How do you turn an idea into a novel?

I don’t know about you guys, but one of my favourite things about writing is coming up with the initial idea! It is such an exciting time filled with hope. It is without a doubt, my favourite part of the writing process. If I could make a living out of coming up with novel ideas, then I totally would!

At the moment, I have two ideas swirling around in my head. One of them is a YA contemporary, and the other is a YA fantasy. I’ll start writing whatever one manifests in my head first, but I’m thinking it will be the YA fantasy because I’m desperate to pen an epic romance. It’s inside me just dying to come out.

But how do you turn an idea (an epic romance, fantasy, young adult) into a novel? I’m not really a plotter or a pant’ser, I just keep brainstorming until I feel like writing instead. I’m sure everyone has different approach but mine looks a little like this:

1. Decide what novel I want to write – aka. a young adult, fantasy, with strong romantic elements.

2. Who are the characters? – I always start with my main character, her love interest, and whoever she hangs out with before the love interest comes along. I start with three or four main players. I figure out their names, what they look like, and what their overall “thing” is – for example, assassin, wallflower, geek, warrior, witch, etc. A big broad overlaying nutshell. I also figure out what they love the most in the world – like their hobby and something they always deviate back to – gardening? art? studying? music? etc.

3. Where are they? – Small town? Kingdom? Country or city? I figure out the location, its name, and visualise some landmarks, although I usually leave most of that until I’m actually writing.

4. What is the story about? – Once I have a general idea of the characters and where they are, I have to decide what they’re working towards. What’s the motivation? What’s keeping her from it? What does my main character want and what will happen if she doesn’t get it? This starts to form the idea into a plot. I think a lot about motivation, stakes, and I always plan out the beginning, rock bottom, and the end.

5. Brainstorm – Then I keep brainstorming (usually to instrumental music) until I feel like writing 🙂 I’m a pretty goal orientated writer, so if I want to write a 75,000 word novel, then I know I’ll have around 25 chapters at 3,000 words each. I usually make a list from 1 to 25 and write what points I need to hit in each to make it to the end. Somewhere in the process I’ll come up with a great way to start chapter one and start writing, then I’ll “pants” it from there!

How do you guys turn an idea into a novel? Brainstorming? A lot of browsing through Pinterest? Do you plot out the entire novel? Or just start writing and hope for the best?

About Jodie @ Words Read & Written

Book blogger & aspiring author.
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47 Responses to How do you turn an idea into a novel?

  1. shegyes says:

    My process is similar. Most of my ideas develop from dreams. The dream will consist of one-two scenes and then I’ll develop a story around the idea leading up to and concluding the scenes I saw in the dream. Sometimes I pants the whole project.

    Sometimes I plan out each chapter meticulously in order to develop it fully. In the end, I have a full product based off a single dream.

    Too bad I have so many dreams with so many good ideas. I never seem to be able to turn them all into novels.

    Like

  2. shegyes says:

    My process is similar. Most of my ideas develop from dreams. The dream will consist of one-two scenes and then I’ll develop a story around the idea leading up to and concluding the scenes I saw in the dream. Sometimes I pants the whole project.

    Sometimes I plan out each chapter meticulously in order to develop it fully. In the end, I have a full product based off a single dream.

    Too bad I have so many dreams with so many good ideas. I never seem to be able to turn them all into novels.

    Like

    • krkampion says:

      I get most of my ideas from dreams too! However, it’s usually difficult to remember everything unless it’s crazy vivid and dreams like that are sadly few and far between. Usually it’s just one image from a dream that sticks with me and I build on that, whether it be a character, scene, or location.

      I always have to know how a story begins and ends before I can write it. I can’t write anything without a certain endgame in mind. It helps me keep the story focused. I’m a very plot oriented writer and I’m a firm believer that when duty calls, the characters will rise to the occasion. I know I should try to be more character driven, but this method has worked pretty well so far (I haven’t been officially published yet, so I can’t say if it works for certain).

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      • shegyes says:

        Until NaNoWriMo 2013, I’ve always “pantsed” everything I’ve written. Now I seem to be outlining everything. In a way, it’s staunching my creativity, but at the same time, I like knowing where the story’s going to leave me, and no one says I can’t deviate as I write. 😉

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      • krkampion says:

        Yeah, I’ve been outlining my current serialized fiction piece just because I have to know where the breaks for each installment are. I didn’t outline the story I’m working on for my thesis and really wish I had because I have to go back and change so many things at the beginning because of where the end wound up 😀

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  3. Depends on the novel for me. My triology I had a general idea of where I was going with the first book. Didn’t know how it would go, but by the time I got 2/3 of the way through, I knew it was a story that couldn’t be contained to one book. I sat bat and brainstormed ideas, and realized that three books could contain the story, each with it’s own purpose.

    However, with my novella, I knew what I wanted and where it ended, I just had no clue where it started.

    In both cases to an extent I wrote and found the story just flowing from my fingers as the ideas materialized and solidified.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mariam Tsaturyan says:

      I did exactly the same thing. I planned on writing a novel, but then realized there was too much to talk about, and many different directions that I wanted to take my novel in, so I decided to settle on a trilogy. Good luck with yours!

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  4. Depends on the novel for me. My triology I had a general idea of where I was going with the first book. Didn’t know how it would go, but by the time I got 2/3 of the way through, I knew it was a story that couldn’t be contained to one book. I sat bat and brainstormed ideas, and realized that three books could contain the story, each with it’s own purpose.

    However, with my novella, I knew what I wanted and where it ended, I just had no clue where it started.

    In both cases to an extent I wrote and found the story just flowing from my fingers as the ideas materialized and solidified.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hmmm. I’m not even sure WHAT to call my novel (i.e., YA, Fanatasy, etc).

    I think I’ll just wait by the side of the road, call AAA and wait for them to tell me.

    Like

  6. Hmmm. I’m not even sure WHAT to call my novel (i.e., YA, Fanatasy, etc).

    I think I’ll just wait by the side of the road, call AAA and wait for them to tell me.

    Like

  7. lexyneedham says:

    I tend to let a story run its course in my mind for a while (a long while these days) until I’ve hashed it out from start to finish and can fill an A3 sheet with my plan. Then I’m supposed to start writing, but usually I lose it or pour something over it and have to start again, but the ‘start writing’ thing has worked a couple of times.

    Like

  8. lexyneedham says:

    I tend to let a story run its course in my mind for a while (a long while these days) until I’ve hashed it out from start to finish and can fill an A3 sheet with my plan. Then I’m supposed to start writing, but usually I lose it or pour something over it and have to start again, but the ‘start writing’ thing has worked a couple of times.

    Like

  9. flightdoc says:

    The novels that I have had published already are part of a series, so continuing the series is my current method of deciding what to write, but that only gets you the beginning. I usually seem to ponder these things in the hours or moments before waking, because I wake with ideas in my head. Once I have some direction I let my imagination make its own way.

    I do have one novel I still plan to write that involves time travel, but I don’t have the details worked out in my mind well enough yet, to write it.

    Like

  10. flightdoc says:

    The novels that I have had published already are part of a series, so continuing the series is my current method of deciding what to write, but that only gets you the beginning. I usually seem to ponder these things in the hours or moments before waking, because I wake with ideas in my head. Once I have some direction I let my imagination make its own way.

    I do have one novel I still plan to write that involves time travel, but I don’t have the details worked out in my mind well enough yet, to write it.

    Like

  11. I get my basic characters (hero, heroine, big-bad, sidekick), then pick a setting and a character theme. Setting could be as simple as picking up the lonely planet book for Korea or Scandinavia, and imagining what it will be like in 200 years (for SF) & what it was like 200 years ago (for atmosphere). Theme could be something like Aesop’s Fables characters, or the Roman pantheon: something to help flesh out the world and the characters.
    For the plot I write a start, a finish, and a conflict, then flesh it out. I use all-caps to put unwritten sections where I think they’ll go, and let my mind write whatever it’s most into on any given day.
    Then set a word goal per day (Terry Pratchett used 400 before he was successful enough to write full time). If it’s not flowing I force it.
    Every time I need to turn an amorphous blob of an idea into something solid I go read wiki about history (usually awesome dramatic things happened and somebody was kind enough to write these down).
    That’s my process in a nutshell! Happy writing.

    Like

  12. I get my basic characters (hero, heroine, big-bad, sidekick), then pick a setting and a character theme. Setting could be as simple as picking up the lonely planet book for Korea or Scandinavia, and imagining what it will be like in 200 years (for SF) & what it was like 200 years ago (for atmosphere). Theme could be something like Aesop’s Fables characters, or the Roman pantheon: something to help flesh out the world and the characters.
    For the plot I write a start, a finish, and a conflict, then flesh it out. I use all-caps to put unwritten sections where I think they’ll go, and let my mind write whatever it’s most into on any given day.
    Then set a word goal per day (Terry Pratchett used 400 before he was successful enough to write full time). If it’s not flowing I force it.
    Every time I need to turn an amorphous blob of an idea into something solid I go read wiki about history (usually awesome dramatic things happened and somebody was kind enough to write these down).
    That’s my process in a nutshell! Happy writing.

    Like

  13. Mariam Tsaturyan says:

    My novel is a paranormal romance. It involves vampires, humans, and some other otherworldly creatures. I came up with the subject very easily as I had a fascination with vampires since I was a child. The plot of my book came from a dream/forced dream. I tried to imagine watching a movie about vampires and humans, and I told myself, think of something that has not been done before, at least not in a major way, and what would grab my attention if I was watching a movie. So I started developing my story just as I was watching it happen in a movie.
    Thus far this has been my process with this specific book. I am not sure if the same approach will work for other books/genres yet, I’ll let you know when I write one!

    Happy writing everyone!

    Like

  14. Mariam Tsaturyan says:

    My novel is a paranormal romance. It involves vampires, humans, and some other otherworldly creatures. I came up with the subject very easily as I had a fascination with vampires since I was a child. The plot of my book came from a dream/forced dream. I tried to imagine watching a movie about vampires and humans, and I told myself, think of something that has not been done before, at least not in a major way, and what would grab my attention if I was watching a movie. So I started developing my story just as I was watching it happen in a movie.
    Thus far this has been my process with this specific book. I am not sure if the same approach will work for other books/genres yet, I’ll let you know when I write one!

    Happy writing everyone!

    Like

  15. pauljgies says:

    I live with four or five ideas in my head. They’re more mixed than yours are, just a blend of a couple of vague characters, a setting, a conflict. They can be sci fi, fantasy, time travel; inevitably they are “YA” in the sense of not containing much profanity or explicit sex (my 11-year-old basically reads over my shoulder and rereads multiply his favorite of my novels) but inevitably they deal with adult issues (divorce, lost love, impossible choices, forever goodbyes, the knowledge of doom). My characters develop only as I write them, and I think that’s how I avoid writing stereotypes (you can read my stuff on WordPress and decide for yourself if I succeed). By now (I am 5700 years old, about) I finish almost all the novels I start, but the success rate of ideas is only about 30%.

    Like

  16. pauljgies says:

    I live with four or five ideas in my head. They’re more mixed than yours are, just a blend of a couple of vague characters, a setting, a conflict. They can be sci fi, fantasy, time travel; inevitably they are “YA” in the sense of not containing much profanity or explicit sex (my 11-year-old basically reads over my shoulder and rereads multiply his favorite of my novels) but inevitably they deal with adult issues (divorce, lost love, impossible choices, forever goodbyes, the knowledge of doom). My characters develop only as I write them, and I think that’s how I avoid writing stereotypes (you can read my stuff on WordPress and decide for yourself if I succeed). By now (I am 5700 years old, about) I finish almost all the novels I start, but the success rate of ideas is only about 30%.

    Like

  17. a.h.richards says:

    Interesting coincidence; I’m writing about just this topic now, on my blog. I rely a lot on my subconscious, but to explain would take far too long a comment. You can have a look at my blog if you want. I’ve written two posts, and counting, on the subject so far. It’s my new writing blog “Here be dragons, and bunnies…” is the first installment, which is just a ‘settling in’ bit, then there’s a second post that gets into the ‘meat’ of it.
    You sound like you really have your writing method worked out exceptionally well, Jodie. Good luck with this next one.

    Like

  18. a.h.richards says:

    Interesting coincidence; I’m writing about just this topic now, on my blog. I rely a lot on my subconscious, but to explain would take far too long a comment. You can have a look at my blog if you want. I’ve written two posts, and counting, on the subject so far. It’s my new writing blog “Here be dragons, and bunnies…” is the first installment, which is just a ‘settling in’ bit, then there’s a second post that gets into the ‘meat’ of it.
    You sound like you really have your writing method worked out exceptionally well, Jodie. Good luck with this next one.

    Like

  19. barn7777 says:

    I like the points you listed–they’re definitely things to think about when coming up with an idea and something I am not sure I thought of entirely before, but will moving forward.. For me, my story ideas come from dreams and random thoughts. For my first 3 stories, I have not documented my ideas right away, I guess they were meant to be stories because it took a while (in some case a few years) before I decided I was going to turn these dreams and thoughts into stories. However, now I almost immediately draft a “blueprint” once an idea comes to mind, knowing that through the actual writing process it could go either way and all sorts of places 🙂

    Like

  20. barn7777 says:

    I like the points you listed–they’re definitely things to think about when coming up with an idea and something I am not sure I thought of entirely before, but will moving forward.. For me, my story ideas come from dreams and random thoughts. For my first 3 stories, I have not documented my ideas right away, I guess they were meant to be stories because it took a while (in some case a few years) before I decided I was going to turn these dreams and thoughts into stories. However, now I almost immediately draft a “blueprint” once an idea comes to mind, knowing that through the actual writing process it could go either way and all sorts of places 🙂

    Like

  21. I use much the same process only with science fiction. I decide what the worlds are going to be like, the characters and how diversified they are from one another. Then I decide what technology is going to be used and in what way. I decide what the overall plot is going to be, and what subplots are going to be within the story. One of my faults, however, is that I need to be more descriptive, most of my writing is more dialogue.

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  22. I use much the same process only with science fiction. I decide what the worlds are going to be like, the characters and how diversified they are from one another. Then I decide what technology is going to be used and in what way. I decide what the overall plot is going to be, and what subplots are going to be within the story. One of my faults, however, is that I need to be more descriptive, most of my writing is more dialogue.

    Like

  23. athling2001 says:

    My writing usually start with a voice and a character who tells me his story.

    Like

  24. athling2001 says:

    My writing usually start with a voice and a character who tells me his story.

    Like

  25. The ideas just come to me. I’ve been trying to write this YA novel for years ever since my brother screamed “What happens in tomato fields STAYS in tomato fields” to my friend (who he worked on a farm with) when I was asking her what girl he had a crush on. Then as I thought of it, the character came out of nowhere, this sad young girl whose only friend killed herself during the holidays. I thought about how rednecks were so good at having fun, and how their recklessness could give some joy back to her life.
    All my other ideas are what I call my “fairy curse” novels. They’re novels centered around a fairy’s curse, sometimes fashioned after a fairy tale. All fantasy novels, all romances, and all incredibly hard to think of a plot for. I have five books planned out, one mostly finished and three started, but I need more creativity (and time) to figure out how to get from point A to point Z in the best way.

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  26. The ideas just come to me. I’ve been trying to write this YA novel for years ever since my brother screamed “What happens in tomato fields STAYS in tomato fields” to my friend (who he worked on a farm with) when I was asking her what girl he had a crush on. Then as I thought of it, the character came out of nowhere, this sad young girl whose only friend killed herself during the holidays. I thought about how rednecks were so good at having fun, and how their recklessness could give some joy back to her life.
    All my other ideas are what I call my “fairy curse” novels. They’re novels centered around a fairy’s curse, sometimes fashioned after a fairy tale. All fantasy novels, all romances, and all incredibly hard to think of a plot for. I have five books planned out, one mostly finished and three started, but I need more creativity (and time) to figure out how to get from point A to point Z in the best way.

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  27. I think of a complex female main character (who probably has a symbolic name) and then a story to go along with her. And then other characters. And then I write like 8 pages and realize I need a plot. That’s when I start brainstorming. My method might be why I have three work in progress novels.

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  28. My stories always appear as movies inside my head. That’s not to say I don’t know what I’m going to see when I go to the theater, though!
    I’m working on a sci-fi series (See themoldyripegrape.wordpress.com for some of the background info on the universe) so ‘Who’ and ‘Where’ are ‘the series characters’ and ‘The League,’ most likely on the planet Azure where they live between adventures. Likewise ‘When’ is ‘after the last adventure.’
    ‘What’ is the most fascinating question for me. Sometimes I get hit by an idea while I’m in the middle of a story. I have a ‘scratch-paper document’ open, always, so I switch to it and jot down the idea(s). Of course I also credit God with at least 90% of my inspiration; both big-picture and page-level detail. As to the rest, I just let the movie run inside my brain and transcribe it as best I can.
    -matt

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  29. Fredrik Kayser says:

    For me it begins with an itch to write, I’ll jot down whatever comes out and sometimes that triggers something in my mind and the story just explodes and expand before my minds eye. Everything after that feels like a reaching for pieces, puzzling them together and brainstorming for the surrounding details to hammer everything out. Mind maps, lists, family trees, magic systems, nations, agriculture, the list goes on haha. I’ll plot until I get stuck and then write more random stuff and trigger the process again.

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  30. amandadolsen says:

    Reblogged this on Ikastra and commented:
    Jodie has some great points here, and since my internet pooped out last night, I’m going to pass it on to you guys as my post for yesterday.

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  31. Mrs. C Writes says:

    I tend to have ‘lightbulb’ moments and go from there. I like brainstorming (or mind mapping to be more PC). Like you, once I have my main characters ironed out, I just go with the flow. I tend to plot a skeletal outline but it’s flexible and likely to change.

    As someone pretty new to writing, I was surprised how the characters seemed to just have stories to tell…

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  32. haleeanglero says:

    I’m an avid outline writer. I work on paper a lot and keep the notebook next to the computer when I’m typing.

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  33. hellphie says:

    Reblogged this on hellphie's fiendish fiction and commented:
    I often wonder about how other authors write. Am I doing it wrong?
    For me, inspiration usually comes from visual cues. Like a candy necklace hanging in a tree or a website about the Diefenbunker Museum. I see something and suddenly, I have a scene in my head. I may not know who the characters are or how they got to where they are, but I know that that scene has to exist. I jot down the idea and let it simmer for a little while – especially if I’m in the middle of writing something else.
    I’m not a plotter. I don’t sit down and come up with all my characters and outline what they’re going to be. Generally, I have a vague notion about the broad strokes of the story and who my main character is going to be – I know her name. As I write, I create character/location lists so I can keep everything straight. But otherwise, I just sit and write and the story creates itself. I refer to my style of writing as ‘ghost writing’ – not writing under someone else’s name, but the paranormal kind where you just scribble a pen across the page until you start to channel a spirit. ‘Kay , that makes me sound a crazy person. I do not believe that I am possessed by a spirit while I’m writing. What I’m doing is just letting the writing flow. Characters appear to me as I need them. Events happen as the characters develop. When I hit a roadblock, I actually do the thing with the pen. I just scribble until words start to form. Sounds wackadoo, but it works for me. Eventually, I get to the scene that sparked the story and that’s usually when the ending comes to me. Needless to say, I’m a linear writer. No hopping around for me.
    This style leads to some plot inconsistencies, but that’s what the editing process is for. For me, writing a story isn’t that dissimilar from reading a story. I discover it as I’m moving through it. Do you write? What’s your process?

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  34. melodyspen says:

    It seems that all of my stories have developed in completely different ways, or I should say that the ideas have come from different places. I’ve had some that were sparked into life by strange dreams, some from research and others that just miraculously appear in my brain.

    To answer your question more appropriately, though, I have to confess that I’m never the type to plan ahead, I just start writing and let my characters lead the way.

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  35. Oh man, my process is NOTHING like this.

    My writing happens to me, a lot like a semi-truck. I’ll be doing whatever, and then BAM! Run over by a fully formed idea.

    At least it seems fully formed, until I try to write it.

    Sometimes the words come unbidden, and I write frantically until they run dry, and sometimes I have to just ramble aloud (apaper?) until it starts to look less like gibberish, more like story. But all the fun details, the who the where the what the why the how? They just come out in the writing. Then I have ALL the editing ahead of me when I’m done.

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  36. tlehmann says:

    A concise list that summarizes the challenges of finishing the writing. Well done and keep up the great work!

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  37. redkittycat says:

    I’m not sure what my process is, usually I just get a random scene in my head and work from there. For my short stories I just tend to go with the flow, but for my novel I make a rough outline and build the world up as I go. Too much planning kills my interest, I find.

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  38. I love your “happiness is” picture. Yes, that’s true 🙂 . I need an idea that’s too big to tell in a short story, that grabs me enough that I want to tell it. I need to get inside the main character’s head and know what’s keeping them up at night. I wanted to be a “pantser” and just be able to write it off the top of my head, but after that I start asking questions. Based on this problem, what do they do about it, how will the bad guy react, and I keep it going over and over again until the story is finished.

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  39. fireflyin says:

    My method is almost exactly like yours, except I switch steps 2 and 5. 🙂 I always come up with a story first and characters later.

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  40. tlehmann says:

    Very nice summary. I find the blog and the book I am writing feed into each other with regular posts to my blog keeping me in the habit and style of the novel on days when I don’t feel like working on the book

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