An Original Idea + Book Giveaway

story ideas 3I’m envious of other writers who have umpteen story ideas swirling around in their head at once. I was talking to an author friend the other day about getting inspiration. She has twenty different story outlines in her bottom drawer. ‘I can look at the headlines in a newspaper,’ she said, ‘and get three or four ideas for a novel then and there. My problem is that once I’m 150 pages into a novel, my mind is already ranging ahead to the next project.’ I looked at her askance and made some unfavourable comparisons. When I’m 150 pages into a novel I still have no idea what my next project will be about!

Story ideas 1But being a novelist means writing new books, so an idea is kind of essential. It’s the foundation for your new story, and I’m always overjoyed when it finally comes to me. I don’t mean a fully realised plot –  It could just be a theme, or a main incident. It could be a character, or scene. A line of dialogue or setting. It’s simply that first kernel of an idea, and for me it’s my guiding light. Everything else might change, but not this.Then I think about my characters, who emerge pretty quickly at this point. Who are they at the beginning and who will they be at the end? A little thought at this early stage ensures well-developed character arcs, and saves a lot of hit-or-miss writing. By this time a theme will be emerging, and I like to have it in mind before I start. It will keep the book heading in a consistent direction, and add emotional depth.

Story Ideas 2Then I play the ‘what if?‘ game. Your initial idea might be a selfish man decides to turn his life around. Then play what if. What if the man is a cat burglar? Better. What if he wants to put stolen stuff back? What if his plans are frustrated by a detective that is getting too close? What if he needs to put stuff back in that detective’s own house? The original idea is getting fleshed out.

Now, whenever I read a book or watch a film, I try to work out what was the original idea that the creator had. Babe – what if a pig was raised by sheep-dogs? The Verdict – what if an alcoholic lawyer took on a hopeless case against the best attorneys in the land? Gone With The Wind – what if it fell to a spoilt southern belle to defend her family’s plantation during the Civil War? The Wizard Of Oz – what if a little girl is stuck in a strange land and can’t get home? This game is fun, try it. It can also give you the tagline for your book, distilling the narrative down to its essentials. What if a repentant cat burglar decided to put everything back? Good idea. It’s probably been done before, but each telling of a story will be different.

Anyway, I’ve got an idea for my next story, and Penguin have given it the nod. Now all I have to do is write it!

To celebrate my new contract, and reaching 40,000 views on this blog, I’m giving away 2 copies of Billabong Bend. (If you’d rather another one of my books just say.)Thank you to all my readers. To go in the draw, just comment on this post. (Aust and NZ only) Winners announced 22nd December.

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Why Themes Count

Themes 1I confess that for a long time, I didn’t quite understand the significance of theme in novels. And that was because I didn’t really know what a theme was. I couldn’t point to it or pin it down. If it was so important, how come it was so elusive?  But now I understand that its very mystery is the key to its importance. The central theme of a novel is not presented directly at all. It’s subliminal and must be extracted from the characters, the plot, the setting … in other words, as a reader you need to figure it out for yourself. And what’s more amazing, most of the time, you don’t even know that you’re doing it. That’s where the magic lies! You know intuitively what the story means. You think about it and ask yourself questions. You want to discuss it. The story may haunt your heart and mind long after you close the book.

HemingwayBestselling novelist Larry Brooks puts it like this. ‘ … without strong thematic intentions … a novel is just a sitcom, literary junk food, a quick hit of cheap-thrills genre that you read to pass the time on a flight.’ That’s not what I want for my books. I don’t expect them to win the Miles Franklin, but I do expect them to have emotional resonance. So I’ve learned to think long and carefully about theme.

Theme 3Maybe your book is about the dangers of ignorance, or change versus tradition, or the circle of life. How do you help readers connect with this? Repeating patterns and symbols are good. Allusions can help too. Have characters face the consequences of their behaviour. Have them think aloud. Let them learn a lesson. Serve up views on both sides, so your reader is faced with a dilemma, and must choose. Sometimes, in those marvelous stories that almost write themselves, the theme evolves organically along with the mounting word count. You know perfectly well what the story means, and you trust the reader will know too. This of course is the dream, and it happens more often than you might think. But a powerful theme is too important to leave to chance. It can make the difference between publication and the bottom drawer.

Aussie Auhor MonthIn celebration of Aussie Author Month, I’m giving away a copy each of Brumby’s Run and Wasp Season. Just leave a comment saying – if your WIP or favourite novel had a theme song, what would it be? Winners announced April 30th. Aust & NZ residents only.BB2013_Nominee