Turning Your Great Idea Into a Book

I can’t count the number of times an aspiring writer has told me, “I have a great idea, but I don’t know how to make it into a whole book.” Or, “I started this book with a great idea, but I’ve reached a wall that I can’t get over. I don’t know where to go from here.” I’ve been in that same situation more than once myself, but one thing I’ve learned over the years is that if you’re a born story-teller, you can write your way through almost anything.

With all the preaching we get about “pantsters” vs “plotters” and “goal-motivation-conflict” – and that we must obey all the rules of writing and that we always need a solid outline, I worry that new writers are the ones who fret too much about the “rules” of writing. They end up making statements like those above and they want answers. My answer to that is … FORGET ALL THE RULES! One thing that seems to be ignored in all the talks we listen to and all the workshops we go to is you just plain have to SIT DOWN AND WRITE! I can’t imagine how many valuable writing hours have been lost to newer writers who spend too much time and drip too much sweat over whether or not their story idea will follow all the writing rules – trying to plan ahead for goal, motivation and conflict – plotting and plotting, not sure if the story will really work out the way they want – writing and re-writing the synopsis rather than working on the book itself.

When my numbers went down a few years ago over the fall of the western romance genre, I went a few years without selling anything, even though by then I had over 50 books published and those were still selling. I was told by my “then” agent that I had to change genres and try to write something different. Not only that, but she wanted me to submit the “old fashioned” way – a synopsis and the first three chapters. Not only did I hate the idea of changing genres (my heart lies in the Old West), but I TRIPLE-hated writing synopses and deciding what to include in those first three chapters.

I WASTED A GOOD FIVE YEARS fretting over what to write and struggling with these synopses and first chapters. I am a total pantster, and I truly HATE KNOWING WHAT WILL HAPPEN IN MY STORIES BEFORE I WRITE THEM! By the time I am done with the synopsis for a story and have written those first three chapters, I feel like I’ve already written the book. The excitement and enthusiasm for my story is gone. Even if the book were to follow the genre I love, I would have trouble with writing that synopsis and those first three chapters. Inevitably, when I do finish a book, the original synopsis has been thrown out the window, and because by then I truly know what happens and know my characters deeply, those first three chapters almost always go out the window along with the synopsis.

It wasn’t until I sat down and WROTE A WHOLE BOOK FIRST that I finally SOLD AGAIN! And do you know why? I simply sat down and started a story (PARADISE VALLEY) and I let the story-line, the basic time-line and situation, my “idea,”and ESPECIALLY the CHARACTERS play out the story all on their own. And always, always, when I have finished a book – guess what? Goal, motivation and conflict fall right into place without me planning and plotting and worrying if I’m fulfilling those rules. Only when I FINISHED my book did I THEN go back and write the synopsis (because I thoroughly knew my story) and I used those first three chapters for my submission. And BECAUSE THE BOOK WAS FINISHED, that was a huge selling point in approaching the publisher (Sourcebooks). Editors/publishers love it when a book is already finished. It saves them bundles of time – and the author in turn is paid her ENTIRE advance all at once, rather than half of it to buy the “idea” and the other half up to six months or more later after the finished book is turned in and accepted.

The subject of this blog is “turning your idea into a book.” My advice, if you are having trouble fleshing out your idea for a story, is to stop trying to zero in on your idea/subject. Make it a more subtle, underlying theme. LET THE CHARACTERS write your story FOR you. Let your idea/theme be a PART of their lives, and don’t sweat over constantly keeping that idea the highlight of your book. Readers want to get involved in the CHARACTERS - not in your idea or your theme. I promise you, if you stop wasting time re-writing your synopsis and those first three chapters and just SIT DOWN AND WRITE THE STORY, everything you were fretting over will work out.

WRITING is the key to finishing a book.

WRITING is the key to getting through your sagging middle.

WRITING is the key to getting over the walls that rise in front of you and the problem of not being sure what should happen next and of wondering if you even have enough going on in your plot to build your story into a whole book.

WRITING is the key to actually having something to submit to an editor. When you are brand new, that editor can’t be sure that you are actually capable of finishing a book, so start out with a finished book as proof that yes, you CAN write a whole book. When I first started writing, I finished each book before I submitted the ENTIRE MANUSCRIPT to various publishers, rather than a synopsis and chapters. I wrote and submitted nine books that way, and it was the ninth book I finally sold (SWEET PRAIRIE PASSION). And because it was finished, and because the editor liked the story and characters so much, she asked if I could continue the hero and heroine’s story – thus I immediately sold FOUR BOOKS rather than just the one I submitted. The editor could see that I was capable of finishing a book and was pretty sure I could write another and another. The fun part was that I had NO idea what would happen in ANY of the books and I was not even asked to first submit a synopsis. My editor saw right away that I was a total pantster and story-teller. And as I wrote each book, the characters took care of each story as they grew and progressed, and new characters just walked into the stories that helped me expand the series.

Ideas are great. I have drawers full of notes and articles on which I scribbled, “Story Idea.” The same note probably shows up hundreds of times in all my research books. I would highlight a certain sentence or paragraph and write, “story idea”next to it. But never once have I sat for hours or days or weeks playing with that idea and trying to figure out how I could make it work. I simply sat down and started my story with that “idea” in mind. I almost never even know the background of my hero and heroine. I work on that as I write the book. I don’t fret over their goals and motivations, and usually the conflict takes care of itself, especially if the story is set around an historical event that would naturally create conflict (culture conflict - Indian wars/Mexican war) – (political conflict – Civil War/Revolutionary War) – (family conflict in a family saga) – (financial conflict – wealthy hero or heroine meets destitute hero or heroine) – (personal relations conflict over unrequited love or a love triangle) – (emotional conflict over a woman having to leave her family to follow her husband west, or where they should settle, or the man wanting to leave to search for gold or to join a war, or a heroine blaming the hero for the loss of a child) and the myriad of other types of conflict we all know about and many of us have experienced in our own lives.

Setting, situation, location, event, time line – all play a part in goal, motivation and conflict. You don’t necessarily need to have it all down pat when you start your story. Time and again, when I have struggled with something like this, if I keep writing, or sometimes do just a bit more research, the answers come flowing in and the story takes off. In fact, it just happened to me in the book I am currently writing. I was worried it would be far shorter than I wanted, and also worried about the conflict. Just a tad more research as well as bringing in a man who challenges the hero for his wife’s love broke everything open for me. Now I know the story will be big and dramatic and realistic and will fit right into my basic “idea,” which is to set a story around the infamous Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado in 1864. It’s a sequel to CAPTURE MY HEART (which I call A WARRIOR’S PROMISE), so the challenge for me regarding hero and heroine was that they are already married and very much in love, so to create conflict, I had to find a way to drive a wedge between them without ruining the love they share. My basic “idea” to use the Sand Creek Massacre mushroomed into a fresh love story about challenges that face any marriage, as well as a great historical saga that will dramatize a real historical event and HOW THAT EVENT AFFECTS HERO AND HEROINE. The way it affects them creates the conflict – and both of them have the goal of getting through their cultural differences. (The hero is half Cheyenne and very “Indian”at heart – the heroine is white and very independent.) Their motivation to make things work is their deep love for each other in SPITE of their differences.

This is how you develop a simple idea into a full-fledged novel without sitting for weeks trying to figure out how to do that. Everything in this book happened through me SITTING DOWN AND WRITING rather than staring at historical facts and trying to figure out how to get my characters involved.

It all comes down to the most BASIC, most IMPORTANT tool to writing and finishing a good book. SIT DOWN AND WRITE! This past summer I’ve had some huge emotional (family) challenges of my own to get over. It really put a halt to my writing, but I have discovered that the only way to get over that was to listen to my own advice and to SIT DOWN AND WRITE in spite of my heartache. The deeper I get into my story and characters, the more involved I get in both, which all helps me forget my personal troubles and helps me pay attention to my story instead.

So quit wasting time trying to figure out where to go with your story. Just SIT DOWN AND WRITE and let plain old human nature take over when it comes to your characters. People are people, and your characters should behave and react to the situation in which you get them involved just like any humans react. Throw in their particular conflict and set it all against your basic idea, and you have a story!


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