As a teacher of creative writing, I get asked this question a lot – and as a novelist, I can tell you that it torments every one of my beginnings. A few days ago I put this question to the writer Katharine Weber, whose new novel, True Confections, was hailed by the Times Book Review this weekend as “a great American tale.” (“It’s got everything,” Jincy Willett raved: “Humor, treachery, class struggle, racism, murder, capitalism and mass quantities of candy.”)
And here’s what Katharine Weber said:
I have been thinking about this for a few days since you asked me to consider this intriguing question, Christina. I am grateful to you for forcing me to think directly about something which is present in me as a writer but is intuitive and a bit organic, so I have to rummage a bit to explain it (which is always helpful to me as a writer, explaining what I do habitually without necessarily having full awareness).
I always have too many ideas. The question for me really isn’t ever Where do you get your ideas so much as How do you identify your best idea?
E.M. Forster wrote: “The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and the queen died of grief is a plot. The queen died and no one knew why until they discovered it was of grief is a mystery, a form capable of high development.”
So how do we know when we have moved from story to plot to something we can develop? This is the critical and significant kind of self-editing and revision and expansion necessary if one is going to write and publish novels in which the world is going to take an interest.
I think about the number one problem I encounter in writing I see in workshops: Often, a story or a novel manuscript will have sentences that are good, page to page, and the writing is “good enough” too, overall, yet there is something wrong, something not working. And that flaw can usually be characterized in this way: there is something about this writing, even if I am not sure what it is — plot, character, sensibility, key details, events — something, that means a great deal more to the writer than it can ever possibly mean to any reader. The specific details of what that is, only the writer may ever fully understand, but it signifies a serious discrepancy between the writer’s overly personal relationship to the material and any reader’s possible way of finding enough meaning in the material to want to keep turning the pages. So that’s crucial. You cannot fill your novel with personal elements that signify enormously to you and expect those things to glow with meaning for anyone else unless you have made them glow.
But I suppose the only real test for me of whether or not an idea for a novel is enough in every sense of the word — big enough, interesting enough to me first and foremost, nuanced enough, original enough, rich enough for me to write interestingly — is that usually I have dwelled with it for quite a while before I start to write. It has sustained me imaginatively as I dwell in the world of the novel that lies ahead. And that original idea may have in that time shifted and mutated into something different or tangential as I worked it imaginatively and strategically. It would be unlikely, in fact, if the original kernel of a really good idea did not expand in some direction, perhaps a surprising direction, befoe the actual writing began.
And you just have to learn for yourself what works for you, and be willing to trust your instinct even as you develop your instinct, so that over time, experience will tell you when your ideas are enough to sustain a novel, more than enough to sustain a novel, or on the verge of way too much — too much going on, too many disconnected ideas — which can be the mark of insecurity. You have to be able to make decisive choices. Everything in the novel should be necessary to the novel. So for me it is sometimes as much about throwing elements and ideas overboard as it is about finding ideas.
Katharine Weber is the author of five novels: Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, The Music Lesson, The Little Women, Triangle, which takes up the notorious Triangle Waist company factory fire of 1911, and the brand-new True Confections, the story of a chocolate candy factory in crisis. She is working a memoir about family stories and the narrative impulse, Symptoms of Fiction. You can learn more at www.katharineweber.com. Also, follow her brilliant blog: http://staircasewriting.blogspot.com.