Monday, June 06, 2016

How Can You Tell if Your Idea is Worth Writing?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Every time I debate what idea to write next, I go through a bit of an evaluation process. Is this idea good enough to spend time with? Will anyone but me like it? Is it sellable? Should I bother with it?

Writing a novel is a commitment, and before I commit to the next six months to a year of my life (or more for those hard-to-write books), I want to be sure that I have the right book.

Not that I ever can be 100% sure, of course. No one can, but I do my best to look at all the angles and possibilities and make the best judge if this idea is worth my time to write it.

Sometimes I get a yes, others a no. I have ideas I love, but I know I’m not ready to write them yet and I’m still looking for a missing piece to make it work. Some ideas are good to go, but they explore a subject matter that’s been done to death and I don’t feel it’s the best time for that story to thrive.

And then there’s the idea that gets me jazzed to write and I can’t wait to dive in.

If you’re facing this dilemma, here are some of the questions I use when evaluating an idea:

1. Do you love it?

If I don’t love an idea, odds are I’ll get tired of it or will be distracted by a Shiny New Idea halfway through. The ideas I can’t stop thinking about are always the ones that keep me coming back to the keyboard day after day, especially if the writing hits a rough patch.

An idea that you want to write more than any other is one that usually has the oompf needed to be a good novel.

(Here’s more on being distracted by Shiny New Ideas)

2. Do other people get excited when they hear about it?

If the idea sends you right to your best writing pal to tell them all about it, and they say “ooooo!” and get just as excited, odds are you’ve got an idea worth writing. Not only is the idea cool, but you’re able to pitch it in a way that makes other people interested as well, which is a big indicator that there’s a story there and not just a premise.

3. Do other people look at you like you’re nuts?

Have you ever been excited about something, told someone else, and they just gave you that neutral (or worse made a yuck face) expression? It’s disheartening, and makes you feel as though your idea wasn’t as good as you thought.

Sometimes this is useful, as it saves us time writing an idea that actually isn’t all that great, but it can also be the kick we need to find what’s unique about our idea.

If everyone looks at you like you’re crazy for writing this, and you still love it and want to do it, maybe you see something no one else does.

4. Can you see the entire story?

This will vary depending on the type of writer you are, but if I can’t see the whole story on a basic level, I know it’s not ready to write yet. Odds are all I have is a premise novel or a cool world concept.

At the bare minimum, I need a person with a problem who has to do something about that problem. I may not know a lot of details at first, but if I can see what my protagonist has to basically do in the story, I can see where I need to go to develop that story.

(Here’s more on telling if you have a premise novel)

5. Can you clearly see the conflict and stakes?

This is the lynchpin for me. Conflict and stakes are what drives a novel’s plot, so until I find those elements, I don’t have a novel.

6. Do you want to drop everything and go write it?

I have plenty of ideas I love, that have conflicts and stakes, and I know I’ll write them one day, but they’re not making me want to ignore the world and write them right now.

Every writer will be different here, but for me, my best books have always come from that excited need to write them. The books I wrote with ideas I loved, but wasn’t dying to write them, didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped.

When I evaluate an idea, I also consider the market as well. It’s just good business since I hope to sell this novel. If you’re writing for fun or want to publish a novel “someday,” the publishing side doesn’t apply so much.

7. Has it been done before?

It’s one of those annoying truths that publishers (and some readers) are looking for “different, yet the same” as what’s selling. If an idea falls in line with books that are selling well, odds are it’s a solid, marketable idea. If it’s different from anything else out there and you can’t find a single book like it, well, that’s both good and bad.

It’s good because you may have stumbled upon something fresh and original, with doesn’t happen often.

It’s bad because if no one is writing those kinds of novels, there might not be a market for it and you can’t sell it.

(Here’s more on novels outside the mainstream)

8. Has it been done too much?

I might have the best idea for a boy at wizard school series, but good luck getting a publisher to buy that these days.

Ideas for novels in an already saturated marketplace will probably be a tough sell no matter how much you love them. This is a harder question to ask, because sometimes the book we’re dying to write is one with the worst chance of selling—and it has zero to do with the quality of the book or the writer.

However, with self publishing, this isn’t the death knell it once was for those ideas. If you know there’s an audience for that type of book, and you have no problems self publishing, a done-to-death idea an still work.

I’ve had one of these for about five years, and I’m revising it now. It was the idea I wanted to write and I didn’t care about anything else, even though I know it’ll be a long shot.

(Here's more on choosing which project to work on)

9. Can you write a query letter?

My final test of any idea is to write a query blurb. If I can write something that hits all the key elements of a novel and sounds like something I’d want to read, I’ll move ahead with the idea.

But if I can’t come up with a query that shows the character, conflict, goals, stakes, and a cool twist or hook, I move along. This has been my best tool for evaluating an idea.

(Here’s more on queries as a plotting tool)

As the cliche goes, ideas are a dime a dozen, so it’s useful to develop skills for evaluating them—unless you’re one of those writers who can throw down a first draft in a month, then you can probably write whatever and see how it works just as easily. But the rest of us could use a little assurance that we’re not chasing a not-yet-ready project.

How do you evaluate your story ideas? Have you even pursued the wrong idea?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. An idea has to compel the author if it’s to compel anyone else.

    I pitched a novel that had burned a hole in my brain for three years to a few of my readers and they all responded with ‘I can’t wait to read it’.

    The story was inspired by a pair of child’s shoes from Titanic that I saw in a museum exhibit.

    It’s a paranormal story of two children passengers on the Titanic destined to marry who were separated when one of them perishes in the disaster – a familiar love story with a twist of fate as the boy tries to be reborn in order to meet the girl. The reincarnation attempt goes wrong and he ends up becoming her invisible childhood friend, compelled to step aside and watch her grow-up while he remains five-years-old. No spoilers here as many extraordinary things happen to end in a surprising conclusion.

    I launched it several weeks ago on the 107th anniversary of the sinking.

    I was pumped, but it felt as if I threw my novel into a black hole. There was no response in spite of blogging an interesting countdown of facts about the disaster for two solid weeks, and sliding into the April 12th deadline (bad word for a Titanic story) at the last second.

    Had I been wrong? I checked with my intuition... no, the story remains sound. That inner knowing is still strong. Of course, I comfort myself that I’m no marketing genius and that in time it will ‘debut’ each time a new reader discovers it.

    The downside of wearing so many hats to get the manuscript out was so exhausting I collapsed into a state of limbo. Pacing oneself is a concept I understand but, so far, remains conceptual.

  2. sorry, the tail end of my comment failed to attach:

    If I had to do it over, I would definitely still write it. The story still feels absolutely right. But I would have taken another year (until the anniversary approached again) to learn more about marketing online before I launched it. That weakest link (marketing) eclipses a good story every time.

    1. That sounds rough, but discoverability is probably the hardest part of publishing these days. Great books sit out there waiting for readers to find them.

      Hang in there. Now that the book is out, you can keep learning about marketing and put those skills into practice, and readers will find you. For most of us, it takes a while for our books to get noticed.

  3. You could wait and relaunch on the appropriate anniversary, considering this one a "soft launch" which would give you time to build more interested parties through other marketing strategies. It sounds super interesting...

    1. A soft relauch isn't a bad idea. By then it'll have had time to garner some reviews and stand a better chance at enticing new readers to give it a try.

  4. Thanks Nicole

    That sounds like a smart idea. That gives me a long time to catch up on my technical learning curve and still write my current WIP.

    The thing writers like me need to remember is that neither rules nor books are written in stone.

  5. Oh Veronica, that sounds like such an interesting story. Titanic or otherwise.

    Glad you shared your experience. I considered and felt confident (and still do) about all nine points at the idea stage three years ago, but have no idea how/where this particular story should be promoted. You seem to have thought that out. Scary!! Thanks for the ping to my noggin. Will take a break to study marketing...

    Best of luck whatever path you take.

  6. Thank you, JC. Best of luck to you too.

    We're lucky to have Janice to keep us in line.

    1. Ditto that!!! Wouldn't be as far along as I am without her.

      Thanks for the article Janice. Thanks for everything....