Your Burning Book Ideas: Which to Extinguish, Which to Ignite
on June 14th, 2021
There’s nothing quite like the burning flame of a new book idea.
In her essay “How I Wrote the Moth Essay and Why,” Annie Dillard asks writers: “How do you go from nothing to something? How do you face the blank page without fainting dead away?”
Writers to book ideas are as moths to flames. Maybe you have several ideas burning inside of you, and you know one of them is meant to burn outside of yourself and be a light unto the world.
The problem is that you have no idea which idea is the right one. All of them are tantalizing in some way, and like a moth, you are so close to them, you cannot tell if, and when, you will catch fire.
These flames act as a paralysis to your dream of writing a book. And like any moth in the dead of night, you need help deciphering which flame you are meant to follow and which you should extinguish.
Many Little Fires: Narrowing Down Your Book Writing Ideas
The poet William Carlos Williams coined the phrase “no ideas but in things.” Many debate the philosophical meaning behind this line of poetry, but a popular argument is that great book writing is not accomplished with an idea, but with a thing—an object, a person, a setting.
If you have a ton of book writing ideas, but don’t know who the main character is, or what content you want to put between the pages, or even what audience you are trying to reach, the idea floats around in no-man’s land, unable to anchor.
When it comes to narrowing down your book ideas, you want to start by creating a vision with the essentials of what a book actually needs in order to be a book.
This vision might cover everything from the audience you want to reach, the message you wish to convey, a story synopsis or book summary, the tone of voice you want to use (do you sound gritty, sassy, pious, or slap-stick funny?) and even the potential structure of your book.
Creating a vision that includes these elements for writing a book might take different avenues or approaches, such as:
- making pros and cons lists of each idea you have
- talking out your ideas with a book writing coach
- completing a theme-mapping exercise, such as a mood board of how you want your book to feel when you open its pages
- free-writing in a journal about your book ideas and seeing what idea pops up over and over again
- writing “mini” introductions to all your ideas and discovering which one holds the most energy for you
Just by discovering even one of these elements and feeling anchored in your choice, you narrow down your book ideas. For example, choosing a middle-grade audience might help shape your tone of voice or subject matter, whereas choosing an audience of business leaders or entrepreneurs who are interested in being vulnerable within their company helps shape a different tone of voice, content, and genre. Like dominos, the rest of the book’s vision will fall into place.
No matter what avenue you take to discovering these elements, upon discovery, you begin to see your book take shape and writing this book no longer feels like writing four or five books.
One Moth, One Flame: Writing a Book with an Outline
Once you have latched on to the main things you want to have in your book, you can begin to flesh out that idea even further. Writing a book with an outline helps to guide you along a relatively well-lit path, as opposed to fumbling blindly in the darkness.
When you have one brightly burning flame that you feel compelled to follow, you need to be aware of the details that keep it burning alive. If you know your structure, your tone of voice, your basic plot, or story synopsis, you can then concentrate on fleshing out some of the details within these elements.
“Real magic on the page happens in details. ”
To return to Annie Dillard, she claims, “to start a narrative, you need a batch of things. Not feelings, not opinions, not sentiments, not judgments, not arguments, but specific objects and events: a cat, a spider web… a candle…I like to start by describing something, by ticking off the five senses.”
Sure, perhaps writing a book requires your opinion, your feelings, your arguments on a certain topic, but a truly great book is rarely made up of only those abstract concepts. Real magic on the page happens in details—in describing what you wore on your first date, or how the sea smelled when your mother was diagnosed with cancer, or how the espresso seared your tongue at that very first business meeting with investors.
Writing a book requires objects and events to hold it together. But how do you choose which objects, which events, and in what order do you show them off to your audience?
At RTC, our blueprint book writing process helps you build out your outline beyond your book idea. Chapter by chapter, you are encouraged to dive into the details of what content you want to put between the pages, what events or scenes you need to have to express your story to your audience. We help to layer these details with the essentials from your vision, to be aligned with your audience, your tone of voice, and your book writing structure.
Trust the Book Idea That Burns Brightest
No matter how you get there, perhaps the most important thing to remember when writing a book and starting with several ideas in mind, is that you are the writer and you have a say.
Gut instinct is an essential requirement of book writing. Lean into what feels most alive and burning brightly for you, not for a stranger, not for someone you think might like to read this book. After all, you are the most important reader of your words.
When you trust your gut instinct, what starts as several book ideas can quickly turn into one brilliantly lit flame, ready for the reader to spark to life.