3 Exercises for Finding the Perfect Novel Idea

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It’s almost that time of year again! If you haven’t heard of NaNoWriMo, it’s a writing challenge where writers of all levels, from newbies to seasoned novelists, attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. At 1667 words per day, it’s definitely a challenge, but there’s no reason you can’t do it if you head in with a plan, a collection of writing buddies, and plenty of your caffeine (and/or alcohol) of choice.

So, first things first—you need to figure out what you’re going to write! Here are 3 exercises to get you started.

1. Identify what you know and what excites you

There’s no point in writing something you’re going to lose interest in, or that you don’t care enough about to research. This is a project you’re going to spend a lot of time on, so you need to find something you care about.

Set a timer for 10 minutes and write down all the things you know about—what topics do you read or watch? What have you studied or worked with? Where have you lived or travelled, what cultures have you experienced, what hobbies have you had, who are the people that interest you the most? Then, highlight 3-5 of your most exciting or interesting answers.

Set the timer again and write down all the things you wish you knew—what topics are you interested in, what do you wish you could do, who do you wish you could meet? What would be an amazing job that you don’t have the qualifications for? Is there a time in history, or a city, or an invention, or a religion, or a culture, or a person you wish you knew more about? Again, highlight 3-5 of your favourite answers.

Now put your highlighted answers next to each other, and see if you can find any links. What would happen if Option A and Option B happened in the same universe, and how would they affect each other? What kind of people would be involved? Where would or could this happen? Try to include at least one thing you do know about and one thing you don’t.

2. People watching—from the inside out

One of the things that humans find most interesting is other humans. Humanity is a theme that is recurrent in almost every single novel, and finding characters that we relate to, hate, disagree with, adore, or fall in love with is a huge part of the reading (and writing!) experience.

Write down the names of 5 people you know, including a close friend, someone you have argued with, someone you try to avoid, someone you wish you knew better, and your own. Then, underneath each one, write down five of their strengths and five of their flaws as you perceive them. Write why you think each one is applicable to them—what have they done to demonstrate this to you? Feel free to be critical as no one else is going to see this.

What would someone be like if they had a different combination of these traits? How would they demonstrate that? Why would they act in this way—what kind of culture or family would encourage that kind of behaviour? What kind of job would suit them? How would they treat people, and what kind of relationships would they have? Remember that everyone’s thoughts are as individual and conflicting and complicated as your own, and fill in the blanks if you’re not sure.

Go to a place where there are plenty of other people such as a shopping centre, a busy park or a cafe, and take a notebook with you. Watch the people around you, and notice the things they do. Imagine you’re going to tell your friend about the crazy person you saw at the end of the day, and closely watch for the way they walk, talk, funny things they say or strange things they do. People are never ordinary, and if you look for it, you can always find something to question. Writing is all about asking why—so once you’ve found this, make up an answer to it.

3. The prompt-dare-generator-dice-and-hat method

Sometimes, when you’re all out of ideas, it’s fun to let fate decide! This method involves collecting a bunch of different ideas from different sources and then randomly combining several to make an all-new, how-on-Earth-will-that-work, totally custom idea for your novel!

Spend a couple of hours collecting random story elements from different sources. There are lots of websites for finding prompts online, but in particular I’d recommend Seventh Sanctum for a huge collection of random prompt generators. Take a look at the Adopt-a-Plot thread on the NaNoWriMo forums (as well as the whole Adoption Society board), and the Dares thread.

Write each idea on a piece of paper (or print them out) and put them in a hat. Feel free to add any other ideas you’re excited about, or any of your answers from the first exercise in this article. Mix them all up, and pull out 5 of them. Now your challenge is to figure out how the hell all of these things fit together!

To add an extra element to this method, roll a dice for each one you pull out. The higher the number, the more important each element is to the story. If one of your prompts is to include an angry barbarian and it gets a 6, that angry barbarian must be your main character (or main villain).

This is the first in a series of posts about NaNoWriMo which will be posted from now until December.  To find all of the posts on NaNoWriMo, click here.

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