Master Your Craft: The Big Idea

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll  discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. (For more information, see last week’s intro post.) This week, I’ll discuss The Big Idea.

So you’re ready to write a novel. You’ve got a character, maybe a scene, a vague idea of the plot…you’re ready to sit down and start writing, right?

Not so fast.

Even seasoned writers can be fooled by a Shiny New Idea. So before you dive into drafting, take some time to test your book-to-be and make sure your new idea is also a Big Idea.

Here are some of the questions we Pennies ask ourselves at the dawn of a new idea:

  • Do I have passion for this story? This might seem obvious, but a novel takes a while to write, and it’s crucial that you have a deep and abiding passion that can sustain you. Another way to ask this question: Is this a story I must tell the world, or is it just a story I’d like to read? I wrote 20,000 words of my current WIP before realizing that one aspect of my story just wasn’t interesting enough to me to push me through all the research I needed to do. I’d love to read that original idea, but it isn’t a story my heart longs to tell.
  • Do I feel urgency to tell this story NOW? I have an entire file of story ideas. Some of them are really cool! But none of them are begging me to tell them right this second. That sense of urgency is another indication that this is a Big Idea.
  • Do I have a vivid protagonist with an overarching goal? In other words, who is your main character, and what does he or she want? Can you hear his or her voice? This is the foundation of any story, and if you don’t have this, it’s going to be so much harder to spin a full novel out of your idea. I’m not sure The Hobbit would have had such enduring power if Bilbo hadn’t longed with his entire being to be back in the Shire.
  • Can I visualize the entire story arc? Often the beginnings of our ideas are just the flash of a character or a scene. But of course, novels need more than one brilliant scene or one fascinating character. Take some time to consider where your story is going. What sets off the action? How does the MC change as the story progresses? What peak conflict will push your MC to the end of the story?
  • Can I write a logline for this story? If you can write a pithy pitch for your idea before you write a word of the story itself, chances are you’ve got the makings of a Big Idea.
  • Are others excited when I tell them my idea? How do your CPs react when you tell them your pitch? Are there “oohs” and “aahs”? Or are they asking questions and offering “what ifs”? Other writers are especially good at recognizing Big Ideas, and if they’re not sold, chances are you have more work to do. And it’s pretty important to get feedback at this stage, even though we can all be very protective of our fledgling stories. Our agented Pennies have reported sending slews of new ideas to their agents only to be told that none of them quite pass muster as is. Most of the time, this just means you need to do the work of fleshing out the idea and finding a unique way into the story. But it is way better to learn this before you write 60,000 words.
  • Is there a market for my idea? Although this question can put a damper on your Shiny New Idea excitement, it’s really important to do this research. Don’t be the author trying to sell a dystopian after the market flood of apocalyptic fiction!

Sadly, some story ideas are flawed from the get-go. Stubborn writers can spend years working on stories that will ultimately go nowhere…and a lot of that heartbreak can be avoided if you take a few days or weeks to really road-test your story first.

And if you can answer “YES!” to all these questions? Congratulations! You’re still not quite ready to write, but you’re one step closer to seeing your Big Idea become a Big Fat Novel.

(Need help coming up with a Big Idea? Check out this earlier Winged Pen post about creative cross-pollination, this one about writing prompts, or this one exploring where ideas come from, to get your creative juices flowing.)

Come back next Wednesday where we’ll discuss Main Character Development.

4 thoughts on “Master Your Craft: The Big Idea

  1. Hi Richelle,
    Thank you for offering these weekly posts on writing the novel. I found this one very helpful and thoughtful, but at the end I heard, “Wah, wah, waaah…” in my head.
    I have an idea for a chapter or MG with a main character and some of her traits/abilities, two supporting friends and the idea of a small mystery built in. I’ve been fleshing things out around the characters and what could happen, even coming up with nicknames.
    I can’t answer all of the above questions with a resounding “YES!” but I’m not sure if I’d be able to right away anyway.
    Are most authors able to do this every time? I also appreciate the question about the sense of urgency–are you talking about having a message that just needs to get out there or because I really think my characters are relatable to kids (just like I used to get so hooked on characters?) or both?
    Looking forward to the next post! Thank you.

    1. Thanks for reading, Maureen. Let me see if I can answer some of your questions!

      As for urgency, most of us Pennies have many ideas floating around at once, but there is usually ONE that we’re just dying to write. An idea that keeps pushing at you, that you’re interested in spending time with (one that inspires you to come up with nicknames!) is an idea that has urgency. It doesn’t mean it has to be timely — after all, it can take years to get a book written and published. Urgency in this sense means you, the author, feel a sense of personal urgency to tell this particular story.

      And some of these questions may take a while to answer. As you noodle around with your idea, more and more of the answers will tilt over to “yes”…or you’ll explore a bit and realize a few may tilt to “no” — much of it comes with experience and talking to other writers, too.

      Good luck with your writing!

  2. I love the advice that says: Do my CPs get excited by my idea? And you have a file full of ideas, but you will probably only use one or two ideas from this file. So true.

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