Why you don’t need a big idea to start your novel

Anyone who’s ever published a novel has had, or will have, this experience: you’ll be at a party, or some other public gathering, and someone you barely know will approach you and say, “So you’re a writer. I’ve an idea you can use for your next book.” And they’ll start outlining it as you adopt the fixed-interest expression you’ve practised for such moments, nodding appreciatively, while on the inside screaming No no no. “Your haircut,” you’ll be thinking. “I’ll definitely be using your haircut one day. The rest is just noise.”

Because ideas don’t matter much, or not the big ones. It’s the small ideas writers are hungry for. It’s the odd haircuts; it’s the way pavements ripple where tree roots are breaking through; it’s the look on a stranger’s face when they’ve just missed their bus. Anything, in other words, that will generate a sentence or map a paragraph, because that’s where books are written: at the micro-level, not the macro.

Which isn’t to say macro-ideas are unnecessary – you do, after all, need something to hang a book on. But you don’t need many, because books take a long time to write, and while the best hooks can stop you in your tracks, that’s not the only way of measuring their worth. Here are two examples, plucked at random from the nearest bookshelf:

A retired FBI agent, recovering from heart transplant surgery, learns that the organ he’s been given belonged to a murder victim …

Now that’s fabulous. If I had an idea like that, I’m pretty sure I’d drop everything and get right on it, though it’s unlikely I’d end up with a book half as accomplished as Michael Connelly’s Blood Work. So yes, a thumpingly good idea is an advantage, but it’s not the be-all. Here’s the second example:

It’s feared there’s a mole at the heart of the British Secret Service, and a former spy is brought out of retirement to lead the hunt…

This one, not so much. It’s been used dozens of times, and probably had whiskers even when John le Carré adopted it – and yet, in his hands, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy became not only a seminal spy novel, but one of the great English fictions of the last half century or so. Because what matters far more than the bullet-point storyline is the degree to which, and the ways in which, an author engages with his or her material.

And the reasons why that material strikes sparks off the authorial imagination can be counterintuitive. It’s not necessarily a desire to tackle life’s profound issues; to “strip away the smooth surface of things and show the harsh reality underneath”. Long ago, I read an interview with Ian McEwan in which he said – confessed? – that his unsettling short stories were mostly created to address technical problems of one kind or another. I was no sort of writer myself at the time, and his answer puzzled me.

Author, without semi-colons.

But I’m more comfortable with it now, even to the extent of recognising that impulse. My latest novel, Nobody Walks, was conjured for a variety of reasons: I had to write something, or else I’d cease to exist; I wanted what I wrote to be noirish and brief; but also, and this was genuinely one of the driving forces behind it, I wanted to see if I could write a novel without using any semi-colons. What surprised me was the degree to which this apparently innocuous ambition affected the work as a whole. It wasn’t simply that sentences grew shorter, which was what I’d been expecting, but it provoked an attitudinal shift too: terseness of expression helped mould the character I was creating, and coloured the whole text.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the way to write a novel is to devise a technical hoop to jump through, but I am saying that putting everything on hold until the 24-carat Big Idea turns up might not be the best use of time. Big ideas can be jump-started: you can train yourself to be alert to the possibilities the everyday world offers – the stuff you see and hear and read about in the paper. You learn to draw connections between the things that interest you, and with those connections made, you start to see the shape you’re aiming for. Ultimately, you find that the big ideas arrive uninvited. The small ones – the ones that drive sentences – that’s where the work comes in.

Mick Herron won the 2013 CWA Goldsboro Gold Dagger for Dead Lions (Soho Press). His new novel Nobody Walks – again from Soho Press – is out on 9 April. You can buy it right here, right now.

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  • Sheila Walthew

    Thanks for your blog, I too have found this to be the case. The little details that can make a situation or character ring true are the things you really have to work on, and think hardest about. I find though that I read some authors for the overarching story line, and others for the detail and atmosphere, and the best have both of course (Donna Tartt for instance).

  • Ken Marshall

    Thank you, Harry. It was wonderful to read your blog entry. Just what I needed to read tonight.