Day #1: Pick a Theme, and Bear Down On It

NaNoWriMo day 1 is over, and though the official website encourages you to post your word count at the end of each and every day, that sounds to me like the worst possible way to write a novel. So I’ve ignored all that and am instead spending Week 1 on planning and preparation. According to the site you could have/should have done that during September and October, but that seems like cheating. Are we doing this novel in one month, or three?

Since I first decided to do this challenge a whole few days ago, I knew I’d spend the first week on nothing but planning, and the next three on getting the manuscript written. I did not have a single idea at all going into it because I wanted coming up with an idea to be part of the process. Ideas, inspiration, whatever you want to call it, often gets treated as this magical, sacred thing that writers have to go through all sorts of rituals to obtain. How do you come up with ideas? Record your dreams? Scour the headlines? Simply write your own life or at least a cherrypicked recounting of your life in which you are suddenly a young modern prophet and have no flaws whatsoever and if only more people were like you the world would be a better place?

It’s a part of writing that seems to be barely spoken about. A lot of writers will talk about where and when they came up with ideas but not really how. J.K Rowling once gave a generation of young aspiring writers horrifc anxiety attacks by claiming the entire idea for Harry Potter just “walked into her head, fully-formed” while she was on a train. Which I refuse to believe unless the unspoken first part of that sentence is “after months of planning…” but whatevs.

It’s something I’ve been really anxious about as a writer, and I know I’m not the only one. How do I come up with ideas? How do I reliably come up with ideas? How do I come up with ideas that are good?

It’s that anxiety, I think, that causes a lot of nascent writers to fixate on one single idea and pin all their hopes and dreams on it. To the point that they don’t dare do anything with it. I’ve spoken to so many people who say they have an amazing idea for a story but that they “don’t know where to start” and hoo boy is that a topic I want to do an entire blog post about at some point.

But I get it. Of course I do. I’ve lived it – I’m still living it. In a world with so many incredible stories (literally millions upon millions) how could I ever come up with an amazing idea that would make for a brilliant story? It’s the sort of thinking that makes you psyche yourself out of writing something before the idea is any more than a few vague sentences on a text document. It’s the sort of thinking that makes you tell someone about your idea, then immediately decide they thought that idea was stupid and it is stupid and you’re stupid and you should burn it to the ground.

So the line of thinking I’ve been going down lately, and which has been working pretty well for me, is that I simply don’t have to come up with a good idea, because what is a good idea anyway? A badly executed story hasn’t ever been saved just because of a strong premise, and a story that sounds awful when synopsized can be written so well as to be mesmerizing.

Ideas aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

You’ve just got to pick a theme, and bear down on it.


So, I decided what sort of tone I wanted to go for. My most recent novel was silly, funny and a bit dark in places, and that is a style I had a lot of fun with. I want to go sillier, and not quite as dark, because after this year I could do with some levity. Plus, after this year, any worries I had about silly things being “too unrealistic” have been well and truly put to bed.

So, with that goal in mind I had a bit of a brainstorming session, that basically involved me mashing simple concepts together in a frankensteinian effort to produce something interesting. I came up with a few things that had potential, like “Killing Banksy”, “Accidental Crime Lord” and “Just Do My 2nd Year Project Again Because I Got a Good Grade On It”. (Though in retrospect that should have been immediately disqualified on the grounds of it being stupendously dark.)

But in the end I settled with “Feudal Japanese Warlords, Except with Supermarkets.” I liked this idea on the grounds that I have a) worked in retail, and never committed the more ridiculous aspects of it to writing yet and b) Fuedal Japan was objectively cool as heck.

The basic idea is a Supermarket chain (tentatively named Costcrushers in the very early notes I’ve made) with fourteen locations across four regions. The four Regional Managers battle for supremacy with even pettier conflicts between Store Managers going on within all that. The idea is for the inter-shop rivalry to be a sillier, pettier and far less bloody version of the Sengoku period in Japanese history (in which countless warlords spent a good generation or so battling over territory). Instead of warlords, it’s managers, and instead of resource-rich territory, it’s… rankings. Manager of the #1 store location gets a slightly nicer Christmas bonus.

It’s a ridiculous idea but I’m already fond of it. I spent a good 4 hours split between building up the bare bones of the plot, the characters, and a bit of research on the Sengoku periods and notable warlords of the time, just to nick inspiration from some of the cooler conflicts (seriously those warlords were cool cats, some of ’em).

The plot I’ve come up with so far is a naive dorky guy who definitely isn’t me getting a job at a store and slowly realizing that a) not only does this ridiculous conflict exist and b) he is now in too deep and in actual mortal peril as a result of it but c) the sheer scale of the conflict is beyond anything he could imagine, and has been following him his whole life.

Maybe you’re reading this and thinking it sounds like it has potential. Maybe you think it sounds like a load of old shit. Either way, I’m pretty happy. From a single-sentence springboard I’ve come up with the skeleton of a plot that not only fits neatly into the Hero’s Journey (aka. the Monomyth) but which has a cast of characters forming in my head already that I’m growing to like and be intrigued by. I’m honestly excited at having been able to “force” this and even if the end result is a total mess it’s still nice to know that I can come up with ideas through methods other than “waiting to have a fortuitously coherent dream” which is how my last novel got sorted.

So, that’s day 1 of 30 down. I remains to be seen if this idea has legs enough to form a fully-fleshed out story, and if my own work ethic has legs enough to handle 116 more hours total of putting actual effort into things.

Hope to see you tomorrow for 1/29th of the answer!


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