Friday, May 06, 2016

Heads or Tails? Choosing What Story Idea to Work on Next

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Deciding which project to write is a choice all writers face, whether they’re deciding on their first novel, or have dozens of novels on the shelves. It's easy when the next book is a shiny idea you've been dying to write or you’re under contract for something specific. But when you have multiple ideas calling to you—then the choice isn't easy.

And these days, with some many authors going the indie or hybrid route, it’s more common to see writers crossing genres and writing in multiple markets. That adds another level of challenge to the question.

How Do You Decide What to Work on Next?

This will vary by author, career stage, and personality type. Obviously if you’re contracted to write the next book in a series that’s the book you shod write. But I’ve also heard of writers who write a throwaway book in between novels to cleanse the palate so to speak. It’s never meant to go beyond a first draft.

Here are some things to consider when deciding which idea to write next:

If you're not published yet, choosing what to write carries less pressure. There are no contractual obligations or reader expectations to meet, just the fear of writing something that won't sell. And to be honest, that fear never goes away no matter what stage you're at. Look at your potential projects and ask:

Which idea most excites you?

This might seem like a no-brainer, but we can get so caught up in the marketing side of getting published, that we often overlook this. The idea that makes us run to the keyboard every day and keeps us there long after our fingers are tired is a book we'll pour our heart into. That passion will show.

Which idea is the most formed?

Sometimes great ideas are still in the early stages and aren't ready to be written. There are pieces to work out, conflicts to deepen, conflicts to find. If one idea stands out as being ready to go, and that idea excites you, go for it.

Which idea feels the most original?

Originality can come in many forms, so the idea doesn’t have to be so “unique” there’s no market for it. For example, the core concept doesn't have to be fresh if your take on it is. If one of your ideas feels fresh and unique, that's one more opportunity to catch an agent's (or reader's) eye.

(Here’s more on keeping goals and motivations fresh)

Which idea has the strongest hook?

If one idea has a single-sentence hook that makes people say, "Oooo I want to read that," that might be a good idea to develop. Great hooks can be hard to come by, so it's worth the extra work even if this idea isn't as fleshed out as another. More often than not, the compelling idea that needs a little work will sell long before the flawlessly written seen-it-before idea.

Which idea has the most conflict?

I have a list of great story ideas that have zero conflict, so until I figure that aspect out, there's no point in writing them. Conflict drives a plot, so any ideas that lack conflict are likely to be difficult to write. An idea that already contains a lot of conflict is apt to come together more easily, because it’s clearer what the protagonist needs to do.

(Here’s more on creating conflict in your novel)

Which idea has the highest stakes?

Even great ideas with lots of conflict can fall flat if there's nothing at stake for the protagonist. But a solid, high-stakes tale that forces the protagonist into the middle of some horrible situation? That's pure writer yummy. A word of caution here… “high stakes” doesn’t mean deaths of thousands or some world-shattering event. Faceless masses dying is boring when it comes to fiction. Personal loss that cuts your characters deep is much more compelling for readers.

(Here’s more on raising the stakes in your novel)

Which idea has the most interesting characters?

For some writers (and stories), characters fuel the writing process and a great idea is meaningless without the cool people to back it up. If you have characters you adore and want to write about, it’s worth taking some time to put their story together rather than run with a more-formed idea that has ho-hum people in it.

(Here’s more on creating interesting characters)

How many books do you anticipate writing in that series?

For writers planning a series, there are other things to think about as well. Common advice says to make the first book a stand alone in case you only sell book one, so if this is an idea you need more books to explore, or can’t bear the thought of only writing the first book, that can affect your publishing plan. For example, if you spend five years writing a four-book series, and then no one wants book one, you won’t be able to sell books two through four. But if you write one book and plot out the story for the rest, you’ll be ready to go when book one sells.

However…personal preference also plays a role. For example, I wrote my Healing Wars series as one stand-alone book that could continue on as a trilogy. But after gong though the process of writing a trilogy, I’d have preferred to write at least a first draft of the entire thing before I tried to sell it. There were too many things I wish I could have changed. There are pros and cons to finishing a series before you sell it, so consider all your options.

(Here’s more on finishing a trilogy or series vs. just writing book one)

Obviously if you plan to go the indie route this doesn’t apply. Having the whole series or multiple books ready to go can be a benefit in this case, as it’ll allow you to release them in quicker succession and capitalize on reader excitement and make the most of your marketing.

Which feels the most marketable?

Don't let the market rule you, but if you have several ideas and one has been done to death, it's not a bad idea to work on the more original story. Of course, if you have a fresh twist on that well-done idea or just love that idea above all others, don't let fear of the market stop you either. This also holds true when looking at a potential series.

Do you plan to get an agent?

For those looking for agents, you typically want to stay within one genre or market so your future agent can help you build your brand and sell a multi-book contract. For example, if you have three manuscripts ready to go, but they’re in three completely different genres and/or markets, you’re basically a brand-new author in all three. The historical romance folks probably aren’t going to come over to the hard sci fi military fiction, and neither are likely to pick up the contemporary YA. Sticking with projects that draw from the same readership pool makes your more marketable, and thus easier to sell.

(Here’s more on knowing if you should write what's hot)

Published vs. Unpublished Writers

For published authors, there are a few other considerations as well (and unpublished writers, these can also apply to you, as you plan to build your brand and create your readership one day, so laying the groundwork now gets you a step ahead):

What type of book are your readers expecting?

This holds true for genre, but look deeper at the types of stories your readers expect from you. Personal struggles? Moral gray areas? Compelling characters with deep, dark pasts? There are things readers love about your work. Try looking for ideas that best support that.

Which idea best fits your brand?

If you're known for laugh-out-loud comedies or super sizzling romances, choosing an idea that fits your brand and builds your audience. Of course, if the goal is to break out of your brand and do something new, then these are elements you might stay away from. Or to compromise, pick the one, solid branding element for consistency and try it with an idea new for you genre or market-wise.

Which idea raises the bar from a story and quality standpoint?

Readers want every book to be better than the last (no pressure, and honestly, we want that, too). What might push you creatively? A different POV style or structure, deeper plots or more layered subplots? Is there an idea that will allow you to flex your creative muscles or explore an area you haven't done before? Look for opportunities to kick your writing up a notch.

Which ideas haven't you done yet?

We all have themes we enjoy writing about, and they tend to show up again and again in our work. While this is certainly a good thing, it can also lead us to ideas that feel familiar so each book starts to sound the same. Do any of your ideas explore a new concept you've always wanted to try, or take your favorite theme in a new direction? If you've always written from a female POV, perhaps consider a male POV. What's different about the potential ideas, yet still true to who you are as a writer?

Which idea takes the story or characters somewhere new?

If you've been writing the same characters or world for a while, and plan to stay in that world, look for ideas that take these characters in a new direction. What haven't they done before? What scares them the most? What dreams have they not dared to dream? What interesting bit of backstory or tragic flaw have you left hanging or unexplored? Look at all the roads not taken and see if any of them lead somewhere fresh.

Which idea best fits what readers are asking for?

If your readers have asked for things that you'd find exciting to explore as well, perhaps let them inspire you. You don't want to cater to everyone's whims (that just leads to a messy story), but there might be something they've noticed, connected with, or thought about that would fit the type of tale you want to tell. Perhaps they've always wanted to know a particular character's backstory, or would love to see a secondary character take the stage.

And finally...

What book do you want to write?

For a moment, forget everything on this list. Forget what your agent or editor says. Forget what the blogs say or the industry gurus proclaim. If there was nothing affecting this decision but your own heart, which idea would you work on next? Why?

And if you say you can’t, what's stopping you?

If this is the book you really want to write, find ways to turn those negatives into positives. You say the market is oversaturated with that idea already? Put time into finding a fresh twist. No one reads that genre anymore? Consider ways to mix it with another genre and expand the readership. No conflict? Find it. If this idea sings to you that much, then find a way to make it work--even if it takes a lot of work to do it.

Many of us are afraid of choosing the wrong book to work on, but in reality, any idea could be the one that hits big. There’s no way to anticipate the market or what readers will fall in love with, so the least-frustrating option is to write books that excite us. That way, we’ll love what were working on, so we’ll put our best efforts into it.

How do you decide which idea to work on next?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. I recently started on a new idea because the story was just driving me insane to to get it written. So I had to write it.

    1. That's probably the best way :) The ones that won't let go usually turn out great.

  2. I'm down with Angela Brown on this one. I have raked my novel over the coals a few times. I think one more time back to the editor and call it. I have many other stories calling me now....

    1. I hear that. I can only spend so much time on one project before I want to work on something else.

  3. I'm always torn! Readers are waiting for the next book in my series, so that is a given, but sometimes, I have to take a break to work on something a little different as well.

    1. That would be a hard place to be in. You'd want to satisfy your readers, but always writing in the same world can be fatiguing.

  4. Whichever one I can't get out of my head for more than a day!

  5. Great advice, here. I'm deep into a crappy first draft right now. I had thought I was going to write about one idea, but then another idea snagged at my heart and head and wouldn't let go. So I researched and plotted this new idea, and away we go!

    1. The ones that won't let go are the way to go :) And we're not alone in that! Lots of folks saying the same thing.

  6. I generally work on more than one story at a time. When deciding what to work on, I follow the squeaky wheel gets the oil maxim.
    Thank you for writing this helpful article. I'm promoting it on Google +.

    1. Thanks! That's great you can juggle. I've never be able to do that well, and I admire those who can.

  7. I am so bad at waffling between ideas, especially lately. One idea will call to me, so I work on it for awhile, developing it until it's almost ready to be drafted. And then another idea calls to me, and then another, until I've got about three good ideas, and a handful less so, that I could sit down and draft.

    This might sound like a good problem to have to people who struggle for ideas, but I never know which one to work on next. Common sense says to pick one and draft it, but the desire changes like the wind. One day it will be idea x, and the next day it will be idea y. *pulls out hair*

    I've tried the "idea you love the most" "idea that's most hooky" before, and I also started drafting each of them to see if something takes off. So far it's just the normal excitement/trepidation of starting a new draft for each of them.

    I'm going to try and go through the list and REALLY figure out what I want to write next. This waffling back and forth is driving me nuts.

    Thank you so much for this list. Your post, as always, is perfect timing.

    1. Ooo sounds rough. I totally get that too many ideas can be just as bad as too few, especially if they're all calling to you. I'm so late responding to comments, so hopefully you've found one by now!

  8. Hi Janice
    I enjoyed this post, thanks, lots to think about.
    I must confess, my ideas tend to come as I write, so I rarely have to decide what to write next!
    I've created about four different universes/worlds now, so the main driver is to do with the characters. Who do I enjoy spending time with the most? Who has the most interesting life? Who can I create good conflict for? and so on.
    I am also conscious of trying to create a set of books that are similar in tone, and/or subject, in order to not throw readers out, and (hopefully) keep them interested and engaged :)

    1. Thanks Michael! Those are great questions to ask. Very interesting process, too. Different worlds to draw from depending on what character or idea hits.

  9. Most of these aren't really a factor for me when I pick what to write next. I look at the idea -- is it something I can write? Maybe I mash it up with another element and go for it. I just add the brand as I write, since it fits into most stories, rather than write the story to the brand.

    1. Interesting. I like that, is it something I can write? I've had ideas I've tossed out because I didn't think I could write them, but I've never used that as a factor for what to work on next.

  10. I've been wavering between two projects - an anthology of linked stories versus a mystery set where I live. All these points of consideration have reassured me that I am right to be working on the latter. It ticks many more boxes, and the other can simmer and mature in cyber space for another few months. Many thanks.

    1. An anthology is also something you can work on when you're feeling stuck or fatigued by the mystery.

  11. Maybe "Which project will a big publisher pay me 100 grand to write?" ;-)

    1. If you figured out how to identify those, you'd make enough off the secret you wouldn't have to write :)