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I want to write a novel, but I want to write that novel using my best idea currently... it's just that, I don't have an idea, at least not one that I deem worthy of the time and effort involved in producing my first novel draft. Is brainstorming the best way to generate ideas? What are some questions I could ask myself? Questions about what I want my novel to be? What message I want to provide to my readers?

I want to write a story that I would want to read... should I start there, and just come up with everything that I would want to visualize while reading/writing it?

Please tell me your thoughts on this, idea generating business...

I don't mean give me ideas, and I'm not asking for a secret map that leads to me discovering the iridescent sap of the legendary idea tree, at the end of the lucid dream spiral dimension... lol.

Just what works for you.

Thanks.

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    Why exactly do you want to write a novel if you have no idea? What is your motivation for writing it? – Patsuan Aug 8 '17 at 12:16
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    Writing novels is a stupid waste of time that is unlikely to ever pay you a cent, win you any friends, or bring comfort to your old age. The only possible reason for do it is because you have no choice, because a story idea is burning a hole in your soul. Not having a story idea is like not having a tumor. Rejoice! – user16226 Aug 8 '17 at 12:44
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    I think it is valid to want to write a novel to see if that is the kind of thing you enjoy doing. This is especially true for people with a lot of time on their hands (including the young and the retired). A person can enjoy writing, but not know how to tell if an idea can be sustained for 250 pages. I think this is what the OP is asking about; how to find a good idea for a first novel that won't be a short story or a blog post. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Aug 8 '17 at 13:21
  • First and foremost I'm a story teller. Someone like Neil Gaiman didn't write all of his books because the entire catalogue of his work was swimming around in his brain, waiting to be put down on paper. I want to write a story that only I can best tell, which can take many guises. I think one of the problems, isn't that I lack ideas, but that I have too many. – Jared Eli Walsh Aug 8 '17 at 16:57
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    @Mark Baker I disagree entirely. I like writing. I enjoy it. I am taking great pleasure in editing/re-drafting a novel at the moment. I have a lot of choice about what I write. Writing a novel is a leisure activity. I have sympathy with the question because I have often felt the necessity to write plays for particular actors and audiences with little or no idea what to write about. I have to produce the piece of writing whether I have an idea or not. Not having a story idea isn't like not having a tumour. – S. Mitchell Aug 8 '17 at 19:39
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Often, it is not the questions about a potential story idea that we ask ourselves to invoke inspiration; it's the questions about life we ask ourselves that tend to want us to create an answer. What if this murder was being solved by this type of person, in this environment? What would happen if I put this in space, but instead of the void, space was ruled by these people? How would vastly different teenagers (with these personalities) interact when left in a confined area for an hour or two?

Overuse of italics aside, it's very difficult to write something with a lack of enthuse. Any idea you produce should be one you're excited to write – one you're excited to produce every ounce of detail for. Even ideas that have you thinking, "Man! This idea is stubborn/weird/different. I want it out of my head and on paper." are often subliminally approached by the hidden enthuse to see them come to life. And remember, linking back to what you mentioned: any novel you write you will read, sometimes more than any book you'll ever encounter, so make it something that sparks your interest. And by this, I don't mean write a story that incorporates your hobbies, interests and opinions in one large book (unless this is something you want to do).

Ensure your idea evokes some sort of emotion in yourself other than boredom. Writing a character you hate, writing a relationship you long for, writing about a job you're curious about – all these things will stir up a reaction within you. But also, don't expect to keep this emotion through the duration of your book: the passion for a certain character or situation may fade, but it's up to you to persevere such emotion through plot or character development to keep your writing alive. Remember that writing a novel is similar to reading a novel, and the rollercoaster of emotions and opinions (if present) are a huge part of writing.

Don't let that stop you from developing ideas, however! There's a common misconception that an amazing, best-selling idea for a novel is a gigantic revelation: something that just hits the writer out of nowhere and prompts them to begin writing immediately. In a sense, this could happen and probably does. But an idea is perfectly valid without it coming about in a momentous occasion. Sometimes just the way someone says something, or the way something looks, allows for the same questions I mentioned earlier to arise within a writer. Said writer thinks more about the question, mixes various elements together and the idea is there.

Some writers get their ideas through reading other books, watching TV shows and movies, playing video games, etc. Usually anything you voluntarily surround yourself and interact with will evoke some questions about said thing that may spark an idea. One thing I'd like to bring up is about reading what you want to write (the inverse of writing what you want to read). It's a great idea that can allow questions regarding theme to arise and thus, bring about an idea. However, you may tend to find yourself forcing an idea to come out by doing such, and because this has happened, such an idea may be a strained 'duplicate' of the story you can't notice yourself emulating.

This all falls down to the fluidity that generating an idea comes down to. Forcing an idea out leads to disinterest, strain in writing, stress, and the eventual scrapping or abandonment of a story. The ideas you deem 'not good enough' to write are ideas that you came up with by yourself, and unless they were forced in such a way that didn't lead to concluding appeal, they were produced with the fluidity that is generating ideas. Often, many writers write their best novels out of an idea that they wouldn't deem the most utter sensational. But, they had an idea, it interested them, and there it went. And even further, I think it would be extremely helpful to understand that the first novel isn't always the best. Your view on life, your writing, and the themes you plan to write about, may change immensely in the next couple of years. It's why many writers read their past work and prefer to never go back there again; in the moment, it was the best and only thing they knew.

Some writers treat their ideas like their babies; they only deserve the best and first placement among all. Others get an idea and just go with it. I think this might be an aspect that is holding you back. Every idea is worthy of being written – it doesn't have to be momentous in any form to be 'good'. As long as it's something you are interested in, whether it be out of appeal, anger or curiosity, it's worth being looked into. And that being said, ideas are natural! Really, the best ideas are the ones that pop up randomly (with or without the 'huge revelation'). If you want to get some creative juices flowing: do some writing prompts, watch a new show that looks interesting, read a different book of your favourite genre, listen to music, dabble in aesthetic photography – do anything that evokes an emotion in you. You could even look into the questions other people have about certain things and themes; see their take on the issue. (And if you're really stuck after doing all these things, do a brainstorm of every theme and genre you've ever enjoyed, why you've enjoyed it, and how you can challenge the idea of it/make it better.)

But most importantly: Don't rush your art!

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  • I couldn't get to sleep until 5:30 in the morning because of an idea I came across. I think that I will just take it and write an outline, then get started on finishing it bit by bit. It's a story that has a message that means a lot to me, and it deals with stuff I have experienced first-hand. I was jokingly talking to my friend about the stupidest thing that I could write, and then I struck gold. Just shows you that you never can tell where the inspiration comes from. Thank you for such an informitive answer! You really are quite good at this! Cheers! – Jared Eli Walsh Aug 8 '17 at 19:39
  • Brilliant and inspiring answer! Sometimes I wish we could + more than 1 ;) – storbror Nov 22 '17 at 17:55
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Answers to this question are obviously going to be pretty opinion based. Here is mine!

I look for problems people will struggle to solve, for some reason, because to me this is the essence of a plot: Some future state must come to pass, or must not come to pass, and the plot is about one or more characters willing to do nearly anything to obtain the future they believe in; even die or kill.

That future state can be small, or epic: This marriage must not fail. My child must not die of this disease. I am dying and must provide for my family at any cost [initial premise of Breaking Bad]. These alien invaders cannot take Earth from us [Independence Day, a thousand others]. This mad scientist cannot be allowed to stop Global Warming by killing 95% of all people on Earth [Kingsmen]. This assassin must be stopped. That country cannot obtain nuclear weapons. This magical Ring must be destroyed [Lord of The Rings]. A character is stuck in a loveless, sexless marriage with kids and she sees no escape.

Identify the stories you like to read; or similar to what you want to write. Figure out the central problem, in one short sentence (as above). Do not talk about the solution, you are just looking for a generalization of the kinds of problems that fascinate you, the kinds of stakes you like to deal with, the sorts of emotions you like to deal with. For example, consider writing about the imminent death of a child, versus Star Wars or some pic in which aliens threaten to wipe out humanity: The latter are actually very low emotion action / adventure / battle flicks where death is common. They are exciting and awe inspiring, but not tear-jerkers. The former, the imminent death of a child, could be so emotionally excruciating it could draw tears from gangsters.

Understand the kinds of problems you like to solve, the kinds of emotions you like to deal with, and the kinds of characters you like to portray: Is it 007, or a struggling secretary? Is the problem zombies eating brains, or a tumor eating your child's brain?

Begin with what you like. Try to identify one or more general problem categories that these plots represent, the general kinds of characters involved, and the sort of emotions you feel you can best describe. Combine those elements into story ideas: Here is the problem, and here is a protagonist I could write that would really struggle with it, to the point s/he might fail (so suspense is built in).

Then, how did this problem find the hero? What was life like before that? How many ways can the hero fail, to the brink of despair? What final incredible sacrifice could turn the corner and lead to success?

That is my opinion, anyway.

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Very short answer because it can be approached in a fundamental way: make sh#t up, constantly, endlessly. Learn as much as you can about as many subjects as you can, and look for new angles. Find connections. (If you do this enough, you may find a connection that has been previously overlooked.) Analyze compulsively and generate insights. "Insight generation" has become corporate jargon, but it really is a method of finding ideas through analysis. Most importantly, be prepared to discard many more ideas than you pursue. There's a vast gulf between casually creative people who may have one idea, and get stuck on it, because it's one of the few ideas they've had, and compulsively creative people who have insights constantly about everything. Practice this craft rigorously, and your problem won't be too few ideas, but too many!

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I find that some of the best, most personal ideas come from dreams. I've kept a dream journal on and off since I was a teenager, and a lot of the strongest ideas that have stuck with me have come from its pages. Even if you don't currently remember your dreams, it's a learnable skill.

However, it seems to me that you might have two other issues that are getting in your way. First, you haven't even started writing yet, and already your internal editor is getting in your way. All writers know you have to turn your internal editor off in order to ever get any writing done. (One valuable piece of advice I recently learned for this is to write at the time of day you are most sleepy --for me, early morning --because your editor turns off at that time). The truth is that great books are made from great execution, not necessarily great ideas. Waiting too long for the perfect idea just means you never write anything.

The other issue is that it sounds like you are more invested in the idea of writing a novel than in doing the actual writing. I've definitely been in your shoes, and I can tell you from experience, just liking the idea of being an author doesn't take you all that far. My advice, if you really do want to write, is to be prepared to do a lot of less goal-oriented writing just to build up your skills. That way, when that killer idea does come knock on your door, you'll be ready and prepared to do it justice.

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Some of us create a character and place him or her in a situation and just write. Introduce another character and put the two of them in conversation. See what appears on the page. Write ten more pages of scenes, expanding on what's come before. Have your readers look at your work and weigh in on the most interesting, expandable ideas. From this kind of exercise I usually get a pretty good idea for a story, and a few more to put in my ideas notebook.

Granted, I write small-scale stories, not fantasy series like a lot of folks here. But I imagine this technique works for that kind of story too.

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Well, as a writer, your first and harshest critic is going to be yourself, and you seem to be doing a good job. So the first thing you need to do is take your ideas and say they are worthy of a story... They just might not click as a story. I would then list all the main and supporting cast that would play a big impact in your story and also figure out what the story's end result will be. This gets you a decent beginning and the ending goal that your middle will need to fill in the gaps (this works well with my style, where I write large, serialized chapters, rather than one story per book... but I got into writing from the tv shows I was watching and the move to serialization over episodic shows was happening right as I was bitten by the writing bug... it also works to overcome a flaw in my genre that a one novel one story format wouldn't.).

I would also above all else, nail down your antagonist(s) first. Heroes are a dime a dozen and their job is simple: they rise to meet the challenges of the narrative... but a Villain... that's the personification of the hero's challenges. Harry Potter would be a bratty kid if it wasn't for Voldemort... Luke Skywalker was a whiny farm without Vader (hell, Luke had dialog about wanting to join the Imperial Military if only Uncle Owen would let him get off the farm).

Keep something by your bed to write down dreams... Some of my most persistent ideas have come from my nightmares (one is so good, it's formed a central pillar to my theme for the overall universe) and you can often forget the details of dreams if you go about your day. And always be open to recycling. That nightmare thing has survived several treatments and story ideas. It has now found a home and is stuck to one book. I've had characters who still persist and make planned appearances for various stories with little thought from his original design and is probably existed in my head for about half my lifetime, if not longer.

Also make sure you have the hard rules of your story in place (especially if the work is speculative to some degree... scifi or fantasy) you need to know what your characters can and cannot do within the fictional setting. Even if it boils down to mundane things like "So and So will always choose family over the law..." These help set the boundaries and allow you to bend the rules without breaking them.

And now here's where I will probably rub a lot of people the wrong way... I think the most harmful advise to give to a new writer is "Write What you know." This puts people in a limited bind where they will rely on genre conventions and stereotyped characters (or characters who are more out of touch culturally)... Rather, I'd suggest write what you don't know... but write it like you know it (i.e. WE MUST DO RESEARCH). This doesn't mean don't look at other works in your genre, but look for ways to do them differently. Also, especially when researching cultures, it can lead to some insight into possible stories... mythology is a great well spring for motifs and themes and someone of the more obscure mythologies might actually line up nicely with your story and maybe could help you add to your work.

Unless critical to the plot, I would let your dialog come out while writing the drafts of your book. I find it helps get into the moment better and makes the character's words more in step with the plot. Similar for action sequences, which will rely on an environment but might not be overall important to the plot with respect to that environment.

Your story genre will inform a lot of what tropes or cliches you're going to use. There are certain things that are inherit to a genre (for example, Space Operas must have some kind of faster than light technology... fantasies must have an understanding of what magic can do in the universe...). These are not necessarily bad, but there has to be some way to distinguish yourself from other works in the genre (Vampire fiction is wonderful for this... It's a trope of the genre that at some point, some character will pull a traditional vampire fighting impliment (garlic, crosses, ect) only for the vampire to laugh and tell them that "real" vampires don't work like they do in the current pop-vampire fad work... Twilight is the popular one now... before that, it was Interview with a Vampire...).

As for a resource, and not knowing what genres you are interested in, I recommend TVTropes.org, which has a very detailed wiki devoted to tropes in various genres across various mediums and how those tropes are used. They also have a series of articles that are "So you want to write an X" where X is a particular genre, which lists classic things to consider, potential plot kernels, and the good, the bad, and the ugly in that genre. There Useful Notes section is also a personal favorite, which are written with several in depth explantory articles on a wide variety of topics that might appear in fiction including an article dedicated to every nation on the earth, almost all modern military services (and a few historical ones such as Ancient Roman, The Confederate States of America, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia) that can help you come up with problems that need to be addressed if you want to portray your topics correctly. Quite a few are very very long, but they tend to read better than say Wikipedia because, as tvtropes describes itself they're "buttloads more informal". The article writers tend to be quite cheeky and slip in bits of sarcasm into even the most serious of pieces.

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