What Next? Choosing the Right Idea


I would love to know where they come from.  Especially the high concept, completely original, commercial ideas.  Let me know if you figure it out will you?

Just as the process for every book I tackle seems to be different, so is the process for coming up with the ideas that led to the books.  Like all writers, I’m influenced by everything I see and hear: news stories, books, television shows, movies, overheard conversations, personal experiences and even (yes, I’ll admit it) trends.  I think I find ideas through a combination of Donna’s GPS method and Katy’s “what if” imagination, so I won’t bore you with a rehash of what they’ve already said so well.  Instead, I’d like to focus on how to choose an idea from the several shiny ones that vie for your attention.

For me, before I can commit the time and energy to write a novel, there has to be something more than a great idea. There has to be a strong emotion behind it, something that makes me feel like I have to write this book.  That’s the real challenge.  

So here are some things to keep in mind when settling on a shiny new idea:

Consider Timing
What’s this?  I thought I was supposed to write about what I love and eschew trends.  Do I really need to consider market timing at the idea stage?  Talk about a creative downer.  But when vetting your idea, you should think about whether this book could be considered part of a wider trend, and if so, whether that trend will still be around when your book is done six months or a year from now.  By the time a trend is identifiable, it’s usually at its peak and may even be waning.  If you’re reading a lot of books in this genre now, editors are probably just about done buying them.  Maybe you have a unique spin on a trend that is truly genre-busting.  Maybe this is the book you have to write.  I’m not saying not to write it- just that timing and trends should be part of the consideration that goes into your analysis.  I have 40 pages of a purgatory/redemption/angel story I love, that is on permanent hiatus because the market is already pretty saturated with these types of stories.  I’ll probably finish it someday, but not this year.  The timing’s not quite right and I found another shiny new idea that might be better in terms of timing.

The Heart of the Matter
Does this idea speak to your heart?  Can you find the emotional truth in the story?  Does it fill you with passion? This is a very good sign.  If you can connect to the emotional base of the story, you are more likely to stay with it through the entire first draft and all the revisions that come after it.  If you don’t love your story, you can’t expect your readers to.  Finding that emotional connection with a story is a little like falling in love.  Spend some time with your concept, play with your characters.  Make sure that what you’re writing isn’t just a passing fancy.  My brilliant agent Sarah says that every writer needs to know what their book is about.  Not the plot or character, but the theme that resonates with the writer (and hopefully the reader).  Find that emotional heart in your story and let it guide you.

To Market, To Market
Know the genre you’re writing in.  Research comparable titles.  Don’t freak out when you find some.  Knowing what’s out there will help you make sure that your story is different enough to find its own way.  Better to know about similar books before you start writing than after you’re done.  The more successful the comparable titles, the more effort you'll have to make to distinguish your own story.  Editors and agents sometimes say they are looking for books like… but they don’t really mean it.  I know that’s a broad overgeneralization.  What I mean is that they don’t want something exactly like another book. They might want something that evokes the same tone, appeals to the same audience, or has similar themes, but its hard to sell books that have already been done, especially if they've been done well.

The Throat Grabber
Is there something about this story that grabs at you and won’t let go?  Do you feel like you have to see how this story plays out?  Like the emotional connection, a connection to the story itself is paramount to keep you going even when you get to the muddled middle act.  When coming up with an idea, I always jump to the end.  I need to know what the end game is, and I have to want to get there.  If I can’t wait to write the climactic scene, the idea is probably a keeper.  I just read an interview with Stephen King where he talked about his ideas.  He was asked if he kept a folder full of ideas for future stories or books.  He said he didn’t, because if he forgot an idea, it probably wasn’t a good one.  Instead, he focuses on the idea that takes root and won’t let go.  The one he can’t forget.  Those are the ideas that demand to be written.

A Star is Born
Who is your story about?  Do you like him or her?  Why is this the only character who can tell this story? My main characters will usually come to me early in the idea process.   For SPIES, I started with the idea of a teenage private investigator, an idea that sprang from the summer I worked for my dad’s P.I. business before going to law school. The main character, Berry Fields, was fully formed almost from the beginning.  I knew that a girl who spent her time spying on cheating husbands was going to have some issues with guys and relationships.  I also knew that she didn’t have a mother around to keep her from spying on cheating husbands, but I didn’t know why.  One question led to another, and a story was born.  After I wrote the last chapter, I wanted to keep going with the story. I wasn’t ready to leave Berry and I wanted to know what happened to her next.  A strong character can keep you in ideas for a very long time. 

Second Opinions
Don’t be shy about bouncing your ideas off someone.  I’m not suggesting you share your brilliant, high concept idea with the world.  You probably shouldn’t.  My teenage daughter is a great sounding board for ideas. I've also run ideas past my critique group.  And I don’t commit to anything without running the premise by my agent.  She knows the market, and she wants to help me build a career, so why wouldn’t I use that resource?  Find a trusted source to talk about your idea, but be prepared to defend or abandon your idea if it doesn’t get a positive reception.  I’d rather my agent tell me now that she doesn’t think she could sell the book, than after I’ve spent six months to a year writing it.  And for every idea that's rejected, there's usually something just as shiny around the corner.  Better, even.

What things must an idea have before you're willing to commit to it for an entire book or series?  


This was an awesome post! I love that Mr. King doesn't keep a folder and just writes great ideas. Thanks for this!

You're welcome Naomi! I loved that about King too- the great ideas stick with you. I think sometimes its good to keep a folder anyway, because sometimes a bad idea can lead to a good one with some distance and fresh perspective.

Yes, a fresh look at an old idea can sometimes spark an angle that makes that a great idea.

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