Lisa A. Nichols

author of Vessel

Welcome to the first post in a series, “I Have a Story Idea, Now What?” I’m a huge believer in people trying their hand at writing if they feel the urge. Writing is one of those things you can really only learn by doing: write, figure out what you did wrong, figure out how to fix it. The problem is, there are so many ways to work on a story, it can be intimidating. Hopefully this series of posts will help give you a few ideas where to start.

I have to include an obligatory disclaimer: there is no one true way to write or outline or plot or edit. Every time I see some post that proclaims things like “five rules for writing you must follow!” or “never use these words!”  I grit my teeth. What I’ll be doing in this posts is talking about how I do things, and why, and what I’ve struggled with. Feel free to use anything that seems useful and ignore the rest.

Also, this is exactly a disclaimer, but in the interest of full disclosure: I write commercial fiction. (This isn’t entirely a mercenary decision–it’s just how my story-brain works.) I have no idea if any of these techniques would work for something of a more literary bent.

All right? Okay! I’m breaking this down into six topics over the next six Thursdays:

  • What is your story? (determining the basics)
  • Who’s in your story? (characterization)
  • How do you tell your story? (plot)
  • How do you break down your story (outlining)
  • How do you write your story? (writing a first draft)
  • How do you fix your story? (editing)

So. You have an idea for a story. Maybe it’s fanfic, maybe it’s original. Maybe it’s a novel, or maybe not, or maybe you don’t know yet. For me, most of my ideas tend to start with a single scene. The novel I’m working on right now started with the image of a woman beating the crap out of two male intruders in a kitchen–only she has no idea where she learned how to fight. Then I’m left to figure out what the heck to do with a scene like that.

Usually the genre is obvious to me when I start, but sometimes it’s not, and sometimes it changes. With my current project, again, it started as romantic suspense like my first two books, but is now more of a science-fiction/thriller sort of thing. Knowing what genre you want to work in gives you a framework to hang your story on. If you know you want to write a romance, then you know that whatever twists your story takes, it must end with your lovers united and happy. If you’re writing fanfic, and you know you want to write a PWP, then you know your story’s pretty much got to end with orgasms for everyone.

This is a good time to think about the overall mood, although that can come with any of the other steps as well. This can also often be as much about you as a writer as about your story. Two people could have the exact same story idea but write two very different stories if they use different moods, say gritty and grim versus lighthearted.

You can also think about length at this point–that becomes easier to estimate the more often you write, but you might know right off the bat if you want to write something long or short. I’ve given up trying to write anything short unless it’s fanfic. My ideas tend to be big. But if you have a specific length you’re shooting for (say you want to write a novel), that’s good to know as you start developing characters and an outline.

It’s worth noting that the way this process works isn’t a linear thing at all. None of it is. I’ve had to spell it out linearly here, but if steps come to you in different orders, that’s fine! Hell, you could write the darn thing and then figure all this out later. (I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, but it’s how I started! I’ll get more into that in the plotting post.)

Finally: this stuff is hard. “Talent” in any form of art, including writing, is overrated. It comes down to skill, and skill is something you can–you have to, in fact–work to achieve. In my experience, having a particular talent for any art just means that some elements of that art come easier to you than others, and you start at a higher level in certain areas. The rest is all work. What I’ve learned as I’ve worked to improve my skills is that the areas where you have talent are often the hardest to improve! You’re taking something that you’re doing instinctively and trying to make it conscious, and that’s incredibly hard.

If you have a story that you want to tell, then you absolutely should try to tell it!

Coming up next week: Who’s in your story? We’ll talk about the various means and methods I’ve used to create characters and flesh them out, and how to make characters that work with your plot.

Have any questions about this or any upcoming topics? Leave a comment, and I’ll cover as much as I can.

About the Author


Lisa A. Nichols lives in Michigan with a tiny ridiculous dog, too many cats, and a crush on Luke Skywalker that she should’ve outgrown thirty years ago.

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