Kernel Ideas Can Be Anything
A setting or scene
A “What If”
- 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?
A 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!
The 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?
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.
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.
You could also call this willingness to change. This is not only important when starting out, but it is perhaps even more important after first getting published. You should be willing to learn from any source to improve your writing.
Before you can be willing to change though, you have to be willing to say the three hardest words in the human language for most people, “I was wrong”. This should be followed with:, “Maybe I’m not doing this the best possible way. Maybe I can learn from someone else.”
One thing I see too much of is writers who want validation instead of help. They want to be told how great their manuscript is and have a publisher put the check in the mail. They don’t want to hear what’s wrong and what more work needs to be done. I find this very strange in the environment of conferences and classes, where the entire purpose is not validation but to become better writers.
After three books published, I took some graduate literature courses at the local college. It was a very worthwhile experience and expanded my horizons. In fact, the longer I write, the more I appreciate the literary side of the house. I think many genre writers get too caught up in the “formula” of their genre and trap themselves, becoming unable to write anything different. In the same manner, if you have a background in literature, don’t turn your nose up at information that seems too “common” or genre oriented.
I read a book and took a course on screenplays and learned some things about writing that I can incorporate not only into my work on screenplays, but also my novels. I found the way a screenplay is broken down interesting and I use it later in this book to help you get the big picture on how a novel works.
I recently watched the visiting writer at a local college come into our writer’s group to do a reading. She walked in, did her reading, took her applause, and then walked out. I guess she was simply too good of a writer to waste her time listening to the other people in the group read or discuss writing. She didn’t bother to find out whom she had just read to and because of that she lost the opportunity to network with several published authors who might have helped her in her attempts to publish her next novel.
That’s another lesson I’ve learned—you never know who you’re dealing with so be courteous and open to all you meet. No matter what your mindset, listen to others and what they have to say about writing even if you disagree with them. You might find yourself agreeing a year or two later. In this book, you might find me appearing to be somewhat schizophrenic, taking several different perspectives, some of them seemingly opposed to each other, but remember, I began writing this in 1990 and have been adding to it ever since, so in these pages you see some of my own evolution as a writer. I do have to say that for mainly ego reasons, I was very touchy when first starting out at what I perceived to be snubs from the literary community toward genre writing. Now I see that attitude to be naive and wrong. You have to decide what you want to do and pursue it, regardless of what others say or believe. Another thing I have learned is that it is guaranteed that someone, somewhere, will not like what you’ve written after you get published. It’s also guaranteed that some of those people feel a burning desire to inform you of those dislikes.
The biggest change I have made over the years is to alter my perspective on plotting and characters. I will discuss this in detail further in this book but for my first dozen manuscripts or so I believed that the plot drove the story. Now I realize that characters drive the story. In order to make that change, though, I had to admit that what I was doing was not the best way to work and be willing to look at points of view diametrically opposed to my own.
You can’t ever get better if you don’t first admit you’re not doing it the best possible way. When I taught a writing correspondence course, I would have to say that 80-90% of the students were unwilling to change anything based on the feedback I was giving them. The first question this raises is why they even took the course in the first place? The answer I mentioned above—they wanted validation. The few who did change, who did the hard work and reworked their material, and put the time into thinking about the questions I would pose—they made great strides as writers.
Remember that change takes stages. First one has to accept that there is a need for change. Then you have to intellectually accept the change, which isn’t total acceptance. After a while of living with the mental acceptance, you will gradually have emotional acceptance of the change, which is total acceptance. That is why it takes years and years to change, if one ever does.
I find change usually requires Kubler-Ross’s five emotional stages. I also touch on this in editing, but very briefly we tend to go through:
- There is no problem or need to change
- How dare someone, including me, say I’m not doing it right
- Maybe if I can change some small things it will make a big difference
- Yes, I do really need to change
- Which leads to change
Once, I spent every day of a week reading the fifteen New York Times bestsellers. I did this because I wanted to become a NYT bestseller. I read them with an open mind and I learned many things. I adjusted some of the structure of my plotting in accordance with what I learned and incorporated what I learned in places in this book also.
There are two types of books, besides bestsellers, that I recommend new novelists read: first novels (because this book was sold on its own merits) and breakout novels (the book that breaks a mid-list author into being a best selling author).
I constantly have to reinforce to writers the fact that the reader does not know what the writer knows. That a writer must be able to get out of their own head and into the head of a reader who is starting from page one.
If you start your manuscript with fifty pages of expository material, knowing that your great hook is on page 51, realize one thing—the reader doesn’t know the great hook is on page 51 and very few will want to wade through that much background information without knowing why it is important or that the hook is coming.
The Writing Routine
It seems like people always want to know what a writer’s “routine” is. I always get that question when I teach and I always have a hard time answering it. I have the same sort of answer when people ask about some of the material in the next chapter: I will use and do whatever it takes to get a manuscript done. If I have to outline on an easel pad, I do it. If I have to write in chalk on the side of an apartment building, I’ll do it. If I have to call the homicide squad to ask a stupid question, I’ll try to get someone else to do it, and when they won’t, do it myself.
Each individual has to discover what works, but the operative word in this sentence is works. Don’t lock yourself in—find what works, and if it stops working, find something else.
One interesting thing I have found is that the entire creative process has many paths but they all seem to parallel each other. I listened to a panel with Terry Brooks, Elizabeth George, Bryce Courtenay and Dan Millman as each talked about their own unique process of writing a novel. And on the surface it appeared that all were very different in their approach, but underlying what they were saying, I could see that they all did essentially the same things, just differently. Confusing? For example, Terry Brooks is a big fan of outlining and hates rewriting. But Bryce Courtenay doesn’t outline, he just starts writing and then spends a lot of time rewriting. But in essence, Bryce Courtenay’s first draft of the manuscript is equal to Terry Brooks polished outline. The same thought processes and amount of work go into it.
This is what you feel about what you are writing about. I talk about intent a little further on—what you want the reader to feel from the book. You also have to consider how you feel about what you are writing, because consciously or subconsciously, it will come through in your writing.
Your passion could be to tell an interesting and entertaining story. It could be to write a novel about what love means to you. Sometimes when I am trying to get a writer to get back to their original idea, I ask them what is most important about their book to them? What do they feel the most about? This is the core of the book.
I refer to this throughout this book, but one thing I believe is that if you are a writer, no one can stop you from writing.
This brings up the difficult subject of rewriting and changing. I’ve seen writers totally change their manuscript based on the off-hand comment of an editor/agent/writing instructor. Sometimes the change is for the better, but sometimes it tears the guts out of the book. I think a writer has to be true to himself or herself first. But the writer also must be objective enough to get out of their own head and see if what they have written works. To have these two capabilities reside inside of one person is a paradox and why it is difficult for most people to do this successfully.