Cover to Cover: From Inception to Publication

gryphonAll good books start from somewhere.

That inkling of an idea sparked by reading a great book, taking an afternoon walk, or even being walloped over the head by the muse. Time passes. Maybe months, maybe years.

You see that idea grow into a story concept, the story concept become a rough outline, the outline become a story, the story become a published novel. Sounds easy, right?

Yeah, don’t we all wish.

When I was approached with the idea of creating a series of articles that followed from that twinkling of an idea to the process of trying to publish a finished novel I thought, “Wow, this will be quite the daunting task.” However, I was up for the challenge.

This will be a journey. A long one. But I’m confident in one thing: I’ll have companions on this journey. That’s where everyone else comes in. Fellow writers, published or unpublished, newbies and veterans, I call on you to take this journey with me. From blank white page to published book. I want you share your tips, techniques, successes, and failures as you go step by step to reach publication.

Our party is assembled. Our armor may be ill-fitting for now and our swords a bit rusted, but in time we’ll complete our quest. The quest of immortality: publication!

Idea Inception: Oh, That’s a Good One!

So, I’m in the camp that ideas are cheap. Watch how fast I can come up with an idea. “A knight goes on a quest to find his lost love.” Is this a good idea? Who knows? In the hands of different writers it could evolve into several different stories.

The first female knight in a medieval kingdom goes looking for her lost love, an elf she is forbidden to marry.

An ostrich rider goes searching for a sentient ham sandwich, which just so happens to be his lover, transformed by a witch’s black magic.

A werewolf knight wades into hordes of horrific Markasian Sheep People to find his missing wiener dog.

The options are endless. It’s really up to the writer to expand on the idea the way he or she best sees fit. Even a relatively generic sounding idea could evolve into quite a spectacular story. Ideas are not delicate flowers. They’re seeds. So stick them in some cow manure and help them grow.

How to Brainstorm Ideas for Pantsers

I’ve tried being a pantser, or discovery writer, but to no avail. This basically means just coming up with something and going full tilt, smashing, wrecking, and carving your way to a completed novel. I admire this technique, but don’t find it works for me personally. And that’s fine! Not everyone has to follow one way of writing.

For those that lean more toward pantsing, brainstorming ideas may be done several ways.

1. 30 Minute Challenge

I’m sure there are several different versions of this method floating around out there. Basically, I set a timer and write whatever awesome crap pops into my head. Just free write anything and everything. When the 30 minutes are over, I look at whatever garbled mess I’ve created and start to pluck things out. I combine ideas, transmogrify them, and beat them with a hammer until they become smooth, round idea orbs. This method works best for me when I’m completely stuck and I just need to get the creative juices flowing.

2. Word Association

For this method, I come up with a word and then follow it down the rabbit hole. Sometimes it can have surprising results and actually create a story idea. For example, I may start with “cat” and end up with “world-destroying juggernaut.” From there I may develop it further into an idea about a malevolent cat goddess that obliterates villages with meteor-sized hairballs. The idea is still in its infancy, but I may have just found my antagonist. By doing word association you can come up with various rapid fire ideas that may or may not be winners.

3. Write a Scene

The scene doesn’t have to be connected to anything. Just sit down and write a scene about anything. A grandmother demon-hunter descends upon a desert rave infested with warlocks dancing to techno music. A wandering giant slayer comes across an ancient city crafted entirely of titan bones. You can write out the scene and just see where it goes. Perhaps it will spawn more ideas that will grow into a full story concept.

How to Brainstorm Ideas for Plotters

Ah, the comfort of plotting. Like a warm blanket made of yeti pelts. This is my preferred method for writing, but don’t let that sway you from your path. Your own way is always the best way. Plotters tend to lay out their ideas in more controlled ways. Whereas pantsing offers freedom to “just do it,” plotting writers may attempt a more structured approach.

Below are some brainstorming techniques that have worked for me, a card-carrying plotter.

1. “What If…?” Questions

This is a pretty popular technique for coming up with ideas because it makes you think deeper and deeper as you go. By asking yourself the question “What if…?” you can come up with multi-layered ideas that can easily transform eventually into something more significant. You can take a simple idea like “What if dragons could fly into outer space?” What does this question propose? Well, it definitely opens up several doors: space exploration, colonization, inter-galactic dragon battles, comet-crushing dragon guardians that protect the Earth from cosmic annihilation. In order to explore it further, you can ask more “What if…?” questions. What if humans enslaved the dragons to carry them through outer space? What if the dragons revolted and left hundreds of colonists stranded on a moon? What if the colonists were left to defend themselves against the enraged dragons? What if one colonist decides she doesn’t want to die on the moon with all these sniveling cowards? What if she decides to make a break for it by attempting to activate a derelict space ship left crashed on the moon for centuries? This can go on and on until you’ve really got something solid.

2. History Surfing

Some of the best ideas come from history. George R.R. Martin’s acclaimed series A Song of Ice and Fire was inspired by the real life War of the Roses. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series explores the concept of dragons influencing the outcome of the Napoleanic Wars. So perhaps researching real-life historical events may help you come up with a killer idea. The reason I put this in the plotter camp is because you can start with a small idea like “What if the Soviet Union was ruled by Rasputin and an army of wizard polar bears?” You can start asking yourself questions then. Where did the wizard polar bears come from? Were they there all along? Did Rasputin summon them from the North Pole? Were they created in labs? Are they secretly sweet and cuddly? By answering as many minute questions as you can, you can build up your idea into a fleshed out world.

3. The News

This method can work for either pantsers or plotters really. Just find a news story that is interesting to you. Something that piques your interest or evokes some kind of emotion. Use your writerly alchemy to change it, mold it into something tangible that works for your style. The big news at the moment is about the royal baby. Do some “what iffing.” What if the royal baby has super powers? What if he can see the future? Go with that and see where it takes you.

In short, you can basically use any of these techniques no matter what your writing style. Blend them together and see how it works out for you.

How I Brainstormed My Novel

For me, I came up with my idea for my novel tentatively titled Eagle’s Head, Lion’s End when I posited the question: “What if a monster hunter was responsible for causing the extinction of gryphons from the world?” This idea intrigued me. I thought about extinct animals in our own world like the dodo or dire wolf. How did people respond to them disappearing from existence? Did they care or was it met with apathy?

I imagined a world where monster hunters are treated like A-list celebrities, praised for their bravery and given riches by wealthy benefactors. They have fans clubs, expensive clothes, and drink only the finest wines. However, what happens when the extinction of the gryphons causes those in charge to question the celebrity-worship of monster hunters? I kept asking myself these questions. I came to this conclusion: “The society would protect the monsters they once feared, and in turn potentially doom those not strong enough to protect themselves.”

I came up with this idea by using several of the techniques I mentioned above. I started with the concept of extinction and then applied it to a fantasy world. I used the constant barrage of celebrity news and internet tabloids to inspire my idea of these elite monster hunters. Then I built on that, weaving history, news, and my own fantasy aesthetics into it. I asked myself several “What if…?” questions until I was happy with the answers I was getting.


And there you have it. An idea.

So here’s my challenge for you. If you’ve been thinking of starting a novel for a while or feel like you need that extra push to get going, come along with me on this journey. Let’s open up a dialogue about what works best for you or if you found any of the ideas I listed as helpful. Share techniques and brainstorming ideas that you’ve used in the comments below.

Signing off, this is Philip Overby. See you next time at Cover to Cover in which I’ll discuss transforming a simple idea into a full-fledged story concept. Until then, get to writing and level up!

You can find Phil’s blog about Japan, writing, pro wrestling, and weird stuff at

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8 years ago

I look to history and life experiences and wonder how these can be adapted to fantasy. Nice post!

9 years ago

“What if…?”  – that is my favorite device to create new stories. Things that might seem silly on the surface start getting very interesting when that question is asked.

9 years ago

I follow a similar outline/pattern when developing a story. Though I’m not quite ready for a novel, the method lends itself well to short stories and novellas. Thanks for the insight!

9 years ago

The_Drill99 jdmaxon Yeah, that’s pretty much the style I write with: let the characters guide you, not an outline. Thanks for sharing; I learned something today! 🙂

9 years ago

jdmaxonThe_Drill99I’m sure it does! “Pantsing” isn’t something I came up with. I’m not sure who came up with that originally. It basically just means discovery writing. See where the writing takes you. Writing Excuses talks about it some if you want to check it out:

9 years ago

The_Drill99 jdmaxon Curious. Did you come up with the term pantsing? I’ve heard, “seat-of-the-pants” before, but not pantsing. A search on the urban dictionary gives quite a different definition . . . 😉

9 years ago

Mike Cairns Thanks Mike! Glad the article was helpful for you in some way. Feel free to share any other brainstorming methods that have worked for you as well.

9 years ago

jdmaxon Glad you like them!

9 years ago

Hi Philip
Great post, thanks. It’s rare to see both pantsing and plotting discussed in the same article. I’ve been trying the ‘what if…’ approach, but pantsing from that initial idea. 
So, for example, the latest story on my blog started with ‘What if someone gave you the book of your life, including the stuff that hadn’t happened yet?’ It immediately got my brain working, but I tried to just write it, and let those things happen as I went along. 
There’s lots of great ideas here, thanks again

9 years ago

Good mental exercises.

9 years ago

This speaks to the juvenile in me…but I just love the imagery of a werewolf knight looking for his weiner dog! 😀
Great post!

Reply to  sophieelizabethtallis
9 years ago

sophieelizabethtallis Thanks! I may yet use that. 🙂 Do you have any weird or strange ideas that pop into your head for stories?

9 years ago

So, for me, the key starting point was the premise (Roman Empire, monsters instead of barbarians). That is to say, there’s the inspiration for the world, and then there’s the inspiration for a specific story. Either one can drive the other.
With Altearth, as I said, I have all the history, so it’s just a matter of picking some historical event and playing with it. I remember one early notion that Richard the Lionheart would be a natural for a were-lion.

Other notions are tougher. For example, will the monster be a more or less permanent threat? That is, will there be something like an ork kingdom? If so, where do I put it? After all, Europe is already populated, even in the early Middle Ages. Or, to take another example, the Crusades at first blush seem like a great vein to work, but who’s the enemy? Do I really set this in the Middle East?
In other words, fiddling around with the history can get tricky.
One other aspect I thought I’d mention here is, well, I guess it falls under the heading of unintended consequences. That is, I’m very aware that if I make a decision to have something happen here, then all the subsequent history must respect that. For example, I decided to have dragons substitute for Vikings. Therefore, the dragons don’t appear earlier than about 750 and they are gone by about 1100. I can change that, but here’s the kicker. As soon as I publish a story that references the timeline, however I choose it, then all later stories have to respect that. I need a consistency that lasts two thousand years.
I’m thinking other folks have encountered unexpected complexities as they spin out their stories as well. I’d love to hear about them.

9 years ago

I love this, Phil. Thanks for posting.
I’ve got a world. It’s called Altearth. My basic conception was pretty simple: the barbarians that invaded the Roman Empire weren’t barbarians, they were monsters. From there it was easy: all the fairy tales and legends of the Middle Ages are true, or at least are potentially true, available for me to modify.

I pretty quickly added that Christianity remained an obscure eastern cult. I also came up with the idea that magic operated according to a very complex set of rules, so complex that for a very long time (essentially the Middle Ages) people didn’t really know why it worked or what would work.
The core idea is great. The geography, climate, etc. are already settled. No need for me to invent. Most of the history is settled, with room for me to tweak as I see fit.
The great challenge, of course, is that there are no stories here. Or, there is a plethora of stories (do you even know what a plethora is? No, El Guapo) from which to choose. Either way, I’m still a beginning novelist working in largely unknown territory. So, I’m game for following along with this.
Disclaimer: I’ve written a short story and a self-published novella in Altearth, and am currently working on a novel. Does that disqualify me?

Reply to  Skip Knox
9 years ago

Skip Knox Your idea sounds really cool, Skip. That’s definitely one way to hook the reader. The idea of monsters invading the Roman Empire really gets my imagination going. But like you said, you need a story to go there, which I’m sure you can come up with many.  That’s what I’ll focus on for the next article: getting a story concept out of just that initial idea. And yes, please follow along! This article series isn’t only intended for writers currently starting something, but for those who would like to share their own successes and failures in their quest to publication. Thanks for sharing about Altearth! I look forward to hearing more about it.

9 years ago

Great post! I can’t wait to see the future installments, and I didn’t know that Game of Thrones was inspired by the war of Roses. My ideas just come to me. I”m really good about writing them down, so typically I can put them into use at any time, and I always have eight stories either started, or in my brain. I’ve just started the inception of another one, actually. Thanks for the great post! I’m looking forward to more!

Reply to  kcrosswriting
9 years ago

kcrosswriting Thanks! I think it’s good to have as many story ideas brewing in your head at once. That prevents you from ever having writer’s block (I hope!) I wish you luck with your stories and I hope you continue to read future posts. Next time I’ll focus on turning ideas into actual stories, which is a fun process as well. Please come by and share your techniques then as well!

9 years ago

Great article, I’m really looking forward to the rest of this series. Coming up with ideas is definitely the part I’m best at. I would hardly call my brainstorming strategy a “strategy,” it’s basically a discombobulated and highly inefficient conglomeration of all the nicely organized techniques you listed. One thing I would add, and that I find myself doing, is drawing ideas from everyday life. Let your imagination wander while you’re washing dishes or changing car tires or watching old family videos. Last night my dad was going through a box of “junk” he’s had in storage for years–old coins and rocks and other little trinkets. And it got me to thinking how that scenario might look in a story: what if someone found a magic stone or an ancient key inside? What if the box came from a mysterious traveler who left it behind while passing through a village? What if it was a trap used by the dark lord to ensnare unsuspecting treasure hunters? The important thing during this stage of writing is to keep an open mind.
PS: I love the “malevolent cat goddess” idea! 🙂

Reply to  Sarah
9 years ago

@Sarah Hi Sarah, thanks for reading! I agree with you. Brainstorming while doing something mundane (which for me is riding a bus or train) is an excellent way to come up with ideas. As for the “junk” you found, you know what they say, one’s trash is another’s treasure. I see you started “what iffing.” As I stated above, that’s one my personal favorite ways to come up with that first shred of an idea.
I hope you continue reading the article series!

P.S. Glad you like the malevolent cat goddess idea. I may use that yet. 🙂