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Focusing Your Idea—Craft Tuesday at Write on the River

When you write your one sentence down, check to see what the subject of the sentence is:

  1. Character
  2. Protagonist or antagonist
  3. Plot

Whichever you lead with sends an immediate message to the reader as to which is more important. Check to see what the verb is

  • Positive or negative
  • Action or re-action verb

You usually want the verb for the protagonist to be positive, and for the protagonist to eventually act. Firefly was a fun series, but it didn’t get renewed because there was a fundamental flaw: the protagonist and crew were always escaping and they had no goal other than to not get caught

Area51_AmazonWhat If?

  • Start your sentence with “What if . . .”
  • Each word must mean something to the reader
  • Don’t be a secret keeper
  • “What if a thief was using a movie set as a cover for a heist?” Don’t Look Down
  • “What if mankind didn’t originate the way we thought?” Area 51

Another way to try to figure out what the core of your novel is this: What is the climactic scene? This is when the protagonist and antagonist meet to resolve the primary problem that is the crux of the novel. This is the scene the entire book is driving towards.

Fictional Memoirs

  • First novels tend to be blood-lettings and focused on the author, not the reader. Most of us have not led that exciting a life to write a novel about it
  • Will anyone else care? Your job as the writer is to make them care

How Is Your Idea Different?

It isn’t: every idea has been done, the difference comes in the transfer to story. Usually through

  • Unique character. This is usually the best way. Come up with a fascinating cast of characters, well written, and you could write about anything
  • Unique setting. The same idea in a different place, is a different story
  • Unique POV. The same idea, told from a different point of view, is a different story. Even the same story told from a different point of view is different
  • Unique intent. You twist the same idea so that it has a very different impact on the reader

Where’s The Shiver?

What excited you so much that you decided to sit in the dark and write 100,000 words? That’s not normal, as already noted. What excites people you talk to about your book? I know I’m on target with an idea if others pick up my excitement when I discuss it.

Remember, as a writer, you are selling emotion and logic. And Kirk always trumps Spock.

A key to selling your book is being able to communicate this shiver to other people. To get them as excited as you were when you first began writing.

  • What excited you?
  • What excites the people you tell it to?
  • Where’s the emotion, the passion?
  • What does the reader relate to?
  • Can you communicate the shiver?

What’s The Payoff?

  • How does the idea spark a story that will provide an intent/theme that provides catharsis?
  • How does the idea create a resolution that ‘surprises’ and satisfies the reader?
  • Will readers be thinking about, talking about your idea after they finish reading the book?
  • Will they find different layers when they re-read it?
  • The payoff most likely peaks in the resolution of the story

Study And Find Ideas

  • Look for the original idea in every book you read and every movie you watch.
  • Usually a sentence or a scene will jump out at you.
  • As soon as you finish a book, immediately go back and re-read the opening chapter. The same with watching a movie. If you can, re-watch the opening and now you will find all those things you didn’t consciously note the first time. One thing you might pick up in the opening of either the book or movie the second time around is the mirroring of the climactic scene. You didn’t register it the first time because you don’t yet know what the climactic scene is. A screenwriter for television told me the key to a show is often in the opening credits and in the music for the credits.

Getting closer with your idea? Is it exciting?

PS: Don’t worry about someone stealing your idea. I hear that all the time. The reason for that is in the next blog post, next week: Idea is not story!

 

 

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?

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