An Idea Is Not A Novel


            An idea, no matter how great, is not, repeat NOT enough to begin writing a novel.
            In the first place, it takes about 3,000 ideas to make a story. Actually, that number’s just a guess, but it’s as accurate a guess as I can come up with. The point is, a novel is lengthy. It is extremely detailed, more so than any movie will ever be. The reader has to know not only that something is happening, but also why and how it’s happening. Verisimilitude is everything. Without it, you lose that all-important Suspension of Disbelief thing—getting the reader to feel that he’s inside the book, and that everything you’ve made up is actually happening on some level.
            I think of creating a novel’s story line as tossing pebbles into a pond until that pond overflows. An idea, even a big idea, is still only one pebble. I’m thinking specifically of so-called “high concept” books that revolve around a single, gigantic idea such as the assassination of a world leader (Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal) or a medical catastrophe (Robin Cook’s Coma). Yes, the idea is the crux of the book. But it’s still only a relatively small part of it. There are still the characters and their growing/disintegrating relationships to think about, as well as the plot that grows out of the concept. 
            When most people, especially non-writers, say they have a great idea for a book, what they really have, usually, is a great idea for the BEGINNING of a book. Mild-mannered middle-aged man turns out to be a Mafia don (first chapter of The Godfather).
           Two old cowboys decide to make their fortunes on one last cattle drive (first chapter of Lonesome Dove). Sometimes the Great Idea occurs at the end (think of the last scene in the movie Planet of the Apes). But it’s not about the beginning or the end: It’s those hundreds of pages in the middle that make a book a book, and not a topic of cocktail party conversation.
            Here’s an example: I used to work in a publishing company, where naturally everyone thought about writing a book one day. A co-worker once confided in me that he was going to write a book about carbohydrate loading, referring to how runners ate spaghetti or other hi-carb meals on the evening before a big race. It was a trendy idea at the time, but not even a nutritionist could spin a whole BOOK out of that subject. Needless to say, it never got written. That was probably for the best, since it was just one idea, and not a very juicy one at that.