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Producing a Novel – Part 1


Generating—and Testing—Ideas for Fiction and Non-Fiction Books

By: Donna Schlachter

Surveys suggest that, when asked, more than 80% of people said they’d love to write a book. Unfortunately, only about 25% ever do. Why is that? Whenever I tell folks, “I believe that everybody has at least one book in them”, most shake their head and deny my statement. When I ask why, they usually say something like, “I’m not famous”, “My life is boring”, “I can’t tell a joke let alone an entire story”, “I don’t have time”, “I don’t have anything interesting to say”, or “I don’t have the patience to sit and type that much.”

Identify the kind of book you'd like to write.

I believe that all of these responses are merely excuses, and that the real reason more people don’t write is because of one thing: they don’t have an idea that will stand the test of whether it’s enough to make a complete book out of it.

The interesting fact is that coming up with an idea is the easy part. We hear and see them every day: headlines in the news; front covers on the rumor rags in supermarkets; gossip around the water cooler at work; other books we’ve read; problems we’re facing, or somebody we know or love is facing; television programs and movies. If it was good enough for them, it should be good enough for us, right?

The main problem is that there are too many fiction books that all have the same plot: somebody is living their life; something happens to force them to make a decision; that decision changes them; and their life is something other than they originally envisioned.

In fact, this plot line is the same for every novel, unless you’re talking literary, which may have no plot at all.

With regards to non-fiction, most people read to be entertained, encouraged, or educated, which is perfect for non-fiction. With a good topic, an author can accomplish all three in one book. Think of your favorite non-fiction author. Why do you read whatever they publish? For me, Max Lucado ranks high on my list. His story-telling techniques, wrapping parables around real-life happenings, then explaining how this applies to me, draws me into his books like a moth to a flame. I cannot resist it.

Ways to identify the kind of book you’d like to write.

So let’s look at ways to identify the kind of book you’d like to write. Because, let’s be honest—if you don’t enjoy writing it, nobody will enjoy reading it, either. Most of the following tips will apply to fiction or non-fiction, and every genre within those two categories.

  1. What topics get your heart pounding and your blood pumping? Is it the atrocity of sex trafficking? Slavery by any other name? Genocide for profit, such as blood diamonds or drug cartels? Underhanded politicians? Crooked law enforcement? Sleazy lawyers? Animal abuse? Child abuse?
  2. What topic do you like to read about? Any of the above? What parts of the newspaper draw you in? Athletics? Obituaries? Lifestyle?
  3. What topic makes you angry when you read about it? Makes you want to write to your representative or even enter the political arena yourself? What would you join a protest for? Or against?
  4. What topics do you talk about with friends? Neighbors? Family?
  5. What are you most afraid of? What do you enjoy doing? Where do you spend most of your time? Your money?

By now you should have a list of at least three topics that capture your interest. On to the next step.

Where to find information and ideas about those topics:

  • newspapers, online news sites, and online searches
  • organizations and associations where folks who suffer from, practice, or congregate
  • friends and family
  • businesses that provide services
  • television and movies
  • libraries, including librarians and their books
  • bookstores
  • online book sites, such as Amazon, or Google searches
  • online social media groups

Figuring out your story:

So let’s say that a couple of your hot topics are sex trafficking, child abuse, and dishonest politicians. You gather research about the thousands of children who leave home under mysterious circumstances in the US each year, both runaways and the missing. You do some research into laws regarding child abuse, and find the penalties can be relatively minor. You contact some organizations that search for missing teens, and learn that many of them run from a bad home situation, ending up in large cities either as addicts or prostitutes or both. And you watch some online investigatory programs about the wealthy who hide behind their money and escape prosecution even for something as serious as murder.

You have your nugget.

You can write either a novel with these same characters, or you can write a non-fiction book to parents, helping them improve their communication with their teens so they don’t run. Or a book for teens, educating them with stories of other kids who ran and ended up in a bad place. Or a book for law enforcement, giving them the signs and clues of an abused child, a runaway, or a sex trafficking ring.

Regardless of which message you’re communicating, there is an audience.

How do you know whether it’s good enough to carry an entire book?

If it’s a novel, you should be able to summarize the book in one sentence, three sentences, and a paragraph.

For example:

One liner:

When Sarah Taylor runs away from her abusive father, she runs straight into the arms of an abusive pimp, who wants to control her mind, body, and soul; especially her body.

Three sentences:

Sarah isn’t one of the cool kids at school, none of the boys even look at her twice, and her father likes to smack her around for no good reason. When she runs away, and a boy offers to put her up for the night with no strings attached, she falls for it. And later, when she runs again, a social worker might be her only lifeline.


Sarah Taylor, 15, thinks life couldn’t get any worse. She has no friends, nobody who understands her, and nobody she can confide in. She can’t take it anymore. So she runs, looking for that perfect life she is certain is out there.

Tom Wilson is always on the lookout for a lonely girl. One with no friends. One who needs him. And the best place to find girls like that is the bus station. Every day, three or four teens hops off the bus in downtown LA with that deer-in-the-headlight look.

Molly Green chose social work for a reason: she wants to reach kids who are just like she was once. Alone. Vulnerable. Looking for family. And while the boys tend to gravitate toward gangs, these girls are hooked into seemingly romantic relationships where the boy pledges to do whatever he must to treat her well—except that she will owe him.

Organize your topics and points.

If you’re writing a non-fiction book, you should be able to organize the various topics and points you want to make into a table of contents that will carry the reader from the premise, through the solution, to the conclusion and action steps you want them to take as they become another supporter for your position. While writing this kind of book, you want to ask yourself how you can help the reader achieve their goal of education and activation.

If you’d like to download a free worksheet that will lead you through this article and culminate with a great story idea or the outline for a non-fiction book, email me at and I’ll send that to you.

Did you miss any installments of Producing a Novel?
Generating—and Testing—Ideas for Fiction and Non-Fiction Books – Part 1
Genre and Markets – Part 2
Building Believable Characters – Part 3
Character Sketches and Backstory – Part 4
Hooking Your Readers – Part 5
Character and Story Arc – Part 6
Outlining Your Book – Part 7
Overcoming the Muddle Middle – Part 8
Racing to the Finish – Part 9
Writing a Series – Part 10
Self-Editing – Part 11
Cover Design and Self-Publishing – Part 12

Donna Schlachter

Donna lives in Denver with husband Patrick. As a hybrid author, she writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas, full-length novels, and non-fiction books. She loves history and research, and travels extensively for both. Donna is represented by Terrie Wolf of AKA Literary Management. You can find her at
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