What makes or breaks your novel is what exists before you write your first word: your central concept.

The concept is so important. And yet it’s something that’s usually neglected when talking about writing craft.

That’s because it’s much easier to talk about sentences, or plot, or characterization, or beginnings — or really anything else. Those are easy to judge, and easy to teach.

But in my role as a freelance editor, I have the chance to read so many books, books that are not yet published, and what often separates the chaff from the wheat is a striking, original concept. It doesn’t matter how good the writing is or the plot is — if it’s something I feel like I’ve heard many times before, I’m guessing that they’re going to have a hard time landing an agent, publisher, or finding readers.

Another way to say it is that the quickest way to sink your book is to have a concept that doesn’t stand apart from others in your genre, or even feels derivative.

So how do you teach someone how to come up with a great idea? How do you teach someone how to be original?

Call me ambitious, but I’m going to try.

Here are 3 ways to come up with better concepts for your novels.

Practice Idea Generation

Most people limit themselves by not regularly practicing idea generation. In other words, they’re picking from a very small pool of ideas, the ideas they randomly strolled into. This is like trying to be an athlete by exercising only when the mood strikes you.

One of the best things you can do is to expand that pool of ideas, so you’re not choosing the best idea out of the 10 you’ve come up with, and you’re not choosing the best out of the 50 book ideas , but the best idea out of 1000.

That’s staggering, I know, but it’s doable. 

Here’s an assignment: You should regularly sit down and try to come up with 50 different ideas for a book. Don’t get up until you’ve reached 50.

Think of it like a boot camp for your creativity. This is a workout you should do monthly.

But not all great ideas happen while attempting to think of great ideas. Many great ideas happen in the thick of life: while walking, while reading, while having sex (sorry, significant other!). That means you need to shape a life with empty spaces. Spaces where you don’t numb your brain with social media or television or alcohol. Spaces that let your mind wander to the stars and back, because that is the fuel that allows creativity to flourish. 

Also, try to troll for ideas by reading. Reading essays, reading nonfiction/memoir, reading novels in your genre. You’ll feel that spark.

Lastly, keep a file with all your great ideas. I myself have a Word file called “Novel Ideas,” and I have quite a number I’ve stockpiled, more than I can ever hope to write in a lifetime. And that’s how it should be.

Make Yourself a Better Judge

How do you know if something’s original? There is no easy technique for gaining the ability to judge originality, it just takes an enormous amount of hard work. But you can transform yourself into a good judge of the original. You just have to absorb the summaries of thousands of stories. That’s really the only route. Constant, wide, and thorough exposure to the type of book you’re writing.

But you never need pure originality. That’s dangerous, and difficult for readers to relate to. All you need is a concept that sounds familiar with a twist, some element that is unique or new. You mix two genres — detective and romance — or you add an unusual character (someone who has no legs into a sports narrative).

The most boring, cliche idea in the world sounds incredible to someone who’s never heard of it before. So become the person who has heard of everything before, and you’ll be able to spot the original among all the counterfeits.

Test Your Concept

  1. Give a one line description to strangers at a party and judge their body language, not what they say. Are they interested? Not fake interested, while they think about getting another drink, but really interested, interested enough to want to buy your book. Do they look down or around or at you? 
  2. Use time. Some ideas will fade with time, and you’ll realize they were the flavor of the month. Others will stick with you like a chigger or a burr, and the fact that you can’t shake them will show you it’s an idea that you have to write.
  3. Look over the summaries of every single movie in your Netflix queue. Look over your bookshelf and read the jacket copy. Does your concept have the same vitality, the same embedded conflict, the same unusual flavor?
  4. Read voraciously. The more you read, the more you’ll see what’s out there. I myself read at least 70 books a year, and have done so for the last two decades. Still, that’s only 1400 books. On one level that’s a lot; on another level it’s really not that much. You need that deep bench of books in your subconscious to help you decide what is original and what is derivative.

Write Better Books.

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