I recently watched the third entry in the James Patterson how-to-write-a-novel, Master Class series, (see entry below) and I continue to be impressed with it. But I’m only three chapters in, so we won’t draw any conclusions yet. He’s got plenty of time to piss me off.
This entry was on Ideas and Where to Come Up With Them. Patterson’s delivery remains accessible and amusing and while there were no great surprises, I didn’t expect him to come up with anything really out-of-the-box. He says that sometimes his ideas spring from a title that occurs to him, or just a scene he sees on the street. Thriller Guy has covered this topic a number of times. I was mildly surprised to hear Patterson say that there weren’t really that many absolutely original ideas anyway, so what you might do is look for several disparate ideas and then find new ways to link them together rather than beating your brains out searching for an absolutely original conception. That’s excellent advice. Thriller Guy’s friend, Dan, a noted biography author, told me once that because it’s so difficult to come up with a bio subject that no one has written about, the smarter thing is to come up with two people who are already known and then find a new way to link them together. Good advice that could be applied to many areas of non-fiction, as well as fiction.
Patterson says to read, read, read. Learn things; that’s where ideas come from. TG would add that the Internet is a great place to follow these kinds of threads from one interesting idea to another, so don’t feel guilty if you’re wasting your time surfing around, hoovering up stray factoids and perusing random articles that catch your interest. What you’re doing is called Basic Research. But remember, at some point you need to put down the mouse and sit in a chair, preferably outside, away from the computer and simply think. You need to make your brain consider all those interesting ideas you’ve come upon while surfing, and think of ways to turn them into plots. As TG has noted many times, it’s a painful process, but it has to be done. Not only when you’re thinking an idea up for a novel, but while you’re working on it, at any stage -- outline, first draft, later drafts, final draft. Patterson uses his novel Honeymoon as an example. I’ve never read it, but the basic idea is simple: a woman is a bigamist. Good idea. Almost everything you read about bigamists comes from the angle that it’s the man who’s always the perp. Patterson goes on to describe Honeymoon. The plot is what you might come up with once you accept the female premise: the woman is a “black widow” who is killing her husbands, an FBI guy sees something funny about the murder cases, the FBI guy falls for the woman even though he knows it’s a terrible idea, etc. Nothing really revolutionary there, but the basic idea is sound enough to build a good story on.
Patterson then adds more useful advice: if you can’t come up with a new concept, come up with a new character, someone really original to whatever genre you’re working in, or want to work in.
When you do come up with something, he continues, run it by a friend or two and see if it elicits a “tell me more” response. If it does, you may be onto something.
He then says to write down these ideas and keep them in an idea folder. Later on when you’re casting about for a new idea for a new project, you can go through the folder and see if anything leaps out at you. He adds that he used to keep a notebook by his bed, and if he came up with an idea in the night he made himself get up and write it down. This is standard Thriller Guy advice. Patterson no longer does that. He says that if you have an idea in the night and you don’t write it down and you forget it the next day that it must not have been a very good idea anyway. Not in my brain, James. If I forget an idea, it’s usually because I forget lots of things, especially stuff having to do with nebulous, or not so nebulous, fiction projects. But he’s a big supporter of keeping a notebook to jot down ideas and other raw material for whatever you’re working on.
OK, all good, solid information. Now it’s time to get down to business. I’m going to work along with my master, James, on a new book. Hey, I paid $90 for this program, I might as well use it. Here’s my plot idea, which was sparked by my writer pal Larry while we were at lunch. Actually, early in this lesson Patterson says that asking friends for a novel concept is a very good idea. I’ve got some very good writer friends who are always up for this sort of activity, and over the years I’ve picked up many good plot concepts and had ongoing help from these folks while working on my many novels.
Larry’s idea: A guy who is a book critic writes a review of a book (mystery or thriller) and sends it to his editor. After awhile, he notices that the review he wrote never appears in the magazine. He emails his editor to ask why, and the editor says what review? What book? He doesn’t understand what the writer is asking about.
One of the reasons that this is an intriguing idea is that I’m a book reviewer, I write for a magazine and I have an excellent editor. I’ve often wondered after reading a particularly chilling or tech-heavy book, if terrorists and spies read thriller fiction. Is there a danger that they might pick up useful information from these books? So I began thinking about this setup and came up with these initial questions: what’s the book the reviewer is reviewing? Why did the editor say he’s never heard of the book or ever assigned him the review? And why does the editor turn up dead a week after the writer asks him these questions?
Anyone out there want to help? Joel, you with me on this? Anyone else? Chime in with your ideas and we’ll start to build a book the Patterson way. Who knows, maybe we’ll make a million bucks.