The DuplicatesAnatomy of a Novel – Installment 2

The Idea

The First Filter


I started the first installment in this Anatomy of a Novel series with the question I get asked most frequently: How do you write a book?

Today, I’ll be dealing with another question I get asked all the time.

“Where do you get your ideas?”

It’s an excellent question since it’s one I ask myself quite often. The short answer is a combination of observation, a sense of curiosity and wonder, and my subconscious that seems to have a mind of its own most days.

I’m a collector of ideas. Ideas for storylines, themes, locales, sub-plots, characters, interesting snippets of dialogue. They come and go; I write a lot of them down, others get tossed and forgotten forever. That is unless my subconscious has other plans for them.

I’ll let you in on a little secret.

Ideas are the part easy.

I’ve got tons of ideas that could be the basis for interesting and entertaining novels.

But how do I know when I have the right idea that can hold up through the writing process and capture an audience?

First, the good news.

The process I use to select and formulate an idea is effective for determining whether or not it will hold up through the writing process. Using the approach, I decide from a technical perspective, i.e. the writing process, whether or not the idea makes the cut and is worth three months of my time.

Now for the bad news.

On the question of whether or not the idea will capture an audience; one just never knows. Such is the mystery of the creative process. Sometimes even great work, be it a book, film, or TV show, doesn’t find the audience it deserves. It can be cruel, frustrating, even maddening to the people who created it and sweated bullets bringing it to life.

In the end, all you can do is put your best work out there, then do everything you can to help it find the people who will enjoy your creation.

If you can’t live with that, you might want to consider a different profession, like gardening, where the tangible results of your work are immediate and obvious, and often greatly appreciated on the spot.

But let’s get back to ideas.

I use two filters to help me decide if an idea is book-worthy.

It may seem odd that the first filter I use is more related to marketing than it is to the actual writing process. And it’s an aspect of marketing that focuses more on could it sell, as opposed to the question; how would you sell it?

And the two things I use in the first filter for selecting an idea are the Snapshot and the Tagline.

I know you’re all familiar with Taglines. Every book, film, and TV show uses them to capture your attention, trying to convince you to shell out your hard-earned money on whatever it is they’re offering.

Snapshot is the term I use. It’s also called the Hook, the Synopsis, the Blurb. I like Snapshot because it reminds me it needs to capture the potential book like a photograph captures a moment.

I write the Snapshot and Tagline right up front to help me answer the could it sell question.

But I’m also forcing myself to deal with another essential question.

Is this idea good enough for me to invest several hundred hours of my time?

Finishing a book is hard enough when you love the idea you’re trying to bring to life. But the process is brutal if you don’t feel drawn, even compelled, to write it.

The good news is your book ideas are completely your choice.

Choose wisely.

A couple of examples might help me explain how I work an idea into shape before I make the decision of whether it’s book-worthy.

Several years ago, I decided I wanted to write a comedy about relationships that was different from the traditional romantic comedy. I wanted to write a character-driven story that included a host of people who all had odd personality traits. I also wanted it to be edgy, sometimes dark, and more adult than a PG Rom-Com. Finally, I wanted the setting to be a bit different from the norm.

And I was stuck.

Then one day I got a call from a friend who told me he and his wife were separating. He was devastated, so I invited him over to the house for dinner and a few too many cocktails. I was at the grocery store shopping for dinner when I saw a young woman wearing a tee shirt with the slogan; Love is Hell.

In the car on the drive home, it hit me. I went inside and wrote down the following:

If love is hell, what does that make divorce?

Immediately, the idea began to take shape. It was one of those moments when an idea just takes over one’s thought process. And my creative juices were working overtime. But I still needed a place to put the story; somewhere all the emerging scenes and sub-plots could reside.

Over the stove, wineglass in hand, I started running the what if question through my head. What if the main character and his spouse were divorce attorneys? What if the main characters decided to kill each other and their plans went to hell?

I ran what if scenarios until I ran dry.

Then I shifted gears and asked myself, what are some of the initial impacts of a divorce? Certainly, emotional pain was at the forefront. And a likely change in the person’s physical environment. And a divorcee would be seeking comfort and emotional support.

Then my subconscious gave me a second gift.

What if a divorced man bought a bed and breakfast and turned it into a refuge for other recently divorced men?

Thus was the birth of Divorce Hotel.

Tagline: If love is hell, what does that make divorce?

Snapshot: John Germaine, a divorced man owns a bed and breakfast he’s turned into a refuge for recently divorced men. But faced with a crushing alimony payment to his ex-wife, Margaret, an aspiring, yet uninspiring actress, John has reached the end of his rope. And he needs to either get Margaret remarried or take drastic measures. With the assistance of his new housekeeper, Emily, the ex-wife of Margaret’s new fiancé, John puts together a plan to get Margaret off his back permanently.

At this point, Divorce Hotel soared over the first hurdle in idea selection. I knew that not only had I answered the could it sell question, but I was also onto something good.

Not only did the book end up being a solid comedy; it’s currently in development as a film.

One more short example before we move onto the second filter.

About a year and a half ago, I was eating lunch by myself at one of my favorite Indian restaurants. I’d been looking for an idea for a comic crime novel but was drawing a blank. I was about to take a bite of garlic Naan when the following thought popped into my head.

What if two diamond thieves met when they were both robbing the same house?

An hour later, I had the Tagline and Snapshot written, my two main characters defined, and a rough three-act structure mapped out.

Welcome to the birth of Either Ore.

Tagline: Diamonds are these guys’ best friend.

Snapshot: Either Ore and Casper Dupree, two of the best jewelry thieves to ever work the circuit, meet during a chance encounter when they’re robbing the same house. They meet for the second time three years later after Either’s release from prison, and Casper has launched a fledgling career as an author of romance novels. Either has devised the perfect way to pull off the ultimate road trip caper, as well as help Casper sell a few books in the process. Hitting the road in a Winnebago, Either and Casper embark on Casper Dupree’s Endless Book Tour. Along the way they partner with Coco, a femme fatale with a penchant for classic noir and creative crime. They also manage to attract the attention of an FBI agent who has a history with Either and is determined to do everything in his power to make sure the bad guys don’t win.

I share the Either Ore example for one reason.

The times when an idea appears out of the blue, fully formed, are extremely rare.

Never waste one.

Do everything in your power to stop whatever you’re doing at that moment and write it down. Keep writing until you’ve captured everything you need to move the idea forward. Or record it on your phone.

Okay, so now the first filter test has been met, and I’ve answered the could it sell question and am at least willing to consider the possibility of spending hundreds of hours working with the idea.

Now it’s time to do some real work and start thinking about the writing.

The easy part is over.

The next installment deals with the second filter I use for selecting an idea.

Be well, my friends.