Sewing the Seeds of an Idea: When to Start Planting

Different seed samples await germination testi...

Long before the first word of a novel is written down, there is an original seed, a thought, a scene which plants itself in the author’s mind. Once there, it grows and evolves into possibly a longer scene, a chain of ideas, a few characters and events, and maybe a whole novel.

The question is when do you start to plant the seeds in soil, water them and let them grow? When do you put the first words of the very first chapter down on to paper? It might seem like a strange question because most people imagine that the whole story just comes to you, like the carousel in Mary Poppins, and then you just sit down and write. But it’s an important question because the process of forming a story and growing a seed, if you like, is the bedrock of the whole narrative. The when of starting a story is often overlooked, but starting in the right place at the right time can save hours of painstaking editing and redrafting.

The answer, I have come to realise, is as late as possible. This is different to starting a story as late as possible in the plot and avoiding back story or long chunks of scene setting. It is waiting until your ideas have formed more than just a thought or an image, but a theme, a reason for the story, a conflict or a desire of your protagonist.

I have found the same thing applies with writing short stories, although the process is considerably shorter and you can afford to play around more with the text and change direction if you need to.

With a novel, the longer you leave the seeds to germinate, the more ready they will be to plant and grow in to the full and final plant product. It may seem counter productive to wait, and it might feel like a waste of time, but if you can wait until the ideas are more fully formed it will save heart ache in the long run and give you a clearer picture of the full story.

corn seedling


  1. A lot of the germination goes on in my head, the seeds plants then it grows until I’m happy I can maybe write a couple of sentences, then it carries on for a bit longer. Then when I think I have enough of an idea of what it is that I have, then I start scribbling. I’ve found it’s the way to differentiate between the lots of ideas pounding my head. The serious ones, will actually work themselves out and make it into some real writing. The rest may just stay as a couple of notes for another time.


    1. fcmalby says:

      That’s absolutely the way that I work, too. The germination phase should, I think, be in your mind and, as you say, some ideas will stick and that’s when you start to write. I tuck away the rest and sometimes use them for short stories if appropriate. The germination phase is really important.


  2. I agree with you completely… but with a couple of watch-outs!. We all know that procrastination is a killer – so don’t use this as an excuse to delay and delay. Also (and I say this a lot), one of things that keeps me excited about my writing is surprising myself as I write – I do outline but I don’t do it so thoroughly that there are no surprises for me me to uncover as I go along.


    1. fcmalby says:

      Very true. I think waiting for an idea to germinate is different to procrastination, which is always a risk for a writer. It is important to have enough of an idea of where you are going with a novel. My current story started to build as I was editing my last novel, so no time wasted and I managed to fit a month or two short story writing in between. Needless to say that the current plot is unfolding much more quickly than the last because I gave it longer to grow. You are right that you need to surprise yourself. The writing becomes dull if nothing new arises with you character’s actions or a situation. Great points and thanks for posting.


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