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Idea Examples— Craft Tuesday at Write on the River

Kernel Ideas Can Be Anything

A character

A plot

A setting or scene

An intent

A “What If”

TN_ETERNITY_BASE(2)Let’s look at some ideas

  • Character: “A housewife and female assassin must uncover the truth of the men in their lives in order to save their own.” Bodyguard of Lies
  • Plot: “What if a Federal agent investigating a murder, finds out it’s connected to an illegal CIA operation?” The Green Berets: Chasing The Ghost
  • Setting or scene: “An international treaty bans weapons in Antarctica: What if the US put nuclear weapons there and lost track of them?” The Green Berets: Eternity Base
  • Intent/Theme: “Connection leads to a full life.” Don’t Look Down.
  • “What If”: “What if people going into the Witness Protection Program really disappear?” The Green Berets: Cut Out

For an example of What If and how we can make it better:

What if Mary has to stop a band of terrorists?

How could this be improved? What does Mary mean? Not much. How about ‘a housewife’? How about making her a special housewife with an anomaly. What if an obsessive-compulsive housewife? However, that term hints at a comedic tone.

Stop a band of terrorists from what? How about ‘assassinating the president’? so we understand what’s at stake.

This gives us: What if an obsessive-compulsive housewife has to stop a band of terrorists from assassinating the President?

That pops, but it makes me wonder how we balance the comedic possibility of the OCD with the high stakes thriller of the assassination? Do you see how your idea raises questions? Both good and bad. This is why we spend almost an entire day at the Write on the River retreat working on this one sentence. Putting it on the whiteboard and dissecting every word. Because . . .

The Importance of Your Kernel Idea

  • It starts your creative process
  • Remembering it keeps you focused
  • It’s often the core of the pitch to sell the book

I stress this in my teaching because this one idea is critical to the writing process. It’s the one thing I believe every writer should start with, or at the very least, find it before getting too far into the draft.

I also believe every writer should have this on a piece of paper, post-it note, or taped to their computer screen where they can see it at the beginning of every writing session.

Sometimes the kernel idea could even be a way to tell a story, rather than the story itself. Telling the same story from two different perspectives, usually presents two different stories. For example, an idea is “What if a person with limited mental capacity interacts with the world?” The film A Dangerous Woman (film works the same way) shows normal, everyday life with the main character being a woman who always tells the truth. You want to talk about someone who is dangerous. Think about it. The film is an excellent portrayal of our society, but the idea was the different perspective. What was Forrest Gump about? It had the same basic what if. Wasn’t it the main character’s perspective that made the story, rather than the actual events?

thousand acresA different point of view can be a way to tell a story that’s already been done in a fresh way. In Beowulf the monster had his story to tell and John Gardner did it in Grendel. Who was the madwoman in the attic in Jane Eyre? She had her story and Jean Rhys told it in Wide Sargasso Sea. Jane Smiley put King Lear on a present day farm and called it A Thousand Acres. She won the Pulitzer Prize for it.

Whenever I watch a film or video I try to figure out what was the original idea the screenwriter had. For example, in the movie True Romance, written by Quentin Tarantino, there is a scene at the end where there are four groups of people in a room all pointing guns at each other in a classic Mexican standoff. Rewatching the film, I can see the entire movie driving to that one climactic scene. In an interview, Tarantino said that scene was the kernel idea. He didn’t know who the people with the guns were (that’s character); where the room was (setting); why they were in the room (motivation); whether it was the beginning, end or middle of the movie (story and plot); what the result of this stand-off would be; etc. etc. He just had this vision to start with.

When I watched the movie The Matrix, the scene that stuck out to me was where all those people were plugged and being tapped for their electrical power. I almost sense that was the kernel idea—the screenwriter read or heard that the human body produced X amount of electricity and sat down and thought what he could do with that idea. I think he then came up with the concept of the Matrix itself as a follow on.

Are you thinking about your idea? Do you know what your one sentence is?

We’ll spend the next couple of posts going deeper into this!

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The Kernel Idea (The Original Idea)– Craft Tuesday at Write on the River

Toolkit_TNThe kernel idea is the Alpha and the Omega of your book. By that I mean it starts your creative process and it completes it. It’s what you begin with and at the end of the manuscript, everything in the book points toward it.

The kernel idea is the foundation of your novel. When I say idea, I don’t necessarily mean the theme, although it can be. Or the most important incident, although it can be. But it can also be a setting. It can be a scene. It can be a character.

It’s simply the first idea you had that was the seed of your novel. All else can change, but the idea can’t. It might be a place; a person; an event; a moral; whatever. But you did have it before you began writing and you must remember it as you write. If you don’t, your story and style will suffer terribly. You should be able to tell your idea in one sentence. And repeat it to yourself every morning when you wake up and prior to writing. Knowing it will keep you on track.

For every new book I begin, I write out this one sentence on a word document as the very first writing I do. I print it out and put it where I can constantly see it. The kernel idea is the moment of conception.

Can you clearly state what your book is about in 25 words or less? This is a key, essential ingredient of writing a good book. This idea keeps you focused and on track. It is important to:

Write The Kernel Idea down

Ask yourself: What emotional reaction does it evoke

Good writing and strong characters are the key to great writing and knowing what excited you to write the book in the first place will bleed onto the page. However, if you don’t write the idea down, you might forget and get lost along the way.

What Is Your Kernel Idea?

Good news is you had one

Bad news is you probably forgot it

It is usually the first thought you had (the spark of inspiration, the moment of conception)

It is the foundation of your book, the seed

KERNAL IDEA EXERCISE: Write down the idea behind your current project.

If you can’t do it, then you need to backtrack through your creative process to find it, because you had it at one point. Everything starts from something. While idea is not story (something I will talk about later) idea is the only thing in your manuscript that won’t change. Your story can, but your idea won’t.

In one of my early novels, the original idea was an action: What if Special Forces soldiers had to destroy an enemy pipeline? That’s it for Dragon Sim-13. Not very elaborate, you say. True. Not exactly a great moral theme. Right. But with that original idea there was a lot I could do and eventually had to do. I had to change the target country after the first draft. But that was all right because I still had the idea. I had to change characters, but that was fine too, because it didn’t change my idea. I had to change the reason why they were attacking a pipeline, but again, the original idea was the same.

You will have plenty of latitude for story after you come up with your kernel idea; in fact, I sometimes find the finished manuscript turns out to be different from what I had originally envisioned, but one thing is always true: that kernel idea is still there at the end as the Omega.

For my first kernel idea, I made it as simple as possible to enable me to focus on the writing because when I was in the Special Forces my A-Team had run a similar mission on a pipeline.   Since I had a good idea what would happen in the story, I could concentrate on the actual writing of the novel.

I’ve sat in graduate literature classes and heard students say, “the author had to have a moral point in mind when they wrote that book.” I agree, but sometimes it is not at the forefront of the story. Many authors write simply to tell a story started by that kernel idea, which indeed might be a moral point, but sometimes is a story that they wanted to tell and the theme developed subsequently.

A moral or theme (screenwriters call it intent) always does appear in a book by the time it’s done.   No matter what conscious expectations or thoughts an author has when they start writing, a lot more appears in the manuscript than they consciously anticipated.

After you have that kernel idea, you should spend a lot of time wrestling with it and consciously uncover your feelings and thoughts about it. I try to look at my main characters and determine what will happen to them emotionally, physically and spiritually as they go through the story. Who are they at the beginning of the story and who are they at the end?

This is an example of being aware of what you are doing. Not all authors have a conscious theme when they write a novel, but experience has taught me that it is better to have your theme in your conscious mind before you start writing. It might not be your kernel idea, but it will definitely affect your characters and story.

The reason it is important to have a theme in mind is because people want to care about what they read and the characters. If there is some moral or emotional relevance to the story they read, they will become more involved in the story and enjoy it more. Even if the reader doesn’t consciously see it either.

Some writers balk at the kernel or one-sentence idea. How can you be expected to write the entire essence of your epic novel in one sentence? You are told that every word, every sentence, every paragraph and every scene must have purpose, so how can any writer sum up their work in twenty-five words or less?

It’s simple. Your story started with an idea. If you write it down when you think of it, then summarizing your story in one-sentence is that much easier.

During the Write on the River workshop, the very first thing we do is write the idea on whiteboard.  It’s not as easy as you think!

One way to work on understanding the Kernel Idea is to take your favorite movie or book and try to figure out the Kernel Idea. This will help you narrow the focus and see how it is the foundation of everything in the story.

Do you know your kernel/original idea?

Never Complain, Never Explain—Craft Tuesday at Write on the River

I think Henry Ford uttered the famous line: Never complain, never explain. This applies in the writing world in several ways.

One thing I do when critiquing material is ask a lot of questions. I tell writers, ‘You don’t have to answer those questions to me’ (in fact I would prefer they don’t), but rather they are to get the writers to think. At my Write on the River workshop, it’s an exchange of ideas and a lot of questions; and a lot of contributing to answers from all participating.

Remember, you don’t get any opportunities to explain your book once it’s on the shelf in a store or downloaded. You also don’t get any opportunities to explain your submission when it’s sitting on an agent’s or editor’s desk. So if they don’t “get it” the first time around, they won’t get it. Get it? All your explanations and defenses mean nothing because you not only won’t get the chance to say them, you shouldn’t get the chance to say them.

I’ve gotten long emails back from writers answering my questions or challenging points I made in critiques and my reaction is that such letters are a waste of paper. If I couldn’t figure it out from the material, it needs to be rewritten. This ties in with my theory about the original idea. If you can’t tell me what your story is about in one, maybe two sentences, and I understand it from that, then you are going to have a hell of a hard time selling it. You don’t get to put those emails in the front of your published book. You must incorporate those answers in the novel itself through rewriting.

The never complain comes from the fact that there are people running this business. You won’t agree with some things, particularly rejections, but do not complain or write nasty emails, make obnoxious phone calls, post on social media. Because you never know when you are going to run into those people again. My first book was published by a publisher that had rejected my own query reference for that same book. I had disagreed strongly with some of the things they put on that first rejection letter, still do as a matter of fact, but I ate it and drove on. If I had sent them a nasty letter, methinks they would have remembered me and not even considered the manuscript when my agent submitted it.

Social media is a dangerous place and many writers burn bridges with blogs, comments, tweets, etc. A rule of thumb: if it’s not going to have a positive effect; don’t do it.

I even find this with writers I’ve worked with. They get angry and upset with my comments or questions. And they let me know it. What they don’t understand is the fact that their anger expressed that way will get them nowhere. Take the energy and put it into your book, which is the only place it will do you any good.

Agent Richard Curtis’ first piece of advice in his book Beyond the Bestseller to writers consists of a few simple words, “Keep your big mouth shut.”

The longer I have been doing this for a living, the more I realize the profundity of those words. Go ahead, laugh. But here is the golden rule that I take out of those words: If an action you plan to take, words you plan to utter, a letter you want to write, an email you want to send, a tweet you want to send could have anything other than a positive reflection back on you, DON’T DO IT. Negativity begets negativity. Acting out of anger, frustration, righteous indignation, etc. will bite you in the butt, to put it mildly.

It is hard sometimes not to react. But you have to drive on and you have to accept that you, by yourself, are not going to change the entire publishing industry. Also, you can take comfort, if you want, in the fact that the business is in the throes of change.

At one publishing house, I went through five editors over the course of three years. I’ve had half-a-dozen people assigned to me as my publicist. None of my publicists returned my phone calls for the first two years.

Most of the time, I have found that comments made by editors and agents, even when I very much disagreed with them initially, turned out to be very worthwhile. I never respond to anything right away. I always take some time to digest it.

I’m not saying be a patsy. Or go along with every single thing you are told. But I am saying don’t shoot yourself in the foot and understand reality. I do believe you have to be persistent on your own behalf. No one is going to care more about your book than you.

For example, I am often asked how long a writer should wait to hear back on a query/submission to an agent or publishing house. My answer: Forever.

I’m not being a smart-ass with that answer. Rather I am defining the reality of the situation. What are you going to do if you don’t hear back in two months? Send another letter or email to be ignored? Move on.

I stated earlier that this is an emotional business. If you want to succeed you need to have positive emotions working for you. This is very difficult for many writers.

Be positive.

Another aspect of this comes whenever you read a book or see a movie. Stop trying to find what’s wrong with it and try to figure out what is working. It’s easy to be a negative critic—much harder to find the elements that were successful. I believe that learning to do this was a significant achievement for me. I used to look at some best-selling novelists and think their work was totally worthless. Because of that, I failed to look hard enough to see the things in that work that were worthwhile and well done.

I recently got an email from a writer where the writer first told me all the things he didn’t like. He didn’t like thrillers. He didn’t like horror. He didn’t like serial killer books, etc. etc. etc. My first reaction was why is this guy telling me this? Second, what good is it doing him to know what he doesn’t like? Third, some of what he doesn’t like could teach him a lot about writing. Fourth, he was telling me, in so many words, he didn’t like what I wrote. Not a good way to start a working relationship.

The bottom line is I’ve learned to shut my mouth even if I have to bite my tongue in half to do it.

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