Write Right: Novel Writing for Beginners
What’s Your Big Idea?
What matters to you? What’s your passion? What holds your interest longer than it takes you to read a preview on Netflix?
If you write about concepts you care about—which make you laugh, cry, or shake your fists in the air—your readers will get lost in the pages of your book. Readers are drawn to a book by the way it makes them feel or because it helps them to escape from their everyday lives.
You’ll find ideas everywhere, in your home, workplace, neighbourhood, and community. Everybody in your circle of family, friends, and acquaintances has a story about what’s important to them—health, employment, raising a family, caring for elderly parents, sibling rivalry, marriage, divorce, housing, friends, travel, security, politics, and injustice.
Using the embryo of someone’s story, nurture your own narrative.
You’ll also come across ideas from social issues of our time. The media is filled with articles involving race, religion, sexual orientation, immigration, child care, poverty, Indigenous rights, healthcare, school safety, terrorism, politics, the opioid crisis, the #MeToo movement, gun laws, the vaccine debate, abortion laws, human trafficking, cyberbullying, and a top newsmaker today—climate change.
Turning her back on gas-guzzling planes, Swedish teen Greta Thunberg boarded a boat and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to spread the doomsday message about climate change. Her story has gripped the world, young and old. She has scolded presidents and prime ministers. She has condemned the older generation for their lack of respect for the environment and has demanded they change laws before global warming destroys the planet further.
Thunberg didn’t allow her young age nor her diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, to stand in her way. Her overall story has many intriguing aspects—a teen with remarkable courage despite her limitations, young pitted against old, the frightening vision of the future in the aftermath of global warming—to name but a few. Even one aspect of Thunberg’s story could shape the big idea in a book.
Although I never wrote word for word about true occurrences (except as a reporter), I based my young adult books on my experiences teaching in elementary schools for just over twenty-five years. Most of my characters, dialogue, and plotlines stemmed from my interactions with children, parents, and staff in classrooms and on playgrounds.
When I noticed mental illness was a growing concern among children school-wide, I chose this as the big idea in When Pigs Fly, one of my coming-of-age titles. The protagonist, Maddie, wants nothing to do with her estranged father when he walks back into her life unexpectedly. As far as she’s concerned, he’s using his depression as a lame excuse for breaking all his promises. She’s happy spending the summer without him, hanging around friends and getting ready for the mountain bike race, until tragedy strikes, and her world spins out of control. The novel appeals to young readers affected by mental illness either directly or indirectly—which is a substantial amount of young people.
Write about a social issue that interests your target audience or resonates in your own life. I write about racism because of my chance encounter with a stranger long ago.
On that day, the wind was raw, the roads icy and covered with snow. My mother didn’t drive much, especially on blustery winter days, so she took the bus to work as a nurse at the local hospital, a thirty-minute drive from home. When she returned home that night, she wandered into the kitchen with an African American woman. Until that moment, I hadn’t met anyone who didn’t resemble my family, friends, neighbours, or teachers because I was raised in a small, all-white community.
Apparently, the bus driver had refused to let the woman off at her stop because he didn’t like her skin colour, which meant she had faced miles of backtracking in the dark and snow to get home. Outraged, my mother had blasted the driver—she was not one to hold back—and then had invited the woman home to have dinner at our house. Afterward, my father drove her home.
The bus driver’s perspective baffled me. Why wouldn’t he let the woman get off the bus? Why didn’t he care that if she missed her stop, she’d have to trek miles on foot in the frigid weather to get home? His actions turned my stomach. They didn’t make sense—and still don’t.
What bothers you most? Write about that, for chances are it is connected to the important message you want readers to take away from your book.
Write Right Task 5
Describe the important message your want readers to take away from your book.