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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- The storyworld is unique and interesting. Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and tumultuous Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s.
- 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.
- 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?