With my first major project heading into revision, I can’t help but think about what I’ll write after. I know, I know, focus on one thing at a time—but the idea of actually publishing my current project, while thrilling, also terrifies me. Because my current project is a standalone, it’s a completely wild and open landscape as to what I write next.
And what if I can’t think of anything?
If my lot in life is to be a one-hit wonder (and “hit” may be an exceedingly generous term), then I’ll be happy to have written at least one thing. But I am still going to try and think of more things to write.
I’m lucky in that I get a lot of random ideas, all the time. Mostly, they’re fragmentary and derivative, but they can usually be shaped into something more. The problem is that it’s hard for me to identify which ideas are worth pursuing, and which are worth leaving behind—or at least leaving aside for now.
So I thought of three ways to evaluate an idea, to test its validity for you (not its validity for the market, or for prestige, or for an audience).
- As a Reader
If you write, it’s probably because you love to read. And you probably want to write things you’d want to read—or, alternatively, that’s what you’ll be best at. Sometimes, if you like to read lots of different things, or you might be unsure about what you love to read most, or perhaps embarrassed by it, the idea of “write what you’d want to read” isn’t as clear a directive as some may think.
So how do you figure out if this idea is something you’d like as a reader?
First, figure out what makes you pick up a book. Generally, for me, it falls into two categories—internal story elements (namely romance and worldbuilding), and external elements (hype). The former is anything that would make you pick up a book that you have never heard of, that you don’t know if anyone else has read, that you haven’t heard is good or bad. Maybe it’s the type of protagonist, or the multiple timelines, or the period in history, or the thrilling action plot. Whatever story elements intrigue you, those are probably story elements that you’d like to write about.
The latter is where things get tricky—because external influences like someone’s recommendation, hearing there’s a movie adaptation coming out, and good reviews can make you pick up a book you otherwise wouldn’t. There’s nothing wrong with that, and you can find books you wouldn’t have otherwise tried out, but it’s impossible to evaluate your own idea using this metric. You simply cannot know if your idea would get the type of hype which would appeal to you as a reader, and while imagining it can be fun and fulfilling, it’s useless as a tool for testing out the idea’s viability. Instead, focus on the internal story factors which would make you pick up your own idea even if no one else would.
Now, as far as what you would actually like upon reading (including from things you only picked up because of hype), it’s also almost impossible to evaluate before it’s written. Something that sounds like you would like it because of the romance might fall flat because of the style or character types; and something that you only picked up because your mom made you read it might become your new favorite book because of the emotional scenes or setting you wouldn’t have thought you’d like. And when you are looking at your own idea, still vague and unformed, you simply can’t tell if it will have great style, elegiac prose, loveable characters, and everything else that goes into what makes each specific book worth loving (or hating).
For my purposes, your best bet in evaluating whether you’d like this book as a reader is to determine if it’s the type of thing you’d want to read, that would grab you from a summary alone. That’s not to say you can’t branch out from your comfort zone if you want, but you might be at a disadvantage from the beginning if you’re writing something you don’t usually like to read. But carry on anyway!
- As a Writer
This evaluation looks specifically at what it will be like to write whatever this idea entails. It might be fun to contemplate reading a twelve-book series, but do you really want to write it? Or a rotating cast of thousands… fun to think about, less fun to actually write.
The key here is not to think about the finished product in all its potential glory, nor to think about anyone else’s response to it (even your own)—it’s to think about sitting in front of your computer or notebook, day after day, and actually writing it. Finding the words, bringing the setting and characters to life, developing the intricate plot.
Now, if you’re just starting out, it might seem like any idea is a challenge—and it’s awesome to challenge yourself. But make sure the way you’re challenging yourself is still something you’re looking forward to doing. The point here is just to make sure you’re really seeing the idea for what it really is, and looking forward to writing it.
For example, I talk a lot about episodic structure, and it’s what got me to actually finish a draft. But sometimes when I come up with episodic ideas, I forget that I will have to plot out each and every episode. So, in the vague sense of, “it would be cool to read about solving crimes,” I start out on that path—and then realize I have no interest whatsoever in actually thinking up and plotting out each crime and its solution. The reading might be fun, but the writing isn’t, and that stops me every time.
- As an Author
This one only applies to those with active ambitions to publish, and is only to be used with extreme caution. In fact, sometimes this one overwhelms the others, and you need to use the other two evaluations to discredit this one.
The fact is, when we dream of publication, we start to imagine our ideas as books going out into the world. We might dream of an audience, of reviews, even movie adaptations. And that’s fun, and good, but it can warp what we think about our ideas.
The obvious truth is that you cannot predict what other people will like, hate, or gravitate towards. You can’t know how they will respond. But if your imagination is powerful enough, you might feel like you know, and so you’ll think about your idea in this framework. As a result, you might end up liking an idea more than you should because you imagine it will be well-liked by others—or you might discard an idea because you can only imagine it being hated or laughed at.
This evaluation is only positive when you’re looking at your career with a professional eye. Perhaps you really should market your platform of similar works, and would this idea fit? Or perhaps your hypothetical audience really does have legitimate expectations, and does this idea rise to them? Like any professional creator, thinking about your audience is a part of the process.
But my word of caution is that this last evaluation tool should only be used to decide between viable ideas that pass the other evaluations well. If this category is the only (or far strongest) one in which the idea succeeds, then it probably isn’t for you—or, at least, you’re not writing it for you. That’s okay, if that’s what you want.
Ultimately, evaluating your ideas should never make you not write what you want. For me, this is just about helping myself figure out what I want. But if you have an idea that intrigues you, or that you simply want to write—and it fails these tests—that’s OKAY!!
Write what you want, for any reason, whether it’s impressing someone, getting back at them, paying tribute to your cat, experimenting with style, making money, or just for fun.
But if you don’t know what you want, or aren’t sure why you want something, these evaluation tools might help you think about your ideas in different ways. Or they might help you generate new ones.