Omnimystery News is pleased to welcome novelist David Grace. David is the author of twelve novels, two collections of crime short stories and five collections of science fiction short stories.
Today David tells us about one of the most commonly asked questions of a writer, "Where do you get your ideas?" He follows up with some advice for new writers. David is also giving our readers a chance to download one of his ebooks for free; see details below.
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Where Do You Get Your Ideas?
First, an idea is not a story. For example, here's an idea — The first U.S. mission to Mars comes back with some terrible plague. Let's call this proposed book, The Slime From Mars. But wait, who is the Hero? You can't tell. What is the story, that is, what happens and who does it happen to? You can't tell. This isn't really a story at all. It is an idea. The Hero could be the ship's captain, the base medical officer, a doctor from the CDC, the Captain's wife, the small town doctor near the base, etc. The story could be about the spread of a fatal disease or that the disease turns the captain into a serial killer or a genius, or … Point One: ideas are not stories. Books have to have a story.
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So, where do you start? There is no one place. You could start by picking the structure of the story you want to tell. For example, a chase story is one where the Hero is after something or someone. Or, other people might be chasing the Hero. Other people might also be after the same thing the Hero is after, making it a race-chase story. That is an example of one type of story structure. A mystery structure is one where some terrible event has occurred and the Hero wants to find out who did it. A thriller is often one in which a terrible event is about to occur and the Hero wants to stop it. You can easily think of other types of story structures. So, you could start by picking the kind of story structure that you enjoy working with. Once you know the structure of the story, you can go from there to figuring out who your Hero is. When you know what the story structure is and who the Hero is, then you are ready to pick the Idea.
Or, you might start with the Hero. You might want to write a story about a unique person, say Sherlock Holmes, who has an unusual personality and ability. Once you know who your Hero is, you can go from there to picking the story structure and from the structure to figuring out the Idea. In other words, the nature of the Hero directs you to a particular story structure. If the Hero is Sherlock Holmes, the story structure will probably not be about a lost love regained. It will most likely be a mystery because Holmes is really good at solving mysteries.
Yes, you could even start with the Idea. Back to The Slime From Mars. You could go from the idea of the Martian virus to picking a story structure, for example a chase story, that is finding the infected pilot before he can do whatever the virus is making him to. From that you can go to figuring out who the Hero is. Perhaps the Hero is the Pilot's brother-in-law who finds his sister, the Pilot's wife, near death from an attack by the now-crazed Pilot. What skills and personality would the brother-in-law need to have in order to make him a good Hero for this kind of a story? Maybe he's a retired military policeman or a washed-out fighter pilot, or a Special Forces commando on leave. Or …
You could also start by picking an emotional theme for your book. Revenge, redemption, the wages of sin, etc. are all good places to start thinking about a novel. If you want to have a story about redemption, then that topic leads you to figuring out who the Hero is who will be redeemed. Or maybe someone else will be redeemed and your Hero will be the instrument of that redemption. Once you know who your Hero is then you can start figuring out what the story idea is, what did the person to be redeemed do and how will the redemption be achieved?
I've started books at all kinds of different places, sometimes with characters, sometimes with story structures, sometimes with story ideas, sometimes with an emotional idea or situation. Personally, I think my better books are those which start with a character I like or with an emotional issue that interests me. Shooting Crows At Dawn started with the character, an older, slightly overweight but thoroughly decent East-Texas Sheriff named Jubal Dark who would rather die than let the killers get away. A Death In Beverly Hills started with the idea of a faded Hollywood action-hero who is a better person than he appears to be and a Hero who is tortured by some of the decisions he made and is looking for some way to atone. Doll's Eyes is the story of a Hero on a quest to find the friend who saved his life twenty years before and catch some villains along the way. I have included a coupon for a free ebook copy of Doll's Eyes at the end of this article. The Forbidden List is a pure chase story and one of my least favorite books.
What Advice Would You Give To A New Writer?
The answer is simple: use fewer words. The worst thing you can do as a writer is say too much. I can tell an amateur's work in two paragraphs. How often have you seen a first paragraph in a science fiction novel, for example, like this:
"Commander Thad Black glanced at the blinking yellow warning light on the XRG Booster control and knew that unless he did something brilliant within the next ten minutes his Galaxy-Class light cruiser would soon end up as little more than a ragged pile of ceramic, high-strength steel and bloody flesh cruising forever through the deep dark between the stars."
That is just terrible. The author thinks he is being clever, interesting and poetic. What he is not being is entertaining. The reader does not need to know that the problem is with the XGR booster or that this is a Galaxy-Class light cruiser. The reader does not need the laundry list of ceramic, steel and flesh. The reader does not need the purple prose about the deep dark between the stars. What information does the reader need? The point of this paragraph should be that the character we are dealing with is named "Thad Black," that he's the pilot of a star ship, and that the ship is soon going to blow up soon unless he can figure out how to fix it.
"Thad Black glanced again at the blinking alarm then looked away. He figured he had about ten minutes left before the runaway booster blew them all to smithereens."
Admittedly, this is not great prose but it pretty clearly illustrates how less is more. Good craft starts with shorter sentences, fewer attempts at overblown imagery, and fewer details. The reader does not need nor want to know what the Hero had for dinner, where he bought his shirt, what kind of material his tie is made of, how long it took him to get from his kitchen to his car, or the number of liters in his SUV's engine. Use only enough words to tell the reader what they actually need to know now, then stop.
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Here is how you can get a free ebook copy of David Grace's police-procedural novel, Doll's Eyes, courtesy of the author:
• Go to: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/3973.
• Click "Add To Cart".
• Enter the Coupon Code HA98G in the coupon code box. (Note: This coupon code is only valid until April 1st, 2012.)
• Click "Checkout".
• Scroll down to the "Download" choices and then download the ebook in the file format appropriate to your ereader/device.
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David Grace is the pen name for David M. Alexander. He graduated from Stanford University in 1967 with a major in history and a minor in economics and received a Doctor of Laws degree from the University of California Law School in 1970. He was licensed to practice law by the Supreme Court of the State of California in 1971 and before the Supreme Court of the United States in 1977.
To learn more about David and his books, visit his website at DavidGraceAuthor.com.