People often suggest topics for novels to me. They say: “You know, what you should write about next is….” – and then launch into a more or less lengthy description of a plot or a personality or period in history that they find particularly fascinating. A suggestion of this sort is almost always interesting. After all, the topic has caught the attention of a reader. They care enough about it to suggest it me, and they describe their ideas with all the passion and enthusiasm of salesmen selling their product.
When people make such suggestions to me, I usually reply by suggesting they write the book themselves. This is not meant flippantly or as a put-down. Far from it. The point is simply that if they had the idea, then it is their story to tell. Not mine. Thus, no matter how good the idea is or how much I would like to read a book about that subject/person/place or time, I know that because it isn’t mine, because it did not come from within me, I would never be able to do the story justice.
So how do I pick a topic, others ask. The answer is simple: I don’t. Topics pick me. Or rather characters and stories find me. It is quite easy to choose the topic for an academic paper, an article or essay. One can look at what has already been published, find gaps, or under-illuminated aspects of any subject, and contribute to the discussion by providing new information. Alternatively, one can challenge existing views and enter into a debate on a topic by presenting a new interpretation of existing facts or exposing logical flaws and contradictions in previously published material. But novels, in my experience, do not “work” that way.
Novels do not “fill gaps” or “answer questions” or “contribute to the debate” on this or that. They just are. They tell a story about unique individuals in a unique way. It doesn’t matter how many love stories have been written, there is always room for another – just as love is never used up or worn out. Which is not to say, there can’t be “bad” novels about love – or any other topic for that matter. The point is simply that no topic is inherently more appropriate than another. The only thing that matters is that the story-teller understands the material and wants to share it.
Having a story inside won’t necessarily give an author the words, the patience, the discipline or the time to write. Having a good story doesn’t necessarily make a good novelist. But it is the absolutely essential basis for success. If you don’t know what you want to write – then don’t. If you find you have to force yourself to write – don’t bother. If you find yourself copying someone else – you are wasting your time, everyone will know it when they read it.
In short, the story is the genesis of a book and without it there will be no novel worth the name. It is a necessary, but not sufficient, ingredient of a great novel. The other aspects of a novel, from pace to perspective, are techniques and skills that anyone can master with enough patience and practice. Finding the right subject for a novel and the characters to populate, however, it is a matter of inspiration rather than skill.