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  Elements of a Good Idea
by Vicki Hinze

The elements of a good novel idea address and answer questions. What do you, the writer want to say? Who wants to hear it? How do you plan to say it?
And who do you think could best convey what you have to say?

Universal Appeal
Writers have always heard "write what you know." Let's say you know the intricacies of the subject of your idea and you can write about it with authority. That's terrific, because readers who know the intricacies of your subject will be captivated, too. But it isn't enough. "Write what you know" can't stand alone. It must be followed by, "who cares?"

If what you know is how to be a good insurance salesman, or a good used car dealer, you have to understand that not many readers who are not those things will be interested in reading about them. As with ANY subject in writing, there can be exceptions, but your odds greatly diminish. Why? Because readers experience these type careers in real life.

Remember, the reader is an armchair adventurer eager to traipse through the unfamiliar and remain safe. So give them something they're a little less apt to have personally experienced, something a little exotic.

For example: not many readers experience the danger and intrigue of the Intelligence community, or Air Force Special Operations. The mystique, intrigue, and danger appeals. The reader is getting to peek behind the veiled curtain and get an opportunity to experience something new to them, something different. These jobs hold a touch of the exotic, the forbidden, and that holds reader appeal and interest. Not many women we know are hired-hit women. Yet from sales and awards received on Debra Dixon's BAD TO THE BONE, we know readers thoroughly enjoyed reading about one. Same can be said for SECRET PREY, which has enjoyed (and is still enjoying) great sales and reader reception.

Universal appeal.

Being familiar with a subject doesn't necessarily mean it's worthy of a book, though it certainly can be, just as the writer can become enthused by researching something unfamiliar. If you're writing a commercial fiction novel that you want to sell, then its subject—familiar to the writer or not—must hold universal appeal. That universal appeal makes it attractive to the publisher and in the market.

Truth or Lies?
Writers often are told that the idea or the basic premise for a novel must be true. This simply isn't so. Writers can (and do!) lie. They have a license for it. (Please understand I'm referring to crafting a work, not in any other aspect of this business!)

We've all heard that the truth is stranger than fiction. That cliché became one, as have so many others, because it is true. In life, people don't have to have logical, reasonable, and concrete motivation to act, and coincidence is readily accepted as a reality of life. But in fiction, it's not. Every action must be solidly motivated and coincidence is unacceptable. A lack of solid motivation or incorporating coincidence will gain the writer rejection letters containing phrases like, "Convoluted plot line", "cardboard characters" (which means ones not fully developed and well-rounded), and "illogical sequences of events."

Truth is often boring in fiction. Lie—and then convince the reader that your lie is the truth. Motivate character actions, foreshadow coming major events, and put down the foundation so that the lie seems not only true but also an inevitable truth. Do this in offering details, proofs of truth, in the work.

Target your reader.
A good idea is one that appeals to your targeted reader. Eons ago, noted editor, agent, and author, Alice Orr, suggested writers imagine that they are storytellers sitting around a campfire, telling stories to hostile natives. I add to that image. As a writer, you either entertain and enthrall those natives or they're going to throw you into the cauldron of boiling water heating atop that campfire. Target your reader, and then enthrall them.

Experience the Unusual.
Take your reader into a world that they don't usually experience. Have your characters be admirable, action-oriented, three-dimensional people and not reactive victims. I remember judging a romance writing competition once where the heroine carried so much emotional baggage—the result of struggling through a horrendous life—I considered it a miracle she hadn't committed suicide. Less is more, or you risk reducing a character to the likes of Perilous Pauline who spent her days tied to train tracks.

Another example was an entry (also a romance novel writing competition) wherein the heroine was a seventeen-year-old drug addict involved with a thug. She skipped school, got drunk, and destroyed her loving foster mother's home while spouting off four-letter expletives that would make a porn addict blush AND wash her mouth out with soap. These are NOT the attributes of an admirable heroine romance novel readers would identify with or want to emulate. The writer clearly had not read romance novels. This was evident, incidentally, on the first page of the manuscript.

Clearly Defined Character Goals.
Another solid clue that the novel idea is a good one is that the character's goals can be clearly defined so that the reader knows exactly what the characters want, who is trying to stop them from getting it, and what the characters will lose if they fail to reach their goals. In other words, the characters' goals, motivations, and conflicts.

Writers should also keep in mind that writing within a genre is far more favorable to the new writer than writing mainstream. The reason why is simple. Money.

Taking a chance on publishing a new author requires a huge investment on the
part of the publisher. The author, being new, has no established reader base. If the book fits within a defined marketing niche, the publisher greatly increases the odds of the book selling well. A new writer can get lost on the mainstream bookshelf. Because this truth has been proven repeatedly, a new writer finds genre writing far more welcoming. It is a place where the type of book is defined and attracts readers who prefer that type novel. Whether you're writing romance, science fiction, fantasy, horror, or mystery, it is imperative that you read copiously within the genre. Each publisher has its specific genre preferences. Publisher guidelines will give the writer an overall sense of what the publisher wants, but nothing can inform the writer as well as reading the books published.

Novels intend to entertain, to enlighten, to engage the reader's emotions. Ask yourself: will your idea for this book make people care? Will it create character empathy?

Put your novel idea through these tests, and if it proves universal, marketable, engaging, and you feel genuine enthusiasm for it, then proceed.

© Copyright Vicki Hinze. All Rights Reserved


Dr. Vicki Hinze is an award-winning, best-selling author who routinely shares her expertise at national writers' conferences, online, and through her writing guides. Her latest non-fiction book is ALL ABOUT WRITING TO SELL, from Spilled Candy Books for Writers. This 589-page ebook covers everything you need to know about the craft of writing, the publishing business, and the secrets to getting published. ALL ABOUT WRITING TO SELL is available at www.SpilledCandy.com as a download or disk.

Or you can visit Vicki's author site at


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    Novel Writing tips for fiction writers