Monday, January 12, 2015

4 Questions To Ask Before You Write That Story

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

You have book ideas. Lots of book ideas. 

But you only have so much writing time. How do you choose which book idea is deserving of it?


As the writer, you're the only one who can make that call. After all, this book requires your time, your creativity, and your emotional investment. Here's a peek how I decide, and hopefully it will help you too.



1. How excited am I about this idea?

Every new story idea seems like The Best Idea Ever when it first strikes. But sometimes I stop thinking about the new idea after an hour or so. Other ideas hang on through the day.

And then there are some that really sink their teeth into me. They follow me around to the point that when I have new story ideas, I'm asking, "How can I make that work with that other idea I had already had?"

James Scott Bell published a writing exercise that I fell in love with. He said, "Step One: Ask yourself, if you could only write one more book, which one would you write?" Followed by, "Step two: Write that book."

I've found that's a very helpful mentality to have.


2. How strong is this story?

About a year ago, I had a story idea that I liked. It was kind of a weird idea (the type where I was emailing writing friends to ask, "Is this good, or is it stupid?") but I liked it. There was a sheltered main character and some modern day pirates. I though I could have some real fun with it.

I wrote up a blurb, and then just kinda stared at it. I had enough material there for maybe three chapters, but that was it. In my earlier days, I would have considered that plenty and would have dove in. But after many years and many, many false starts, I've learned it pays to flesh the story out a bit more before I invest time in writing chapters.

I try to determine beforehand if this has the makings of a good story. Let’s use two books from different genres that are both critically acclaimed and have spent significant time on bestsellers lists: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling and The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Using these books, I’ve identified five things that contribute to a great story:


  1. The main character is in a sympathetic situation. Harry is an orphan being raised by a horrid family, and Skeeter is a white girl in the south in the 1960s who wants to help black maids tell their stories.
  2. The main character has a heroic quality. As a baby, Harry somehow defeated the darkest, most powerful wizard, though he's not sure how. Skeeter is risking her life to tell an important story and promote social justice.
  3. The storyworld is unique and interesting. Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and tumultuous Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s.
  4. The stories have a theme that resonates with readers. Harry learns he’s capable of greatness than he had never imagined. In The Help, Skeeter teaches us about the rich rewards of doing the right thing.
  5. The stories have a satisfying ending. No spoilers here, but these are two books that have surprising, satisfying endings.

Must a book have all these qualities to be a good, entertaining story? Nope. Gossip Girl doesn't have a heroic main character or a great theme, but it's still an engrossing read and addictive series. The unique storyworld (a peek at the life of unbelievably rich and spoiled teenagers from old money families in NYC) makes up for it. But the list above is a good place to start if you’re trying to figure out if your idea is worth the time.

3. Is this book marketable?

By marketable, I mean, what other books are like it? How are they doing? Are there other stories that are too similar? As frustrating as this can be to your inner artist, the business person in you needs to ask these questions.

Let's say you want to write a YA romance, where a girl falls in love with a vampire. Maybe the contents of your book are nothing like Twilight, but do you see why this is something that needs to be thought through? Because that's the first question you're going to get from an agent or editor. "How is your story different from Twilight?"

When I say "marketable," I also mean, "how easy is this idea to explain?" I'm the queen of vague story ideas. My ideal story is about a modern girl, in high school, and there's this stuff going on with her family, and there's this guy... But I've learned (the hard way!) that this is a bad way to sell books.

Before I invest much time in a story, I need to know how to explain it in an intriguing fashion in 30 seconds. If I can't do that, then I can't tell the sales guys at my publishing house how to do that, and then they can't explain my books to bookstores, and then the bookstores won't stock it.

Making sure your book is marketable doesn't make you a sell-out! It doesn't mean you're writing to trends or not writing your heart. What it means is that you're stepping back from your role as an artist to examine your writing as a business. That's not very romantic sounding, but it's necessary to succeeding.

4. Does this book fit with who I am as a writer?

In the fall my agent and I had a strategy talk about what genres I should pursue. "We can do two," she said. "But not three. In a perfect world, my writers would all write whatever they want. But it just doesn't work well that way."

As an artist, this can be very frustrating. But as a reader, don't you feel angry when a favorite author disappoints you? If Jill Williamson started writing sweet romances, wouldn't you be disappointed? Or if J. K. Rowling's next book was fluffy chick lit?

This isn't to say you can never branch out once you've established your genre, but you want to keep in mind who you are as a writer according to your readers. And if you're pre-published, then you need to be mindful of what kind of writer you want to be to future readers. 

Which is why Jill Williamson has an Anne of Green Gables style story that she loves but has never published, because it's a wild hair of a story idea. Her other books are all "weird fiction." Maybe one day Will Jilliamson will publish that book, but it doesn't fit with the Jill Williamson brand.

How do you decide which story ideas are worth your time?

34 comments:

  1. If I have, say, three ideas - I start them all, and then, as I go on, pick the one that seems to get me most. :-)
    Haha, me too, I ALWAYS have loads of endlessly crazy ideas. It's wonderful. :-)

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    1. It's wonderful when you can try them out like that!

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  2. #3 and #4 were especially helpful to me, because I'm trying to figure out marketing and branding at the moment. (it's *so* confusing sometimes!)

    When I have an idea I'm excited about, I freewrite about plot, characters, etc. for five pages or more. If I'm still excited about the idea by the end of my freewrite, I start working on it right away. :)

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    1. Oh, I totally agree about the marketing and branding stuff. Free writing is a great way to explore a new idea!

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  3. Me too...I'm always mercilessly riddled with book ideas. I kept jumping from book to book, till I resolved to finish a WIP once and for all. My story, The Assassin's Mercy, has incessantly given me trouble, but I've stuck at it. Alas, it's been many months and I'm still in the beginning. I'm trying plotting techniques, especially the Snowflake technique, to speed me along. It's fun because I'm usually a pantser. Evidently it hasn't served me well...

    However, these days I'm wondering whether my story is original (or good) enough. It's about an assassin, Dorlin Hull, whose parents were killed by his master, the Emperor, who took him in as an apprentice and lied to him about the murder...or arson. One night on a mission, he is saved from his enemy by a mad man claiming to be his uncle. Lured by his uncle’s offer of destroying his rival, the assassin secretly meets an old wizard and discovers that his parents were murdered by the Emperor, and that he is the last true Flameweaver, the ancient peacekeeping force left alive on this earth. But Dorlin is afraid of fire after the arson, but eventually, he must face his worst fears and stop his master, who wants to go back in time and retrieve an ancient key to Asgard and kill his parents again...this time, before he was born.

    That's it, in a gist, though things might change a little. What do you think? Am I just being silly, or should I start a new book?

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    1. I think your idea sounds great, and I really like the title a lot. You'll learn a lot from pressing through and finishing a first draft, so it's a very worthy goal!

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    2. It's such a great premise. And so figured out with interesting details, I'm a little jealous of you!

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    3. Wow, thanks, Kelsey! I'm flattered. I personally though the idea wasn't that great, but now that I rethink, it's not that bad.

      PS - Recently I've wanted to make new writing pals; would you like to be friends? On email, maybe? Just because there's no better place to start. :)

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    4. Wow. You remind me of my little brother - lots of imagination!

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  4. This is a great post, Stephanie! My goal is to produce a new first draft every 18 months at the bare minimum. For the past few novels I've written, that means I start plotting in October to take off with the story for NaNoWriMo. Because I don't start new first drafts every often, I will have two or three ideas that I've been thinking about for a few months. But making a decision between the different story seeds can be really hard. Normally it comes down to two stories that I love equally. At that point I will ask a few friends and family members what they think. If someone else is excited about my idea, I've found it's a lot easier to maintain excitement for myself.
    Thank you, Stephanie!

    ~Sarah Faulkner
    Inklined

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    1. I like how you wait before you ask for the input of others. It can be a really valuable way to make a choice (I did that at the start of last year when I didn't know which idea to chase) but I think you need to have already given it lots of thought.

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  5. I'd hate to stick to one genre! But I mostly do -YA. I've heard of authors publishing under pen names for different genres...like Jill could be Jill for her fantasy, but make up a name, say Susan White for her "Anne" book.

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    1. Yes, writers do that when they want to genre hop and it works well. The trouble is that in a lot of ways, it's like I'm opening a new business. Which I know we don't like to think about because we're artists, but if you've always written romance and you now what to write a historical thriller, you might take some of your old readers with you but not all of them. You'll need new readers if you want that book to sell well.

      So you're not totally stuck in a genre (especially YA, where you can blend genres a bit more easily due to the way YA is shelved) but it's wise to stay in a genre for a bit before you hop.

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    2. I see. That's the sad part in getting published. It's no longer for fun, but a career with rules :(.

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  6. This was a great post, Stephanie. So good, in fact, that I saved it to my reading list so I can come back to it easily. :)
    The only thing that really bothers me is that last point about how writers shouldn't disappoint their readers. Even though that's just the way things are and there's not much that can be done about it, I think it's sad that authors can't feel free to branch out without fear of letting down their readers. Sure, one CAN write a book that's not their norm, but if they're too afraid to publish it, WILL they write the story on their hearts? Time is such a commodity in the writing world and so many writers blog about the travesties of "wasting" it.
    I actually LOVE it when authors I like try something new. It's even better when they tell you on their blogs or on social media that they're going to try it. Honestly, I think the truly faithful readers enjoy taking that leap with them. I know I do.
    Maybe I'm just sensitive because I have ideas for stories in more than one genre. My three "babies" (we all have them) each come from a different genre and I eventually hope to write -and SOMEHOW publish- all three of them. I may never be a best-selling author, but I'm okay with that as long as I have a few faithful readers whose connect with my work.
    Sorry for that rant. Lol. It got longer than intended.

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    1. Ashley, I totally understand. I knew that would not be a very popular part of my post :) I don't like it either, to be honest! And I think there's more flexibility now than there ever has been due to the rise of indie and hybrid authors. (Authors who are both traditionally and self-published.)

      Yes, some readers will go with authors when they make those genre jumps. Pen names can work well too, though as I said above, when you do that, it's like opening another small business. You don't want to wear yourself down too much.

      Each writing journey is different, so don't feel like you're going to have to give up your babies in order to be successful. That's a choice that only you get to make.

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  7. Heh. When I started writing four+ years ago (it was sometime July/August 2010) I had a million story ideas. And I, of course, wrote them all. Now though I've got two solid story ideas and three others I'm letting build up in my mind. The first story idea is actually (sort of) the one that started me writing. I say sort of because the plot isn't the same, it only has maybe one or two of the original characters, and the story world has definitely expanded being set on an entirely different continent and takes place in two countries. But it's still that same world, and the two minor characters have grown to be the characters who have stuck with me for over four years. The other solid story idea is a year younger and has gone through similar story revisions, and the three others are only a year or two old (still babies). But I figure if they manage to stick with me for this long, then they certainly fit the criteria of #1. And they're all of a similar genre (fantasy or dystopian fantasy, and one dystopia set on another planet but within the 'real world') True, dystopias are clogging the markets now. But in a few years once I have the life experience that I need to write the book, I hope the hype will have died down enough.

    My main problem is finding an actual plot. I get so far and I think I've found one and then it fizzles out and I can't find a way to revive it and start over. Mostly with the first solid story idea (the one I've had from the beginning). The problem is I can't figure out who the antagonist is. I find one and then realize that they don't actually want to thwart her.... Once I find an antagonist I know I can write it, but until then. Gah, you'd think I'd have found one in the last four years. But oh well...

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    1. I had a very similar journey, J. Liessa. I struggled a lot with plot, but I had characters who followed me around. I had to train myself to be better at fleshing out the plot ahead of time. This is the method that eventually started working for me: http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2014/07/how-to-develop-your-story-idea-into.html

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  8. When I get a new idea, I write it down, and if it keeps bugging me for more than a week, then I get it back out and add more to it. If I keep coming up with new ideas for the story, and the story as a whole refuses to let me be, I consider writing it. Sometimes I work on more than one project at a time, but personally, I don't struggle with it because I am enthusiastic about them, and I have let the ideas build up.

    When I first started writing, I would run out of steam, but now I ask myself the question you had: "If you could only write one more book, which one would you write?" I also like to have a vague idea about the beginning, middle and end of the story- they are sort of like the pillars that hold the idea up for me.

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    1. This makes a lot of sense to me, Wild Horse. I'm similar where my ideas need to build up, so it's become easier for me to work on one project at a time.

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  9. These are all great points. If I get excited enough about a story, I'll just go ahead and write. So I have a lot of "just started" stories . . . only a few have I actually completed. But that's okay.

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    1. They serve their purpose too, I think. And you never know, right?

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  10. Great post. I haven't ever thought about it this way!
    I get plenty of ideas. Probably more than I know what to ever do with. I get excited about most of them, but I'm lucky enough to know which ideas will never make it or hold my interest long enough. But I keep them all written down with notes because I can sometimes combine elements or will use them as writing practice. Sometimes they click and flesh out a bit more.
    My rule is I start with the idea, expanding the idea, characters, completed plotline, and then a marketable synopsis. If I have any problems with any one of those parts I know it needs to be shelved.

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    1. Very smart, Kelsey! I like that you have a method in place.

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  11. A great post! I finished a story not to long ago, and now I'm going to have to choose a story. (I'm pretty much decided, though... except I keep thinking of new things and wondering, 'can I tie that in somehow?' Haha.) Thanks for the post, and I love what James Scott Bell said. :)

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    1. Me too! It's one of those question that echoes in my head whenever I'm trying to figure out what to write next.

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  12. Hmm... Good question. Naturally, I love all of my story ideas, one in particular. I usually think through it because I don't want it to be like any other books, and I only write it if I'm excited about it enough not to let it drift around in my head without doing anything exciting.
    On a side note, a story that I really like was easy up until I finished the 100-4-100. The story of which I speak was not the one that I used for the 100-4-100.

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  13. The idea of sticking to one genre is really intimidating to me. I started thinking about it a while back and decided contemporary was what I wrote and enjoyed the most. Unfortunately, my first finished novel is science fiction. As much as I like it and have poured a lot of work and effort into it, I wouldn't pitch it to anyone because I don't want to have to keep writing science fiction when it's not what I love writing.

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    1. I totally understand, Anna. It can be very intimidating. I also have a science fiction book that I wrote. Like you, it was really fun, and I invested a lot in it ... but it just doesn't fit with the type of writer I am. I really only had one idea, and it's not a genre I want to pursue. So for now I've put it away. That doesn't necessarily mean it's been put away forever, but I had to come to a place where I was okay with not publishing everything I wrote.

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  14. Great post! About two weeks ago I came up with a book idea that won't leave my mind at all. I've found myself thinking about it all the time, even more so than all my other ideas. It also fits with questions 1-3, so I think it is a strong story idea that is worth putting my time into. However, I usually wait at least a month before writing an idea because I might change my mind and I just want to make sure that I really REALLY want to write this story. I'm not really sure how to answer number four because right now there are so many genres that I want to write, and I'm taking my time experimenting with different genres to see what I like best. I don't know that I could narrow the genres I write down to one, but maybe I could do two genres: historical fiction and epic fantasy.

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  15. I've been wanting to start another novel for ages, so this is a really bit help! I always wonder when writing a book whether it's a good enough plot or idea. But then I normally just go ahead anyway. Now I'm going to stop, think about the plot before writing it! Thanks for the help:)
    Kat | (Almost) Completely Mad

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  16. My first qualification is that my idea has to last in my head for about a month. I have so many ideas jostling for position that only the strong ideas can stay there that long. My second qualification is that I am able to map it out. My final qualification is that I care about. It has to be more then just fun. I have to care.

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  17. I personally have a list of the stories I want to write, as well as the synopsis.

    Then I proceed to asking myself if I can actually connect with the story, if I am interested with spending my time writing it for a loooong time, and if the characters appeal to me.

    But to me, writing is more of what I want to say and express to the world, and that's why my WIP is a story about two misunderstood teenagers (one wants to be a writer like me, I basically added bits and pieces of me into her personality!) because I want to get word out how teenagers deal with all society's expectations.

    Did that make sense? I hope so!

    -Andrea Marie

    www.andreamariewritesstuff.blogspot.com

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