I’ve been a published author since 1995 and a workshop and conference speaker for nearly that long. Over the years, I’ve heard the same questions a hundred times: How much money do you make? (No comment) Should I give up my day job? (Not unless you are a trust fund baby or married to a successful person with a good dental plan) How do I get an agent ( Worry about the writing first. When you are ready, an agent will appear) How many rules are there for writing a novel (Three but no one knows what they are. Thanks, S. Maugham!) And the number one question: How do I get ideas for novels, and how do I know whether they’re any good?
My ideas come from reading tons of biographies and histories and from reading newspapers both past and present and thinking about how these events affect large numbers of people. Other strategies: park yourself in a busy place–an airport, shopping mall, or at a sporting event, and invent lives for the strangers passing by. Rewrite a fairy tale or legend as a modern-day story. Once you’ve developed the core of your story, think about whether this is a good story idea, or a bad one. The late, great writing teacher Gary Provost used a FIT test to determine the quality of an idea.
Familiarity: Is your story about a woman who watches a best friend slowly waste away from cancer? A foster child in trouble? A man who has had the same postal route for fifty years? A subject may be personally meaningful to you but too familiar to make a compelling novel.
Importance: You may be the only person in your town who knows how to shoe a horse, but does that make for an interesting novel?
Truth: A story idea is not good merely because it happens to be true.
Provost wrote that what these things have in common is that they meet the writer’s needs. The territory is already so familiar the writer has no need to dig deep or do research. A good idea meets the reader’s needs.
What are the qualities of a good novel, one that readers will love and pass on to others? Mr. Provost has another acronym: WAGS
World: The best stories open up a new world for readers, show them something they have not experienced before. Good novels exhibit a strong sense of place.
Action: Your characters should not be passive, but should take action, affect what’s happening in the story.Provost: It’s not what happens to the character that makes her interesting. It’s what she does about it.
Goals: What does this character want, and why ( which speaks to the importance of character motivation).
Stakes: What happens if the character does not reach her goal? The higher the stakes the more tension in the story. True love, life and death, the fate of a nation, or a ship adrift at sea, can all be turned into high stakes stories.
Using these tips to evaluate your story ideas can save valuable time and set you on the path to writing a compelling novel. Good luck!