Mark O'Neill

There’s no such thing as an original idea for a book

original idea for a book

In the last couple of articles, we have gone over which genre you should establish yourself in. Fiction or non-fiction? Assuming you’ve decided which one you’re going for, we’ll move onto the next stage now which is finding an original idea for a book.

I am going to stay with fiction, because that is my area. I have never written non-fiction before, because I can bang out a novel in half the time, or a third of the time a non-fiction book would take. For me, it’s all down to the numbers – how long a project takes and my expected rate of return. Maybe one day I will tackle non-fiction, but right now, I’ve found my comfort zone in fiction.

Some have told me that this is a very mercenary approach to writing, that writing should be done for the love of it. My response to that is that writing for the love of it only goes so far. Most professional writers mainly do it because a) they’re good at it, and b) it pays the bills. Oh, and most writers are unsociable who “don’t do that people thing” and therefore prefer to stay at home. Books make me happy; humans make my head hurt.

With fiction, you need a story idea. This is where most people stop and give up. They think that their idea needs to be 100% original. Let me tell you right now – no idea is original. Original ideas were used up a long time ago. Now, authors take already used ideas and find a new angle or spin on them.

Putting a different spin on an idea

Don’t believe me? Look no further than the movies. How many movies get churned out these days about a cynical cop, three days away from retirement? The cop that gets paired up with an unhinged partner? The assassin reluctantly brought out of retirement for one final job? Or the “only one man can save us” action movie (looking at you, Bruce Willis). Every movie or book is a recycled version of another movie or book.

Obviously, an exact copy is plagiarism and copyright violation. But a different spin and perspective? Done all the time.

Look at my books. I wanted to write a novel about a covert spy agency. But the CIA and MI6 have been done to death several million times over. So, since I live in Germany, I made it a German spy agency. Most spy novels have a male as their main hero. I flipped it to having a strong woman at the helm (I got hell for that from sexist men, I can tell you.) I simply took an original idea and put a different spin on it.

So take the idea you want to use, and find ways to change it to make it your own unique beast. No matter what the genre – crime, adventure, thriller, romance – you can do it. Look at Nora Roberts and how many romance novels she churns out per year. She uses the exact same template – but changes the names and locations, and markets it as a new book!

The news is my best inspiration

When it comes to finding an story idea for a book, I tend to look at the news. Since my books are about a secret spy agency, I look for news stories to provide inspiration. Right now, I am spoilt for choice. COVID gives me ideas about biological weapons, the war in Ukraine gives me ideas about my spy agency fighting Russians in Ukraine, the situation in the US about the far-right and January 6th 2021 gives me ideas about an attempted coup d’état in Germany which my agency has to put down. When it comes to fictional story ideas, the news is my best source of inspiration.

Nothing beats real-life events. Just ask Dick Wolf with his Law and Order TV franchise in the US. A lot of his episodes are “ripped from the headlines.” So get your story idea and start writing.

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