How to "Road-Test" a Novel Idea

What is the point of testing a novel idea?

A novel is a huge commitment, both in energy and time, and you don't want to give over a significant chunk of your life to writing the wrong one. (And I should know because I've done it!)

More specifically, it is a smart move to test novel ideas for two reasons...

  • First, it helps you decide if you are excited enough by an idea to want to commit to it (this is the "road-testing" part).
  • Second - assuming that you do commit to it - it enables you to block-out a rough plan for your novel using nothing but your instincts. And on the basis that first instincts are nearly always correct, this is clearly a useful first step to take before getting stuck into the nitty-gritty of writing a long and detailed plan.

Before we get to the nitty-gritty, a brief preamble...

How to Tell Good Novel Ideas From Bad Ones

Actually, good or bad ideas for writing don't exist - only the novels that the ideas become can be judged in those terms.

And you shouldn't worry about a lack of originality making your ideas bad ones, either. Why? Because the odds are that they won't be original, at least not when you strip them down to the bare essentials.

It is what you do with your ideas - the way that you develop them, the spin that you put on them - that will make them your own.

But the bare bones of the original ideas? Trust me, other writers will have got there before you. Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, "All my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients."

However, there are such things as good or bad writing ideas for YOU...

  • Have you arrived at an idea for a novel that you truly, desperately want to write, or merely one that you think you should write?
  • Would you happily work on the idea for fun and not for money? Or have you gone for an idea simply because you believe it will be more commercial?
  • Have you studied the trends in contemporary literature and built your idea around one of those, or are you going to write the novel you want to write whether it is fashionable or not? (Trends pass faster than writers can write, so ignore them.)
  • Are you going to write a category of fiction that you love to read, or will you write something more "highbrow" because it will make you look more intellectual (or more "lowbrow" because it might make you more money)?
  • Does your idea keep you awake at night? Can you not wait to get to work on it in the morning? Or are you just going to grit your teeth and turn it into saleable pieces of fiction as quickly as you possibly can?

That last point is important. Living with a promising idea for a couple of days, and seeing if it does indeed keep you buzzing with excitement at night, is a sure-fire test.

A novel idea is exciting when the creative possibilities contained within it seem limitless, and the novel you can envisage at the end of it appears to be truly great.

(The fact that most writers' novels, by their own admission, rarely turn out to be half as great as they seemed when they first imagined them is another story!)

One of the consequences of this buzz of excitement surrounding your novel idea is that it will make your mind reel with more ideas for all the things the novel could contain...

  • Characters
  • Scenes
  • Snippets of dialogue
  • Opening or closing lines
  • Images of the setting
  • And so on...

Be sure to make a note of all these fleeting ideas, because they might not visit you again.

Write them down on the backs of envelopes, restaurant napkins - whatever is to hand. Later, incorporate them into your planning notes.

Realizing you have found the perfect idea and that you can't wait to get started on it is a heady experience.

If you find ideas which are merely okay, ones which tick all the boxes but don't have you buzzing, keep searching for better ideas, ones you really want to write.

You are a unique human being. Nobody sees or thinks or feels or does anything quite the way that you do. And a novel is perhaps your best chance of showing your fellow humans what this world looks like through your eyes.

Why is it important to do that?

Because if you try to fake it in any way, it will show up in your fiction. So if your writing ideas don't truly reflect who you are as a person and what you are all about, ditch them and keep searching for some ideas that do.

You'll know you have settled on the right one when you can't keep from smiling!

"The first person you should think of pleasing, in writing a book, is yourself."
- Patricia Highsmith

Now for some grittier advice...

How to "Road-Test" Your Novel Idea

In a nutshell, you do it by fleshing out your initial idea in a little more detail. Or to put it another way, you start hanging flesh on the bones and see how it fits.

An initial idea for a novel, as you probably know by now, is ideally just one sentence long. A detailed plan for a novel could potentially run to hundreds and hundreds of pages (depending on how keen a planner you are).

Road-testing an idea is about bulking out the single sentence to a few pages, and so it represents a bridge between your initial one-sentence novel idea and a full-blown novel plan.

In practical terms, road-testing writing ideas involves taking your initial idea and turning it into a page or two of notes on each of the following...

1. Plot

Begin by taking a sheet of paper and jotting down how the novel begins, some key events in the middle, and how it ends.

You are not attempting to create a detailed plot outline for the novel here (you will do that later, when you get to the section on plotting). You merely want to sketch out a few of the "milestones" along the way, but still leave plenty of gaps in between.

(If you are wondering how you are supposed to do this without having first studied the theory of how to plot a novel, using your instincts is the whole point of testing a novel idea.)

If it helps, try imagining the story you want to tell not as a book but as a movie...

  • How does the film begin?
  • What key scenes along the way can you picture in your mind's eye?
  • How does it end?

2. Characters

Next, flesh out the main character (or the leading man or woman) in a little more detail on another sheet of paper - writing a physical description, for example, and noting one or two of their key character traits.

Also, make a list of the other principal characters in the novel, though forget about the minors for now.

Again, don't worry about the technicalities of characterization for now - we will come to that soon enough. The idea here is to see what you can come up with before getting bogged down in all the rules and theories of character creation.

3. Setting

Next, write a few descriptive notes on the location in which the events of the novel occur.

This means the setting as a whole - the real or imaginary town or city, for example - plus the important settings within the town, like the principal character's house and the bar where they drink.

Also make a note here of any specialized knowledge that your story will need to contain (and that you will need to research) - police procedure if you are writing a crime novel, for example, or how to raise livestock if the setting is a farm.

Remember, you don't have to do anything in any detail at this stage. The idea of taking a novel idea out for a road-test is simply to roughly assemble the key components and check they work together as a whole. The detailed work on setting will come later.

4. Theme

Next, write a paragraph or two on the novel's theme. The theme, remember, is what the novel is "about" on a philosophical level, or what you want it to "say." Here are some typical novel themes...

  • The effects of divorce on children.
  • The futility or necessity of war (depending on your viewpoint).
  • How people manage to carry on living with a broken heart.

All good novels have this undercurrent of meaning, one which comments on some aspect or other of the human condition. From the rough story you have so far blocked out, what will your readers learn about life?

It doesn't have to be profound or even very "important", just true to your own feelings and experiences.

5. Viewpoint

All novels are seen through the eyes of at least one "viewpoint character," and sometimes several. So a novel could be told from John's point of view throughout, for example, or half of the chapters from John's point of view and half from Mary's.

Which of your characters are going to be in the glare of the spotlight, so to speak?

And will you use the "I" of first person or the "he/she" of third person?

Don't worry if you can't decide right now, because you will find much more help in the point of view section. But it does no harm to at least think about it while you are doing the road testing.

Wrapping Up...

And that is it. Remember, you are not attempting to create a polished document here - scribbled notes are fine.

And it doesn't matter if the decisions you make turn out to be the ones you end up going with. Plans have a habit of changing dramatically as you develop them, anyway. The important thing is to at least start off on a solid footing.

Testing a novel idea might not be a crucial step in the novel writing process, but I believe it is one that could save you a lot of wasted work.

Having this initial planning session, where you block-out each of the five elements of a novel using a very broad brush, is not only useful for deciding that, actually, it isn't such a great idea after all.

It is also a useful way of ensuring that each of the novel's five elements works in harmony with all the others.

Deciding that you are not pleased with your choice of location, for example, is really not a problem now. But deciding to alter the setting later on, once you have written the book, would be almost unthinkable.