It seems that whether you're just starting out or have been at it for quite a while, there's always the same vexing question: "How can I tell if I'm truly on the verge?" Though there is no tried and true answer, over the years some coaches, teachers and seasoned pros have offered a few suggestions.
An instructor from a noted creative writing program in the upper Midwest insisted that the best approach is to try not to write.
If you wake up in the middle of the night still fixated on a provocative dilemma-some task a leading character is driven to do but can't possibly accomplish; a set of circumstances that keep begging to play themselves out-you might have something going for you.
The well known author William Goldman claimed the best catalyst is to write for revenge.
To imaginatively get even for a great wrong that was done to you at an early age, perhaps, or some other nagging unfinished business.
There are those who argue that you need an abiding feeling one of your basic assumptions has been threatened.
There's nothing for it but to find a way to come to terms with this troubling reality.
There are others who feel it's a matter of coming up with a high concept.
Keep jotting down ideas, keep brainstorming until you hit upon a compelling what-if? But no matter what's prodding you to write a whole novel, there are other considerations to take into account.
At this point in time, the prospects are nil for any tried and true notion or trendy blueprint.
By the time you finish your own variation you'll already be three years behind.
The spur has to engender a fresh voice (unique personal style, attitude toward life, rhythmic pattern, etc.
The spur has to lead to seemingly self-generating events--a huge gap between whatever the main character wants and an outcome that promises to be both surprising and inevitable.
After all, to avoid the formulaic, the environment, other characters, the past and ongoing present and future will alter any action.
Each alteration, in turn, will cause fluctuation and change, an arc of rising and falling tension--an intriguing thread that will sustain the writer and reader alike.
Put another way, the famed crime writer Donald Westlake once told me he could never start until he devised a "front door.
" An opening that began about one-third of the way in.
This was not just another day.
Things had proliferated to the point that all manner of things were bound to break loose that would carry the tale from point to point till it all unraveled many chapters later.
In short, there are signals, reverberations and a developing framework that tell you something "novel" is bound to take place.
By way of example, as it happens, I live in a quaint historic New England village.
Recently an urban development corporation set up shop with a view toward clearing a pristine expanse of meadow and upland, a beautiful tract that just happened to lie adjacent to our own property.
The developer's plan--turn it into a highly profitable 175-unit condo facility replete with recreation facilities.
Moreover, just beforehand, my wife and I were given a personal tour of the west of England from Bath to Devon and Cornwall.
During this same time period, we discovered we had a sister village in England when a coterie of visitors and officials came to call as the beginning of an exchange program.
When the developers finally steamrolled their way through the local planning commission with scarcely any opposition, I found myself yet again at odds with the way of things.
If nothing else, taken into account the sister villages, the guided tour and the conflict between conservation and the wild vs.
the machinations of urban developers, I had the makings of a trans-Atlantic tale.
One that led to a "front door" that set a full-length tale in motion.
In this case, the springboard of real life experiences generated a promising What-if? It could have had a more limited scope and evolved from a daydream that just wouldn't let go.
Or been spurred by an article in the newspaper about a development scheme.
It could have been started by a conversation overheard in a noisy diner as an owner of a B & B told her best friends she was at her wit's end.
If the local Planning Commission approved the pending application, the bulldozers would destroy any chance guests would ever return to the site of a once beautiful meadow and stream.
And even with this less sprawling impetus, it still has to be boiled down to a captivating premise.
Something like, "Can a rank amateur take on the powers that be and ultimately right a great wrong?" Of course the premise and the kind of story you're drawn to have to match.
But this final step, this ability to declare what exactly this narrative is all about, provides you with the clearest signal you're on your way.
Take the following handful of premises that eventually proved their worth.
What if a young man is seduced by his father's partner's wife and then falls in love with the wife's daughter? What if an engaging raconteur offers theoretically to switch murders with a stranger he meets on a train and actually goes through with it? What complications would ensue if a no-nonsense 30-year-old spinster met a con man who offered the prospect of romance and relief to her family's drought-stricken ranch? What-if? What-if? What-if? If no clear-cut quest comes to mind, more simmering may be in order.
Or, for the time being at any rate, the potential and the vital irrepressible trajectory may not be there.
But any way you look at it, there's no point in proceeding on a long journey if you don't know where you're headed and simply have to see it through.
Especially if you're planning on asking others to come along with you every step of the way.