The Big Idea: What Should I Write About?

Probably the most common question non-writers ask writers is “Where do you get your ideas?” (“Well, there’s a store down the street with a 2-for-1 offer…”) New writers ask a similar question: “What should I write about?”

The truth is, ideas come from anywhere. They’re cheap. A dime a dozen is way overpriced. You can get ideas by reading the paper, watching the news, reading books, and surfing the Internet. You can get ideas from dreams, from friends, from life experience.

The critical thing is that you find an idea you’re passionate about — one that excites you, that keeps you awake, that grabs hold and just won’t let go. THAT is the kind of idea that will hold your interest through the long process of writing a novel.

When I get that idea, I write it down so I don’t forget about it, but I don’t rush to start the story. I’m a plotter, remember. First I hold onto the idea, mull it, savor it. I play “What if?” If I have flashes of insight or interesting ideas, I write those down too. Those ideas may not find their way into the story, but they may be springboards for ideas that do.

I’ll talk more about brainstorming and developing the idea in a later post. Right now I want to focus more on the idea itself and some things you should consider when choosing an idea to develop.

Write what you enjoy reading

Peruse your bookshelves. What do you read? Got a whole bookcase of mysteries? Does fantasy line the shelves from top to bottom? Are your tastes more erudite showing a love of the classics? Maybe YA and middle-grade fiction are still your favorite stories.

Ideas that you’re passionate about AND happen to fall into a genre you love reading should be the first you seriously consider turning into a novel. Why? Because you understand the genre and the readers of it. You know what’s expected — and what isn’t.

If you don’t enjoy reading a particular type of story, don’t try to write it. If your reason for wanting to write in a particular genre is because “All the stories suck, and I could do so much better,” don’t do it. Readers (and agents and publishers) of that genre like the stories, and they will detect your arrogance and lack of connection with them, their genre, and their needs from a football field away.

Target a current genre

Genres and subjects go in and out of favor. For fans of a not-currently-popular genre who can’t find new stories, this is an irritation. For someone who wants to write a novel that he or she plans to traditionally publish, this is an industry reality.

I am *not* suggesting that you jump on the “trend wagon” and write the latest, hottest thing out there. Honestly, by the time you flesh out an idea, write it, go through critiques and revisions, and polish it, the trend will likely be over. Even if it’s not over yet, by the time you find an agent and get the book on shelves, it will definitely be over.

What I am suggesting, however, is that you stick to genres that are active, healthy genres today, because those will be the books that a publisher is more willing to take a chance on. For example, westerns simply aren’t a hot genre right now. So what should you do if you love westerns and have an idea for a western you’re crazy about? Well, if that’s your only idea — or it absolutely won’t let you go — write it! But if you’re wavering between a couple of ideas and the other is in a hot genre, you might want to start with the one in the hot genre. Show your agent and publisher that you can write an incredible story in a different genre, and they just might be willing to take a chance on that western later. (Or westerns might have a resurgence of popularity!)

Write what you know

This is probably the most misunderstood advice in the writing world. After all, the whole purpose of research is to educate you about something you don’t know! Between research and imagination, writers are able to write convincingly about almost anything.

So why offer this piece of advice? In this case I’m referring specifically to things you know well — things you’re passionate about. (There’s that word again: PASSION.) What are your hobbies? What are you good at? What do you love? Mine those areas for ideas for stories. As an insider, you will have insights into that world that no one else will.

I love animals of all kinds, but especially dogs. So what am I writing a novel about? A dog. What were my screenplays about? Dogs. Will all my writing be about animals? Probably not, but I started writing by focusing on the thing I knew the most about and cared the most about. It meant I could focus on learning my craft with less time needed for research and learning. Was “writing what I know” required? No. But I believe it made the learning curve less steep.

After you get your big idea

Some writers have a tendency to stop reading, particularly in their genre, once they begin writing because they don’t want to be unduly influenced by another author’s style or plot. I think that’s a mistake. I think writers should both read books and watch movies in their chosen genre while they’re writing.

Nothing helps a writer grasp the flow of written language the way reading does. Find out who the “best” writers in your genre are. Read them. Absorb them. Next will try to give the idea some form.

Hybrid Writers vs. Hybrid Publishers

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