From Ideas to Published Novels: A Guest Piece by Victoria Williamson
One of the most common questions I’m asked on school visits by pupils is, “Where do you get your ideas from?”
People often assume that authors’ brains work differently to everyone else’s, and that ideas for stories magically pop into our brains in a way that they don’t for everyone else. But if you spend ten minutes in any school in the country, you’ll be amazed at the wealth of imaginative ideas that every pupil has fizzing away inside their head. I’ve lost count of the number of creative writing classes I’ve taught when I’ve gone away thinking, “Wow, that was an amazing story idea that pupil had. I wish I’d thought of it!”
The reason we’re all so full of ideas, is that we all have access to the same sources of inspiration. We all have interesting life experiences, people and places who are important to us, music, tv shows and books we enjoy, news stories or gossip that makes us sit up and take notice, and odd dreams that leave us intrigued or unsettled. The thing that caught my attention, and that led to my novel War of the Wind, was a wind turbine. I’d been talking to my mother one day about one of my favourite science fiction book series as a child, The Tripods, when she mentioned that she thought wind turbines looked a bit spooky too, almost as though they were made by an alien species. The next time I saw one in the distance, instead of just ignoring it, I stood there observing and really paying attention to it. It did look a bit spooky, I realised. And while for me it didn’t spark a story idea about an alien invasion, it did sow the seeds of a science fiction story about a secret government sound-wave weapons test gone wrong.
So why is it that this idea became a book, and the millions of ideas other people had on the same day didn’t? Well, the biggest difference between authors and everyone else isn’t the ideas, it’s what we do with those ideas. Everyone is imaginative and creative. Everyone can come up with loads of great story ideas, both from their personal experience, and from the things they see around them. It’s what happens next that determines whether those story ideas melt away like dreams in the morning, or become published works of fiction.
Here’s the secret: you have to sit down and work regularly at turning those ideas into a narrative that makes sense from beginning, middle to end, and has some interesting characters that will keep your reader engaged. I’m not going to pretend this bit is always fun. Sometimes it is – sometimes there are days when the words fly onto the page or screen, and the story seems to almost write itself. But other days are hard, and each sentence seems to be a struggle to put together. That’s why it’s so important to write regularly – it’s not only good practise, but it helps you to make progress even when you have a run of bad writing days or when you get stuck.
On those bad writing days, it helps to go back to your source of inspiration, and try to remember what made you want to write the story in the first place. Is it a memory that’s really important to you? Is it about a person or a place that you care about or that interests you? Is it about something that made you laugh or cry, or something that thrilled or scared you? Was there an object, a photograph, a piece of music or something you noticed on your trip to school or the shops that struck you as unusual?
Whatever your inspiration was, focusing on it will help you to find your writing rhythm again. Whenever I got stuck while writing War of the Wind, I’d take a walk and look at the wind turbines on the distant horizon. Sometimes the sun would be shining and they’d look innocent enough. On other days, they’ be shrouded in mist and faintly humming in the breeze, and I’d wonder, “What are you whispering to each other..?” I’d come home with fresh motivation for writing, and sitting back down at my computer, the words would flow more easily.
If you’d like to take your ideas one stage further, then there are lots of ways to bridge that huge gulf between them and a finished story or a full length novel. Do you like to draw? Then doodle some pictures that pop into your head, and try to arrange them in a storyboard like scenes in a film. Do you prefer to write? Then make some lists of characters, problems they have to solve, or adventures they can go on. Add to your lists a little bit at a time, until you’re ready to start writing the first few paragraphs that will introduce your readers to the ‘Who, What, When, Where, and Why’ of your story.
The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” I like to think that a story of a thousand words begins with a single idea. But don’t just stop there. Take the next step, keep going, and turn those ideas into an imaginative journey that you readers can go on alongside you.
War of the Wind by Victoria Williamson is out on September 23rd 2022, RRP £8.99, A Seven Seas Collection from Neem Tree Press.