What’s the Big Idea?

When most people say they have an idea for a novel, they mean a plot idea. A man goes to communist Bulgaria, meets a spy pretending to be a milkman and gets sucked into the Cold War. Or a girl walks into a wardrobe and ends up in a land of snow and ice – that kind of thing. But the kind of ideas that come to me are philosophical ones, like a spiral stair or an underground bunker. I used to think that if I explored the idea enough it would show me the plot, but now I think I need something more. I need structure; I need highs and lows; I need problems and resolutions.

I might be doing Nano this year, though if I do it’ll be a rewriting exercise rather than writing something new because I’ve decided that Tapestry, the novel I wrote using the Fibonacci series, should not in fact be written using the Fibonacci series. It seemed a great idea at first – more than that, it was an idea which wouldn’t go away, perhaps an idea whose time had come? – so I diligently followed the pattern. Chapter 1 had 1,000 words. So did Chapter One. Chapter Two had 2000 and Chapter 3, 3000. You may see the pattern or you may not. Chapter Four ran to five thousand words and Chapter Five to 8K. Are you getting it yet? Chapter Six was 13,000 words and Chapter Seven, 21K. If you haven’t got it yet the sequence is: every number is the sum of the previous two. You start with one, then one plus zero which is also one; then one plus one, and so on. The problem was that by the time I got to Chapter Ten I was faced with writing 55,000 words.* Clearly it wasn’t sustainable.

I often seem to get seized by these Big Ideas which I then struggle to fit into the novel form. I’ve told you before about my first novel which as well as telling the story of the protagonist stuck in a nuclear bunker, also spanned the whole of life on earth – a period of three hundred million years. I had no real concept of what three hundred million years was like, so I began to cut strips of paper and rule each strip into divisions of a hundred years. I stuck these up around my wall; in no time at all I was back to the birth of Christ and not long after that I’d reached the beginnings of homo sapiens, yet I still hadn’t made my first million. In the end I worked out that if I did nothing else every day but cut and rule and stick strips of paper on my wall it would take me three years to finish.

So it’s pretty clear that Tapestry will have to be reworked. I’ve tried doing a beat sheet for it from Save the Cat Writes a Novel – a list of turning points in the narrative – and it’s clear the thing lacks some pretty serious highs and lows. I’m a real convert now to the Save the Cat series; I was sceptical at first but it seems to hit on something deep and universal about the laws of narrative. So if I do Nano that’ll be what I’m doing: Save the Cat Writes Tapestry.

* 55,000 words is the length of a short novel

Kirk out