A great book starts with a great idea. A spark, if you will. That idea needs to be enough to sustain a whole novel, to tell a full and compelling and complete story. It also needs to be interesting enough to keep you committed throughout the process. And, if you’re aiming for publication, it also needs to be strong enough to find an agent, publisher, and readers. A great idea really is the start of it all. But how can you find yours?

Why Ideas Matter

I recently heard an agent give a talk to aspiring authors. She told them that above her desk where she reads submissions, she has a post-it that says: Have I seen this before?And if she has, it’s usually an automatic rejection, even if she loves the writing. Ideas are everything. 

As writers, we need to tell stories from fresh perspectives and to create unique and interesting voices. Agents, publishers and readers all want something that feels ‘new’. Even the best writers can face rejection if their ideas aren’t strong enough (of course there are always exceptions to this rule but they are rare). 

What I wish I knew when I was starting out

So many writers try to write for the market, or look to their favourite authors to inspire their ideas, and that’s fine when you’re starting out. It’s okay to emulate writers you love when learning the craft: give yourself permission to do this and enjoy the process. But at some point, you need to find YOUR great idea. You need to look inwards rather than out, at your own passions and obsessions, at your life and experience, and at what you can offer that’s unique. What makes you and your writing different? That’s what will make you stand out. 

Rather than trying to predict the market (chances are that by the time you write a book for the market, trends would’ve moved on anyway), take everything you’ve learned and make it yours. That’s when your unique ideas will start coming. Be influenced by the books you love, and by everything else you love. Be open. But also be you. That way, when you stumble upon a brilliant idea for your book, it will be a story that only you can tell. It will be authentic. 

So, what makes an idea ‘great’?

Authenticity is such an important word. Never let go of that, keep it at the heart of everything you do. But other than a unique story that only you can tell, what else makes a truly great book?

In his TED talk, super agent Jonny Geller talks about what makes a bestseller (please watch it, it’s very good and touches on some of the ideas explored here). He says that the best stories are a bridge between somewhere familiar and somewhere new – something to think about when generating ideas.  

I think we can take this a step further – that bridge can relate to the emotional journey you take the reader on too. Your idea should be unique but it should also be relatable for the reader in some way. Give the reader a way in – help them connect. Look back at your ideas – could you hone or adapt it in some way, to make it more relatable to a wider audience? Watch the full TED talk here: 

How can YOU find great ideas? 

We are all inspired in different ways but it’s important to note that while we are used to the concept of an idea ‘just coming to us’, you can go looking for ideas. Stimulate your creativity: search for your next big idea. Use dreams, stories, people, places, experiences. Everything can be used as fuel for story ideas. 

Some exercises to get you started: 

– Really think about the ideas you want to explore in your novel. List the things that interest you. Your obsessions. What matters most to you. 

– Get out and watch people. Play the ‘What If’ game. What if that lady innocently drinking coffee with her baby has a child who will grow up with superpowers? Do not censor your imagination. There are no good or bad ideas – let them all come – do not judge them. 

– As ideas come to you, write them all down. Mull them over for days, maybe even weeks, months. Do not be afraid to add to them, change them, adapt them. And then choose the one that won’t let you go. The one that speaks to you most fully at this point in your life, at this moment in time. 

– Now go back to your current WIP. Is your idea as strong as it can be? Is there something missing, something that could make it truly unique/more relatable/stand out? It’s worth taking the time to really nail your idea – whether you do this at the start or the end of your first draft is up to you. We all have our own ways of working (I personally revisit after a first draft)!

Further reading to help find and develop your ideas:

  • One of the best books I’ve read about the craft of writing is Monkeys with Typewritters, by Scarlett Thomas. In it, she talks about how to find ideas. Whether you read the book or not, her ‘idea generator’ can be found here and is definitely worth using to explore ideas that are unique to you:

Her TED talk is also worth watching: 

  • Finally, one of my favourite resources for writing children’s literature is ‘Writing Irresistible Kidlit’ by Mary Kole. There’s a whole chapter on Ideas as well as useful tips on learning about the market and chapters to help develop craft. 

Final word

One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve read is to write the story that unsettles and excites you. The one that you can’t ignore. 

So go, writer. Seek out your own, unique ideas. Sparks that will fuel your writing and lead to that brilliant book. Tell the story you need to tell, because that’s the one that the world also needs.

Emma is the author of YA novel The Million Pieces of Neena Gill (July 2019, Penguin Random House). She is represented by Jo Unwin.

She has a BA in English and Creative Writing from Warwick University and a Creative Writing MA from Bath Spa University. 

Her short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies such as Mslexia and The Bristol Short Story Prize 2016.

You can pre-order Emma’s debut below.

1 thought on “FINDING YOUR GREAT BOOK IDEA by Emma Smith-Barton”

  1. Pingback: WriteMentor success story: Chris Galvin - WriteMentor - for all writers of children's fiction

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