September 27, 2018

How to decide which story idea to write next

Rage against the manuscript, Writing Runes

creative rebel how to decide which story idea

creative rebel how to decide which story idea

I just got back from attending the National Writers Forum, a writer’s conference put on by the New Zealand Society of Authors. It was an enjoyable conference with some big names in the NZ lit scene in attendance – many of whom I’ve admired for a long time.

Coming from the world of genre writing and self-publishing, where everything is focused on the global market and on pleasing readers first and foremost, it was interesting to see how the other half lived. This is the world of fellowships and publishing grants, of 500-book print runs being bestsellers, of indigenous stories and the importance of a national literature identity, of the main goal of seeing New Zealand stories on the page.

There are so many different paths to take to get your stories heard and build a career as a writer. I loved seeing the possibilities for smaller projects and a local focus. I agree that it’s important to have this local scene alongside the global writers with our global stories – in fact, many writers happily straddle both worlds.

While I sat in on a panel featuring local publishers, I started thinking about how, as writers (or any creative) we can be pulled in different directions. There’s no controlling the muse – she reaches out and grabs us by the goolies at the worst possible times, usually to distract us from our path with completely ridiculous ideas that were never going to be commercially viable.

Even when you have a clearly-defined path to follow, the Muse can strike, offering you tantalizing hints at other worlds and options. On my Steffanie Holmes pen name I’m winding down the final book in a series, and for the next series I’m struggling to choose between three ideas – all good options, but only one can come next. I have other project ideas too, all tugging me in different directions.

How to choose?

Pitch your idea to yourself as if you’re the publisher

As writers, our Muse often pulls us toward the idea that offers the best creative challenge. But before dedicating months of our time to this creative endeavour, we should step into the publisher’s shoes and consider it from another angle.

At the panel, a publisher said, “when we consider a book, we’re looking at it in an entirely different way from a writer. Even if we love the book, we have to convince our sales team and executives and accountants that it’s worth the investment.”

So what? Who even cares what accountants think about your book?

You should.

That is, if you want it to have the best chance at commercial success.

Even if you intend to self-publish, you should take that accountant into consideration. Because that accountant will help you get lots and lots of money in your wallet (theoretically – nothing is guaranteed in this business).

Pretend you are your publisher. (If you’re self-publishing, you don’t have to pretend). Sit down with yourself (you can even dress up if you want to, or pour yourself a drink) and throw down your ideas like a wicked rap battle. If you like to take notes, you may want to draw up a piece of paper with different ideas in boxes, and pro/con lists next to them.

(I come from the Rory Gilmore school of decisions by list-making.)

Pitch your ideas as a writer. Note down what excites you creatively about them.

Now, put on your publishing hat. You are no longer a writer at the mercy of a fickle muse. You are a hard-nosed business person who has an accountant to placate.

Look at each idea. Consider it from a commercial standpoint:

1. Ask how this idea fits in with your currently established audience? If your pen name writes urban fantasy, will your contemporary women’s fiction really be the best fit?

2. Are you the right author or publisher for this book? Do you have the skills or expertise needed to do the idea justice?

3. Think about the potential marketing plan for this book. Can you see where it fits on Amazon or on the shelf in a bookshop – if you can slot it into a category, it’ll be easier for readers to find and devour.

4. Look for similar books and try to gauge how well they’ve performed. Is there a market for this type of work? Does that market need more?

5. Are other publishers (not you) acquiring these types of books? Have a look at their websites and the #MSWL hashtag to see what people are looking for.

6. Can you foresee how the project will be marketed? Will there be a series or spinoffs? Is it a good candidate for crowdfunding?

7. Are there current trends, news pieces, or cultural discourse that fit the themes of one of your projects?

Where are you at as a creative?

Of course, these commercial concerns aren’t the only considerations when choosing a new writing project. You should also weigh up your own creative mind to figure out if you’re more drawn to one particular idea. You might consider:

  • Where you’re at in your career and what you want your next project to achieve.
  • The topics/themes or characters feel especially relevant to you right now.
  • What you feel creatively able to tackle right now. (Kristen Kieffer of Well Storied calls this your ‘creative season.’ Do you want the sure, stable thing, or are you ready to tackle that big, scary project?)
  • The stories you want to tell or want to be known for telling.
  • The stories that require the least amount of effort for the greatest reward. (I know this sounds like a cop-out, but sometimes your situation requires it. If you’re a new parent and are surviving on 45 minutes sleep each day, you probably don’t want to be tackling that technical hard SF novel).
  • Which idea feels fresh and unique. Fresh and unique is always a risk, of course, but it can be the most rewarding work you do.

In an ideal world, your project will be the perfect intersection between what you’re excited about writing and what works commercially to bring you riches and fame.

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