Planning a Novel: The Spark of an Idea

While writing Grim Curio is still in full swing (but nearing its end), I’ve been thinking about future projects a lot lately. I have two other novels in the works, The Gin Thief episodes and an untitled novel I’m co-writing with my wife, Tana.

She’s not much into social networking or blogging, but she’s a voracious reader and you can follow her on Goodreads. Last year she read well over 100 books and this year she’s already on track to surpass that.

I’ve been asking her for a while, “When are you going to write your own novel?” and she shrugs.

She’s the reader, I’m the writer. But I knew there was a story inside her if I could just coax it out. So during an hour long drive, I grilled her. I started with the broad questions. “If you were to write your novel,” I asked, “What genre would it be?”

She was skeptical of my motives, but after a little coaxing she opened up. “My favorite books are mash-ups of Science Fiction with a Fantasy element,” she said. Turns out, she likes the Sci-fi aesthetic, and magic systems from novels like the Mistborn trilogy. Sounds good to me.

“I really like the plot of Treasure Island,” she said. One of my favorite novels. Scored a big point with that one. “I’m interested in a science fiction retelling of Treasure Island with magic and a heist.”

I was taken aback. “That sounds amazing. I’d totally read that. In fact, I’d totally write that.”

We tossed ideas back and forth, getting more and more specific along the way. And what we came up with was this.

It’s a mess. But it’s also a jumping off point.

Let’s say you’re interested in writing your own novel, but don’t know where to start. What can you take away from this?

Find someone to bounce ideas off of

As it turns out, Tana has more interesting ideas than I do. Go figure. She’s read everything under the sun. She’d throw me an idea, and I’d build on it and throw it back. Pretty soon we had the seed of what could be a promising story.

It’s important to remember that there really isn’t such a thing as a bad idea in this stage. It’s ok to say, “That’s been done before,” or “I’d rather see something like…” But don’t shoot the other person’s ideas down. They are doing you a service, and if you want their continued support, be encouraging.

Start broad, then go more and more narrow

You’ll notice that in the beginning there wasn’t a specific idea. But as we explored settings and themes and plot structure, we began to get more and more specific.

Of course this isn’t the only way to go. In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever attempted to create a novel this way. But it seems to have worked well.

Alternative ways to begin a novel include: start with a character, start with the plot, find an idea you want to explore, find an aesthetic, or just find a book you want to emulate. It really doesn’t matter where the spark of the idea comes from. Just find a something you love and run with it.

Ideas change

What you brainstorm here will likely not be your final product. What sounds amazing in the idea generation phase may be terrible once executed. There’s no way to know until you do it.

Embrace change. Pivot once you realize something isn’t working. Don’t hold yourself to your early ideas, because in the end it doesn’t matter how you started, only how you finish.

Realize that this is just the first step

The work is only just beginning. An idea isn’t worth the paper it’s written on unless you follow through with it. Writing a novel is a lot of sustained hard work. Be prepared to follow through for months and months in the trenches, taking fire and shooting back until… you’re novel is written I guess. Not a great analogy, but I’m keeping it.

That’s all I have for today. Hope you enjoyed this peek behind the scenes. If you’re looking for more on this subject, checkout my blog post called Find Inspiration, Generate Ideas, and the Myth of the Perfect Concept.

Book Review of The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn #1)

Note: This review was originally posted on Goodreads on April 10, 2017. It has been slightly updated here.


The Final Empire is an excellent fantasy novel which far exceeded my expectations. I’m new to Brandon Sanderson with one exception.

I’d tried to read The Way Of Kings last year, and I put it down after 5 chapters because I found one of the characters very trite and annoying. But after reading The Final Empire, I may need to go back and give it another shot.

Our belief is often strongest when it should be weakest. That is the nature of hope. –The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

My wife recommended The Final Empire, and I realized this was the same author a few chapters in. The opening didn’t grab me here either, but she insisted that it would be worth slogging through. Lucky for me I gave it a chance because what I read was would become one of my favorite fantasy series ever.

The beginning

Action as a hook doesn’t work for me because there’s no emotional resonance. Until I care about the characters, I really don’t care about the action. But once you pass this brief requisite “hook”, the characters start to connect and the setting begins to get interesting. Next we’re front-loaded with world building, still without a character to really hold on to. More trudging on.

But after you climb these early, awkward steps it starts to get interesting. And then it gets fascinating, captivating, magical.

The Plot

The plot itself isn’t what’s engrossing here. It’s a standard hero overthrows the evil villain story. What’s interesting is how Brandon Sanderson is able to craft a standard villain into a believable human being with doubts and insecurities. It’s equivalent to making Sauron from Lord of the Rings a character you can relate to.

He does this in numerous ways, but primarily through the use of journal entries. As we read the diary of a man who’s about to rise to supreme power, we see that he was not always the evil emperor who enslaves us today. There was a time where he was just a person like you or me.

I consider myself to be a man of principle. But, what man does not? Even the cutthroat, I have noticed, considers his actions “moral” after a fashion.

Perhaps another person, reading of my life, would name me a religious tyrant. He could call me arrogant. What is to make that man’s opinion any less valid than my own?

I guess it all comes down to one fact: In the end, I’m the one with the armies.
The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

There are many revelations, and I won’t give any of them away, but they culminate into a brilliant “Ah ha!” moment when the reader finally sees [not a spoiler, you learn this in the beginning] why the Hero of Ages is now the Lord Ruler. Brilliant character development and story telling here.

That’s all subtext though. I know.

The actual plot follows a thieving crew who’s been hired to overthrow the lord ruler. It takes a fairly predictable path, but that’s ok. What’s interesting are the two protagonists whose relationship grows so subtly throughout the book.

There are probably a thousand different moments of slight character progression as they transition from one mentality to another, or as they loose or gain insecurities, or grow just a little closer to another character. It’s fascinating to see all this constant movement feel so natural, and it’s brilliantly done.

Setting

This is fantasy, and it contains a unique magic system. It’s fun, limited, and believable. Some people have one magic ability, others have many, and the rest have none. I enjoyed the fact that the magic behaved differently than magic I’ve seen before. It turned out to be a mix of Jedi and Matrix powers, and the combination was fun.

The environment is believable enough. It doesn’t stray too far into fantasy lane, meaning there aren’t any elves or ogres or goblins, etc. The ash the constantly falls from the sky was a really nice touch, and the mist itself is an ever-present thing. I enjoyed how the mist felt like a character at some points. It’s these details that carry the setting and keep it interesting.

Writing Style

Brandon Sanderson’s writing is direct and clear at all times. He doesn’t really get bogged down with metaphors or imagery, opting instead to be clear and concise. Prose flow well without getting in the way. It works well when there’s so many intricacies to the plot that any confusion would hamper the story.

He smiled despite the grief he felt at the deaths of his men; he smiled because that was what he did. That was how he proved to the Lord Ruler-and to himself-that he wasn’t beaten.
The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

Some writers like to get readers to think through their prose, but Brandon Sanderson likes to get writers to think through his characters and their relationships. I guess what I’m trying to say is: the writing never stood out to me in a bad way, but never stood out in a great way either. It works well and delivers the ideas it needs to effortlessly.

Conclusion

Read this book! Other than the beginning, I don’t have any gripes. This was one of the best fantasy books I’ve ever read, up there with Name of the Wind (if you know me, you know how high praise that is). So give the man some money and have a great time reading.

Mushi-Shi - Scene from the Anime

The Three Greatest Influences on Grim Curio

This week I reached a major writing milestone in Grim Curio. I wrote my 50,000th word. This is a big step in the process and to celebrate I’m going to share some of the works that have influenced me over the past few months.

What follows are GC’s three greatest influences, which is by no means a complete list. Each of these books feature specific elements in the area’s of tone, character arcs, and genre elements that I’ve taken, made my own, and tried to emulate. Let’s get started.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy - Book CoverEvery Cormac McCarthy novel has blown me away. The guy is a master of prose, at genre subversion, and at non-conventional storytelling techniques. He has a voice all his own and manages to write genre fiction with deeply embedded literary flair.

Of his works, you might expect The Road to be the greatest source of inspiration. It shares the Post Apocalyptic genre with Grim Curio, and it’s probably his most well-known book at this point. And while The Road is certainly a book that makes me aspire to being a better writer, there are only really superficial similarities between that book and mine.

No, the McCarthy book that had the greatest impact on GC is easily No Country for Old Men. From the tightly paced narrative and the interesting moral dilemmas to absolutely stunning prose and fantastic character arcs, there’s so much to draw on.

Is No Country for Old Men an action novel? You could argue that it’s an action subversion, taking the guise of an action narrative while flipping all the tropes on their heads. Or perhaps it’d be better classified as post-action, especially in the way the book ends. Whatever it is, it’s a damn fine novel, and one that inspires me continually as I write.

Check out the three biggest influences on Grim Curio by @SCBarrus #novels #thriller #fantasy #scienceficiton Click To Tweet

The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson

The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson - Book Cover

Switching genres, the next major influence is the Mistborn trilogy which consists of The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages. These books feature an epic fantasy plot with a unique magic system and massive twists all along the way. But it’s not really these elements that inspire any element of Grim Curio.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved every aspect above, but what really caught my eye was the near perfect character arcs. While reading I kept picking up on these often subtle character changes. Almost none of the major characters are static, they all end up as drastically different people than they started as, but the progression feels so subtle and natural.

Taken by the character progression, I ended up watching a series of novel-writing lectures from Brandon Sanderson on YouTube hoping that his secret would be revealed. Turns out it totally was, and it changed the way I write.

He has a unique approach to novel planning which I’ll dive deep into in a future post. It involves listing out all the major moments in a characters arc, then figuring out how that a character will earn that plot point. Each of these will turn into a scene. The end result, when done well, is subtle character growth leading to major changes over time.

While Grim Curio isn’t going to be anywhere near as long as Mistborn, I hope it still carries elements of this kind of character progression with all the major characters.

Mushishi

Long time followers may have guessed Mushishi would appear on this list. Mushishi is a quiet, contemplative and amazing piece of entertainment. Some may criticize it for being slow, but to them I say “no one asked you!”

Mushishi follows Ginko, a sort of traveling medicine man in feudal Japan. He wanders the rural villages to cure the ailments brought on by Mushi, creatures that exists in a different plane, yet affect our world in sometimes subtle and sometimes drastic ways.

While this one isn’t at all an edge of the seat thriller, it does instill the viewer with a sense of awe rarely felt while watching TV or movies. While technically Grim Curio will likely be categorized as Post Apocalyptic Science Fiction, it’s really Fantasy masquerading as Sci-Fi. The fantasy elements are all written through a Sci-Fi lens, but really it’s closer to Mushishi than any sort of hard science fiction.

GC attempts to take these small moments of wonder, and then build and build upon them until the scale is massive and the stakes are higher than ever. But it also seeks to capture periodic quiet moments of contemplation.

Mushi-Shi - Scene from the Anime

Mushi-Shi - Scene from the Anime

Conclusion

There you have it, the three biggest influences on Grim Curio. If you’re interested in learning more about inspiration, be sure to check out this post where I explore how to live a lifestyle that encourages constant inspiration and idea generation. Or if you’d rather get more peeks behind the scenes of Grim Curio, check out Building the Plot & Structure of Grim Curio.