ideas are overrated but you'll need one anyway
inspiration and refinement, PLUS questions from readers + introducing the AFN discord
Hello! This issue of the newsletter was drafted in advance—at the very moment you are reading this, I am in Las Vegas, waiting to attend the When We Were Young Festival. Will it be a Fyre Fest of epic proportions, leaving us starving and swilling tequila in lieu of actually seeing any bands? Will we all dissolve into pyromania and violence like Woodstock 99? It’s anyone’s guess! I’ll report back.
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As promised, I’d love to do a bit of a deeper dive into the creative process as a NaNoWriMo series, now that I’ve actually admitted in public to having written a novel. We’re going to start with the basis of any novel: the idea. I don’t know how specific y’all want me to get about the actual content of my book—part of me feels like I’m talking about an embarrassing child, one I built from the ground up like Pinocchio or Frankenstein’s Monster. Each time I describe it I think “how stupid does this sound?”
The answer is probably very, because the act of sharing something intimate and personal is considered a little cringe in our meme-obsessed irony vulture culture. And given that my job for many, many years was to make judgment calls on people’s closely-cherished ideas, it’s a little daunting to find myself on the other end of the equation.
Regardless, you’re not here for navel gazing, you’re here for information! Even if you’re not looking at a ludicrous writing stunt like NaNoWriMo, all books start with an idea. In my case, the idea I had was: there is a woman who lives in a haunted house, and she practices a secret, illegal religion.
That’s what I had. I had what Maggie Stiefvater might call the “mood” of the book set: a pinch of dark academia, a soupçon of culty vibes, a dash of Shirley Jackson. In Stiefvater’s seminar on writing novels she says any long piece of fiction is a “series of decisions,” and that you ought to make your biggest decision first. In my case, I knew I wanted the outlawed religion to be a materials-based magic system, but I had no idea what. Here’s where I drop my first tip for both idea generation and idea refinement:
This may seem counterintuitive when discussing the writing of fiction, but nonfiction can be a powerful source of inspiration. I’m not saying you have to go out and read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in order to draft your epic fantasy. But reading longform nonfiction about things that pique your interest can create fascinating inroads into your novel.
For instance, I read two articles back to back that provided powerful inspiration for my magic system: one involving the death of a cave diver in one of the deepest underwater caves in the world, the other involving a possibly-fake method of punishment practiced by the ancient Etruscans. One of these articles was sent to me by a friend, the other I found on my own. Neither gave me all the answers or deliver a fully-fleshed out plot into my brain. But they did provide inspiration for key bits of world building and plot that allowed me to move the story forward just enough to figure out what I needed next.
You can get world building inspiration from articles about history or fashion. You can get tips on how to structure your fictional government from political books. Sometimes, when we read fiction, we get bogged down in figuring out how an author accomplished some tricky piece of world building or plot mechanics. Dissecting other people’s work can be a useful exercise to be sure, but it’s much more useful to figure out how your own plotting brain works and work from there.
By “figuring out how your own plotting brain” works, I mean it’s useful with any project to figure out as early as possible where you become blocked. Is it the plot? Is it the character? Is it the world? Are you letting the questions about the world distract you from dealing with the plot/character? Once I had my ideas inspired by the articles I’d read, I deployed my second tool for idea generation and refinement: the long walk.
Obviously for this tip YMMV—everyone has different levels of ability to move around, both physically and with restrictions on time. But since I was effectively on a break, I had nothing but time. I took advantage of the nicening days (this was back in March) and went for long walks in my neighborhood, listening to music and thinking. Often I wasn’t actually thinking about the book per se; I was thinking about things I’d read and turning ideas over. Or I was thinking about laundry and cleaning my apartment. But something in the relative mindlessness of the walks would unlock bits of the story piece by piece, until I had something that added up to a whole. If long walks aren’t an option, is there any time where you’re in transit, or doing some mindless repetitive task? Commuting, or cleaning your bathroom? Instead of doing something improving, like listening to a podcast or an episode of Criminal Minds, put on some music and think—or not think—about your idea.
There you have it: two ideas for refining and expanding your novel ideas. Not super-groundbreaking, I know, but they worked for me. You’ll receive this newsletter on October 21, which gives you ten whole days to work on your idea. What’s your idea? What are the big decisions you need to make? What is the mood? Where are you blocked? Where do you want to go?
Next week, I’m going to talk motivation and drafting strategies, including the epic tale of how I finished my first draft based on a bet from my former client Maurice Broaddus. If there’s something in particular you’d like me to address, please leave it as a comment or as a reply to the newsletter!
READER QUESTION CORNER
Last week Tez asked:
What are your thoughts on "fan fic with the serial numbers filed off"? (As in, stories that were originally fan fic, until the writer decided to monetise, so they took the fic down, rewrote to change numbers and any references to the 'verse the fan fic was part of, then republished.) I'm personally not a fan, but at least one publisher must still be if they're still contracting and publishing it...
As Bridget and I say on the podcast all the time, it depends! I don’t have a problem with it, and have enjoyed a lot of it in my time (including representing some.) Filing serial numbers off the fic is not a new practice. I feel like there’s a misconception it’s easy to do, changing something from fanfiction to an original work, as well as a real question of if it can be considered original in its new form. But to file the numbers means to reverse-worldbuild, in a way. If something started out depending on a specific, anticipated chemistry between two characters already known to the reader, you can’t just find & replace the names and call it a day. You have to make sure the chemistry makes sense in the new world you’re putting them in. You have to make sure that the scenarios the characters find themselves in are earned and authentic divorced from their original setting. In a lot of ways it might be easier to do something completely original. Still, given the extremely high levels of talent exhibited by fan writers these days, I think it’s something we will continue to see. (There’s one in particular forthcoming that I’ve had my eye on since 2020.)
I’ve been thinking of different ways to offer engagement for folks who are fans of this here newsletter and working on their own writing projects. To that end I’ve created a discord server where you can sign up for free and talk with fellow writers about—well, whatever you want! Right now there are general channels for discussing writing projects and the books we’re reading, but I plan on running writing sprints and larger discussions as we get into NaNoWriMo. If you’re interested, that link is here!
As a reminder I’m running an editing special through the end of October: if we book a project together, in addition to the regular services I’ll add on either a thirty-minute coaching/Q&A session or a query letter review. Check my profile out on Reedsy here. If there is a topic you’d like me to address in this newsletter or a question you’d like answered, please leave it in the comments or reply to the email! I want to make sure I’m covering things y’all are interested in.
THIS WEEK IN HOCKEY
I don’t know—I’m too distracted by Houston’s 2-0 lead over the Yankees. I’ll have hockey thoughts once the World Series is over.
My Eight Deranged Days on the Gone Girl Cruise by Imogen West-Night (Slate)
One brisk morning in late September, as I arrived still a little drunk to a 9 a.m. wine tasting, I thought back to the previous evening. A cruise ship employee had led me off the vessel and to an underlit cellar, where I found an elderly former Austrian homicide detective awaiting me. He had a slideshow prepared, mainly of graphic photos of decomposing women. This was a capstone of sorts to a week where I had received ominous type-written notes resting on my pillow night after night, as new friends and I wondered who might be murdered before the week was out. As I had many times in the previous four days, I contemplated the decisions that had brought me here. But then the riesling breakfast began to do its job. I shrugged. So began another day on the Gone Girl cruise.
The Absurdist Comedy Genius of Achewood by Ian Goldstein (Vulture)
There’s a character called Roast Beef. We don’t talk about why his name is Roast Beef. His full name is Roast Beef Kazenzakis. He’s Greek, and we don’t know why. It’s totally absurd, but it has its own logic in its own world. It is a training exercise both as a reader, being able to hear characters’ voices when you read them, and as a writer to be able to create characters who have such distinctive voices. It’s kind of a scary comic sometimes. It gets scary, it gets sad, it gets serious, and I’m really into that.
READING: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
WATCHING: Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
LISTENING: Midnights by Taylor Swift
This has been A Faster No, a dispatch on publishing, writing, books, and beyond. Is there something you’d like me to talk about? Leave it in the comments or reply to the email! You can support the newsletter here. If you purchase a book from any of the links to Bookshop.org I get a small commission at no cost to you. I am available for developmental editing and editorial assessment services via Reedsy.
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It's funny you wrote about this, because I've been holding off on editing the piece you helped me with because I just couldn't break through what it really needed, but some of my reading on Jungian philosophy, religion, and quantum physics broke it loose. I needed a reason and justification for my "creatures" to exist. Now, I "know" for just the reasons you wrote about here!! Expanding your horizons works!