Not every idea makes a good story. Even fewer make good novels or screenplays. Yet, it's easy to be lured by a concept that excites us into plunging into a long-form work that doesn't have a chance of success.
Last time, I covered some starting points to making writing a habit that leads to completed stories. But what should those stories be about?
If you are a beginner, anything is possible, but I recommend creating smaller forms, even flash fiction. These can work with even slight ideas, they give you the reward of completion, and they represent minimal investment in time and effort (which will make disasters less disastrous). Writing short works also helps to give you a sense of where you strengths are, what truly interests you, and what a complete story feels like. So experiment. Have fun. Test your boundaries.
Experienced writers need to experiment, have fun, and test boundaries, and short stories can be good for them, too. But a novel or screenplay based on an idea that is unworkable? That can be dreary. Before you are fifty pages into a long-form work test your idea.
Without a doubt, the idea has to be something you have a passion for. Unfortunately, that tingly feeling is not enough. What appears to be true love often turns out to be infatuation. One protection is writing out the reasons why you must write this work. By articulating these, I can more easily assess and understand my interest. And if I can't say much, I set the idea (written out is a full sentence) aside for a few weeks. With time, I often can't figure out what the attraction was.
Practical concerns often come up next. What can I, through my experiences, knowledge, and skills, bring to this concept that is unique? How can I make it special? Often this leads me into early research that adds to the idea or drives me away. A specific consideration is whether the idea has been done successfully before or is saturating the zeitgeist. I have dropped ideas when I've discovered I'd need to compete against established works or fierce competition. I'd already begun done research and begun writing a work on bringing back extinct species when I got word Crichton was coming out with Jurassic Park. And I redirected my work when I saw, in a Twitter pitch party, that lots of writers were exploring a key element of my work in progress.
Writing a pitch, back cover copy, or even a query letter, can better define what you have in mind and reveal if it is big enough for your ambition (or not). Chuck Wendig (in language that may be offensive to some people) recommends something like this (along with other good advice on choosing a topic). I like to imagine titles, and I look these up online. Often, I find books that have these titles and some handling the same topic I had in mind.
I don't always stop working, even when there is a famous work that explores the same territory as my idea. In fact, many of my short stories have had their origins in a sense that what I've read by another author didn't go far enough or missed the most interesting possibilities in a concept. (It is always a good idea to push things as far as you can, even when your idea seems to be unique. Go crazy, you can always pull back.)
Genre is another consideration. If you are trying to build a career in commercial fiction and you are already beyond the beginning stage, finding a genre that suits you -- where you know the key works, the "rules," and the audience -- is essential. You are likely to stick to one genre for a long time, so choosing your ideas accordingly will help you build a fan base.
Finally, you want your story to stand out. "The same, but different," is guidance I've heard from various sources. In other words, your concept needs to be set in an idea space that is familiar enough to orient editors, agents, and readers (one function of genre), but it needs to have something fresh and intriguing that sets it apart. Whether it's your pitch or your first page, there should be enough there to build anticipation. It's true that beautiful execution of something that is modest in concept can hold readers, but choosing to go this way makes success harder to achieve.
These are suggestions. Ultimately, you need to create your own criteria for choosing projects and use and develop these over time. One guide for me is remembering that what I choose to write answers the question of why I am writing stories.
I'll continue this series next time with a deeper dive on research and knowing what to write.