Recently, when I was reading Twyla Tharp’s fabulous book, The Creative Habit, I stumbled across this line: “…you don’t have a good idea until you combine two little ideas.” And then I realized something: I already knew that! Following is from a talk I gave a few years ago, reproduced with permission from myself:
“Several years ago, I heard Sid Fleishman talk at the New England Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators conference. He talked about how you don’t need an idea to write a book. You need two ideas. He didn’t put it this way, but what he was saying was that, basically, you need a character idea, and then you need an inciting incident idea. Okay, let’s say that we have an accident-prone girl as our main character. That doesn’t get us anywhere until we add an inciting incident—how about ‘falls in love with a vampire.’
My series, Accidentally Fabulous, started because an editor friend of mine took me out to lunch and said, “I want you to write a series based on those funny stories you tell about being in middle school.” And I said, “Funny stories?” I always thought that all of my stories about middle school were gut-wrenching and sad. But she said, “Yeah, like that time you dressed up as fungus.” It was true, I did in fact dress up as fungus once, for National Science Day. And then my best friend told me that the guy I had a crush on was, quote, “staring at me all through chapel.” And when I got home and told my mom that a boy had been staring at me all through chapel, she said, “Don’t you think it might be because you dyed your hair green and are wearing a fungus costume?” And I didn’t speak to her for the rest of the night. But this didn’t really seem like enough of a concept to hang an entire series on. But at least I had the first half of the idea—the character. It was sort of me, so she is a scholarship kid at the ritziest school in Houston, Texas. She has a good sense of humor and makes some questionable fashion choices. But that’s not enough for a book or a series, either. So I had to think of the inciting incident—she makes friends with one of the Queen Bees at the school, and enemies with an even more powerful Queen Bee, and generally upsets the Bee power dynamic. Shenanigans ensue, including getting tricked into dressing up as an amoeba (it’s fiction, after all) for a National Science Day that doesn’t exist. Voila.”
So there you have it. The secret to having a novel idea is to have two ideas: Character, and Problem. Once you have those two things, your novel will write itself.*
*Note: Your novel will totally not write itself. Get to work!