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By Julia Dovey, UFV Writer-in-Residence


The most common question I get from students and writers in general is “what’s your advice for writers just starting a book?”

The most common question I should get is “is it pronounced Dovey or Dovey?” But it isn’t, because to be fair, the name looks pretty cut and dry. Nonetheless, I shall clear it up right now. It’s pronounced Dovey.

But how to start a book, yes, that’s the kicker. Many a new writer sit at their computer, slam a cup of tea down next to the keyboard, and commence a three-hour staring contest with the blinking line. Then they close that empty document and save it for another day.

A book won’t get written that way, I’m telling you right now.

Okay, I can hear the multitudes screaming. Yes, it’s possible. In the same way it’s possible someone can do a backflip on the first try. But a gymnastics coach is not going to count on that, and I’m considering myself your temporary writing coach. Sitting down at a computer with absolutely nothing to start with and expecting a masterpiece to bloom like mould in the crisper drawer is not going to help your writing confidence, and it’s setting you up to fail. You’ll think you’ve got writer’s block, but you don’t, I promise you. All it takes is a little organizing.

And that’s where the question comes in. How do you get ideas?

See, that’s a tricky one. Because people’s brains are different, bla bla. But I will say that if you’re looking to become a novelist who works to a deadline, you cannot afford the luxury of waiting for the most brilliant idea to hit you out of nowhere. Sometimes you have to compromise with a less brilliant idea, and build it up. Sometimes you have to create an idea from scratch.

Here are my 10 Tips on How to Get Ideas and Write a Novel

  • Train yourself to spot potential novel building blocks in real life (plots, settings, etc.)

There’s some practice to this, but eventually you’re going to start spotting the plots in everyday life. For me, I keep my eye open for good, interesting, quirky settings, characters, professions, etc. Things that lend themselves easily to a plot. For example, the other day I spotted a community garden and thought, “Hm, that’s a good potential setting for a romance book.” Boom, I’ve now got myself a setting, and suddenly the plot potentials will follow.

  • Use crisis as opportunity

The best thing about being a writer is that you can utilize misery. I’m serious; sometimes the only consoling thought when I’m going through something is “Man, this’ll be great to write about later.” A recent example: yesterday I was peeling a yam with hunger-induced gusto and peeled off half my fingernail. Whilst bandaging up the massacre (still starving, still needing to finish making my dinner, rage-filled and frothing) I realized that the finger I’d peeled was my marriage finger. And I thought, “Hm! That’s some kind of symbol. I shall use it in a book some day.”

  • For the love of Pete, write the idea down

No, you won’t remember it. Especially if you had the idea at three in the morning. Get your phone, get a receipt and pen, and write the idea down. I’ve used a pencil and my wall before. Half my books’ plots utilized ideas I’d have forgotten had I not written them down.

  • Buckle down and figure out a plot using a beat sheet

There’s the whole “gardener vs architect” debate. However, if you’ve never written a book before and suffer chronic writer’s block, my guess is that figuring out a general plot before writing is going to help you. Look up Jami Gold’s beat sheets (or the “Save The Cat” one), download the Excel file, and beat it out. Learn the general structure of a standard, expected, western plot (three-act structure). You don’t have to use every idea, and you can abandon the whole thing later – this is simply to make sure you’ve got enough plot to reach an ending.

  • Realize that a concept is not a plot

I’ve read and listened to a lot of story ideas. And a lot of the time, what people have given me is an excellent concept. A really neat idea…but not a plot. It’s the “In my world, people are born with numbers on their skin that count down to when you’ll die” kind of thing. Yes, cool idea – not a plot. A plot would be a specific story told within this concept, with an inciting incident (something that happens to challenge the norm established at the story’s beginning). “In this world where a number will appear on your skin telling you when you’ll die, Hannah’s number was one of the lowest amongst her friends. One day, her father – a head researcher at this facility – goes missing, and soon after her number starts changing every day. Hannah embarks on a journey to find her father, and dismantle what she learns is a government project attempting to cull the population. Plus, here’s a b-plot love story, and another b-plot, etc. etc.”

  • Start small

Yes, your idea for an epic fantasy three-part series is cool. Yes, you might be able to pull it off. Yes, I’ll still suggest starting smaller, if you’ve never written a book before. (Yes, you can ignore this advice if you really, really want to. In fact, if it helps, write your three-part series purely to spite me.)

  • Don’t “save” your best ideas for later

Your brain is not a finite resource. You may think that idea you’ve had saved up for years must wait until you’re a good enough writer to write it, but it’s simply not true. Your brain is growing, and another great idea will come – especially the more you write and understand plot. In fact, you may even lose interest in that concept a year from now, or it may simply not work anymore. Ideas that I had “saved” are now useless, because the plots hinge on outdated technology or concepts. Or, God forbid, someone else writes a book or movie that uses that idea. Trust me, please; you will have other ideas. Use the ones you like now.

  • Understand: Writers write. Authors finish.

I’m not joking, or being a jerk. This seems obvious, but it’s just something you must tell yourself. Every single author (of novels) published out there has finished at least one book. You have to do it, guys. You have to reach that ending, if only to practice writing endings. If you don’t, you’ll be a writer who’s excellent…at writing beginnings. I remember one time recording a song with a friend, and I kept restarting when I messed up. My friend forced me to continue playing through the mistake, because if I kept restarting, I’d never practice the other half of the song.

  • Set yourself a deadline

I write to deadline. If a book is due in a year, I’ll finish it eleven months from now. If it’s due in three weeks, it will be done on day twenty. I have written books without a deadline, yes. Two. Over fourteen years. Over the last three years, with deadlines, I’ve written three. Set yourself a deadline, but a true deadline, with consequences. A less-dire deadline would be to announce your plan in public – to friends, on social media, etc. A very expensive deadline would be to buy a ticket to a writer’s conference and plan on pitching a book to the agents and publishers there.

Come. Have a coffee. Use my whiteboard. Let’s chat.




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