Wednesday, November 9, 2011

5 Ways to Jumpstart Your Novel

Maybe you're staring at a blank whiteboard, wondering when the plot fairies are going to appear and start making bullet-pointed outlines for you to fill in.

Maybe you're staring at the bland first chapters of a new novel that sounded great when you started it...but after the initial enchantment faded, you're left with a limp rag that seems utterly incapable of transformation into a magic flying carpet.

Maybe you're almost there, with great characters and a tightly woven plot... but it just seems to lack that "spark" that will make it explode across the sky.

Here are 5 tips that have worked for me when it comes to brainstorming, transforming, or injecting adrenaline into a novel:

1. Read outside the box. If all you read is YA, and all you write is YA, your writing probably isn't going to stand out from the crowd. You can't put celery and carrots in a blender and expect cookies and cream milkshakes to come out. You really wanna bring something new and fresh to your genre? Read outside it. Fiction, non-fiction, comic books or coloring books--doesn't really matter. The point is to expand your reading repertoire in order to expand the limits of your own imagination.

2. Watch a documentary. Or three or ten. You'd be amazed at how many ideas can come from something like Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking or Colony: The Endangered World of Bees. Or if you're in the midst of a novel, find documentaries related to your subject. Our world is stuffed with incredible true stories, science, and facts. Learn them. Use them.

3. Read the dictionary. No, really. Do. A single word can carry a host of other words in its shadow. Think of words like redemption, holocaust, or grief. Words like these are almost stories in and of themselves. Get out a thesaurus and explore the vastness of the English language. Go to Visual Thesaurus and get lost in maps of words.

4. Get involved in theater. Call me crazy if you want, but one of the best things that ever happened to my writing was the four years I directed and acted for my college drama club. The experience of body movement, vocalized dialogue, and other actors in conjunction with a written story is wildly invigorating. Even if you have stage fright (to which I would normally say "Get on stage, face your fear, then get over it") you can get involved in other ways like prompting, directing, or just sewing costumes. Theater is a whole lot like writing--only it takes things a couple steps further by actually putting the story into physical action. You'll leave the stage with a new arsenal of writing weapons that will make you see your novel in a whole new way.

5. Live a little. Thoreau said "How vain it is to sit down and write when you have not stood up to live." Ouch. Get away from your computer, away from your house, and do something. And I don't mean go haunt a bookstore for a few hours--that doesn't count. Live adventurously. Talk to strangers. See new places and try new foods and, as that great sage Dr. Seuss said, "You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose... So get on your way!" Let your own life inspire your writing, and it won't just be your book that benefits.

What about you? Have any of these strategies ever worked for you in the past? What are some ways you brainstorm? Please comment--I'm always looking for new things to try! :)


  1. Hi Jess,
    I'm in the process of writing a novel and a friend informed me of your website. I must say that almost every item on your list has been useful to me in the past and I'll tell you how:
    "1. Read outside the box."
    I don't read as much as I could or should. But when I do read, not only is it fantasy (my preferred genre) but lately I've been reading from all sorts of books. Within my list is Mein Kamph (how better to get into the mind of evil), Might is Right (Out of curiosity mainly, this book has been banned many times and the author has a bizarre world view), The Art of War (how better to capture epic battles), Epictus Enchiridion (I just like the name), etc.
    "2. Watch a documentary"
    I specifically obtained the "Planet Earth" series for this reason. They are absolutely full of the most random and unbelievable stuff you can imagine. I watch these and other documentaries with a pen and a tablet because ideas flow nonstop.
    "3. Read the Dictionary"
    Not only do I have a dictionary on my bedside table (I wouldn't be able to read Mein Kamph with out it) but also I always have a tab for or some thesaurus open on my browser.
    "4. Get involved in theater"
    Ok, I have to pass on this one. My friends and I have attempted short movies before but that's not exactly the same at all.
    "5. Live a little"
    I get in slumps on occasion while writing and researching and there's only one sure-fire cure that I've found: Taking my dog and some supplies and getting as lost in the woods as I can. It's my personal 'refresh' button. This isn't exactly traveling the world but nature is my biggest inspiration.
    Anyway, thanks so much for your list(and in writing it, validating mine) and I look forward to reading your novel (and watching the movie) when it comes out.
    David List

    1. David, I'm glad my post resonated so strongly with you! Thanks for your thoughtful response, and best of luck to you in your writing!

  2. Oh my gosh I SO agree! Especially with the theater part. Growing up in the theater world, directing, acting, working backstage or front of house... it all just really kick starts the creativity in your mind and brings forward all sorts of possibilities! The hard part is fitting all those possibilities together!

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