery.
The second half of that question is: “How do you get from an idea to a draft?”
So I’m going to assume that you can find an idea yourself, whether it’s a vague fragment of an image, a character or setting, or my particular idea source—meta. Most of my ideas come in the form of a response to a piece of media, and my own analysis or interest in an element of that media, such as the genre or fandom or characters. It’s definitely not the best source of ideas, as they’re plagued by unoriginality, but I’m getting to the point where I’m accepting that and writing anyway. Call me a “knock-off” if you must; it’s the shape my creativity takes right now, and I’m going to work with it.
But the source or quality of ideas is not the point here. It’s how you take that idea and get a draft out of it. This is going to be a multi-part series of unknowable length, because I think it’s the most mysterious part of the process, and yet the most important. And I don’t know the whole process, because I’ve never actually completed it.
My first disclaimer is that everyone’s process is different. For example, many writers can sit down with an idea fragment and just write their way through the uncertainty until they have a finished draft. Some start with developing characters. Others with outlining. Others with some other unique process—so this isn’t necessarily a universal guide by any means. But it is a chronicle of how I’m going to get from idea to draft, and maybe it will be interesting for… someone.
The first step is working with the idea to develop it from the initial fragment into something with a shape.
For me, I begin with the medium. I’m pretty set on being a novelist, which means the idea has to grow into a long narrative in prose form. I’m open to alternative structures within the bounds of a novel, but that initial limitation gives me some rules and elements to work with.
Then I try and feel out the structure and type of story, mainly through the issues of perspective, protagonists, and series. I don’t want to limit myself from expanding the idea later on, or following new creative urges, but I want to get a feel for what the finished product will actually look like.
Am I following a single protagonist through first person? This will greatly limit where the plot can go, as far as scenes and events go. Or is this multiple POV, in which case the plot can expand far beyond a single character’s experience? But even with multiple POV, is there still just a single protagonist? For me, I determine who the protagonist is (or how many there are) by trying to get a sense of the ending—who is acting at the end, who is determining the path of the ending? And is this a standalone narrative which will wrap everything up at the end, or is it a series? If it’s a series, is it an epic series or a procedural series (the former being one large narrative broken into pieces; the latter being a string of standalone narratives with the same characters)?
Now you might ask how you could know all of these things based on that vague fragment of an idea. Well, you might not know exactly, but you can start to look at what you want. Look at what you like as a reader; look at what you would actually want to write (imagining a multiple-strand narrative a la Game of Thrones is intriguing, but do you actually want to spend the time developing all of those different plots and characters?).
This is where finding your influences can really help. Now, a word of caution here—this is a dangerous game. Letting your influences into the process so early on can lead you into “rip-off” territory, so you have to be aware of how you want to deal with that. In theory, it’s not illegal to have similar ideas, as long as you’re not using the same words or the same character names (that’s how Fifty Shades of Grey can exist, or how White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen can coexist). But stray too close and you will be called a knock-off; if you can take it, then do whatever you want. If you can’t, then you have to “borrow” a little more subtly. Cling to what makes your idea original, deliberately stay away from iconic elements, and try to use more than one influence to muddle the similarities. [Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer, so if you fear that you might be straying too close to copyright infringement or plagiarism, please contact actual legal counsel for real advice.]
But getting your influences in mind can help you determine the vague shape of the idea. This is where reading/watching widely is essential; you can see what works, what you like and don’t like, and can get a better sense of pacing and plotting and structure. If you know, for example, that you like a procedural plot like urban fantasy series by Patricia Briggs or Jim Butcher, rather than an epic plot like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, that’s going to have a huge impact on how you plan out your story.
And finding that plan early enough in the process will impact who you choose as your protagonist, how you pace and structure the story, and what perspective you use. It will also help weed through the various ideas for plot specifics and characters until you find something that you can actually envision as an end product you want.
Getting that vague picture of the end product is the first step, for me, to getting from idea to draft. I have to see the idea as a finished novel, even if I don’t know any of the specifics yet.
That comes next.