The previous week’s post dealt with tips to get ideas coming to you. Now, consider these ideas as fish in a pond. Each of them could be fished out, but are they all edible? Meaning, are they all worth becoming stories? Some might argue that, yes, if enough thought and hard work is put into it, any idea can become a story. But the reality is different by a small margin. We all have read at least one book where the premise sounded interesting but the author’s way of handling it ruined the story. We all have watched at least one show where you watched the pilot episode and said, “Meh, I could’ve written a better show than that!” And that’s the point. Every idea could become a story, but that doesn’t mean you’re meant to write them all. You got to pick the ones that work for you, or are palatable for you and your potential target reader-base. So, without further ado, let’s delve in.
Step 1. Let it Marinate
This assumes that you’ve got all your ideas recorded some place- notepad, MS Word doc, Google Docs, tissue paper, toilet rolls, wherever they’ll last for a while. Also, your mind, because you have to think about them.
Sometimes, it can be hard. You get an idea and you immediately want to start writing. While writing can be good, it’s worth exploring it in the abstract space of your head before moving ahead. As it marinates, does it stir something? Does it keep coming back and keep you awake? Is it fuzzy and a big cloud of smog or is it that fluffy puff of cloud you see drifting in the sky and think, “Huh, that looks like a dinosaur!”? If it’s the latter, you may have something here.
Step 2. Level of Abstraction
Nine out of ten times an idea hits you, it brings with it some baggage. This baggage could be a character, a scene, a subplot, a trope, a plot twist, even just a name. There’s something attached to it.
If your idea has baggage, it’s a possibility that it could be molded into something more concrete. If it’s an idea with nothing to it, it’s still worth exploring, but don’t get too attached to it just yet, for it might be a muddy path that leads to a dead-end. At this point, you can start reordering the pool of ideas in a separate document. Sort them such that the idea with least level of abstraction (most concrete) is up first.
Step 3. Tell me your Dreams
No, not that Sidney Sheldon book, but take some time off every-day to sit back and go on a mental road-trip where each of these ideas is a pit-stop. It might sound zany but give it a try.
The purpose of this step is to exploit the power of dreams. We all know how weird, crazy, twisted, and downright stupefying dreams can be. They could be the wings your ideas need, to fly. Dreams can’t be forced, of course, but don’t stop them when they come. Many of us can’t recall our dreams, and that’s okay. You shouldn’t have to make a conscious effort. Let it all be organic and fluid. Even if this step doesn’t work for you, that’s okay. But if you can, then you might see some ideas melding together. That trope you wanted to subvert might make sense when tied in with this character you had in mind. Now, go back to your sorted ideas and revise the list.
Step 4. Read it Out Loud
To yourself. No, you won’t look stupid, I promise. By this stage, you should have the ideas listed and sorted, and their corresponding “baggage” points jotted down.
There’s a difference between reading in your mind and aloud. It’s similar to “things stick to your mind if you write them down.” The bottom-line is, it works as a reinforcement to your brain. As you read it to yourself, how feasible or realistic does it sound? Maybe, coin a high-level pitch and form a small story premise. Then, read it again. Do you see any semblance of structure yet?
Step 5. What does the Gut Say?
As you’re reading it, mind your intuition. Do you get a head-rush, goose-bumps, or just a feeling of meh? Your mind and body are connected, and if you’re tuned to listen, you’ll catch those frequencies.
Gut instincts are hard to listen to, sometimes, because we could be wrong. So, as you refine the list and tweak the sorted ideas, remember that this exercise is temporal. Meaning, if you revisit these same ideas six months down the line and redid these same steps, the ideas could be sorted differently. You might even have newer ideas to throw into the mix. That’s because we learn something new every-day. Our experiences teach us lessons and we follow or un-follow different aspects of life. They are bound to influence your instincts, and therefore, your taste in writing. Remember, you’ll spend at least a year in the trenches writing and then editing this book. I, for one, have been working on my WIP series for over 4 years as of now. So, it’s important to purge ideas that don’t gel with you because not all fish in the pond are edible.
Step 6. Discuss with the World
I don’t mean you to spill it out on a Facebook post or as your next Instagram caption. Be selective, because this step has a purpose- to see if your ideas have any audience besides you.
“Pfft, and this is step six? Shouldn’t this be, like, step three or something?”
Well, sometimes, you do something for a low return on investment. Pick the ideas that sit at the top of your list. Maybe the top three. Pitch them to your writer friends or reading buddies. At this point, most of us also have a rough idea about the genre and target audience (the baggage). So, remember to pitch it to the right group within your social circles. If it’s a YA, look to your cousins or nephews/nieces, depending on how old you are. It helps if they’re avid readers/writers, but it’s not mandatory. Everyone, whether they read or not, appreciates a good premise. Humans have a tendency to critique and judge, so they’d be more than willing to dish their opinions on your ideas. Have a thick skin, of course, because people react differently. But this step could boost your confidence in the idea itself. Rework that list and bring to top the idea that has gotten the most favor from your audience.
Step 7. Read Something Relevant
Once you have narrowed down on the top 3 ideas, it’s time to see what’s out there already. After all, if there’s already a book out there with a similar premise and plot, you ought to know about it.
Let’s face it. Every idea under the sun has been dealt with. Even if you put a spin on something, it’s probably been done. You just don’t know about its existence. Stories have been around for millennia and it’s very naive of someone to think their ideas are earth-shattering unique. What makes stories unique, is the way they deal with the tropes, archetypes and structure.
Take Harry Potter, for example. It uses the tropes of any typical fantasy story- the Chosen One with sidekicks, witches, wizards, dragons, elves, trolls, you name it. It also explores themes of reincarnation and death. There’s a strong theory that supports Voldemort and Death Eaters being similar to Hitler and the Nazis. So, you see, there’s nothing phenomenally new about the story itself. But we love the series because of the way it’s written and developed.
So, go ahead and pick books that have very similar premises to your ideas’. Read them like you would read any other story. Put your biases and prejudices aside. Look at these books and your ideas objectively and see which ones you can put a spin on to make it unique. Can you bring a unique narrative voice? Can a trope be subverted? Can a twist be modified? Rework the list to push the idea with the most workable appeal on top.
By the end of this step, you should have probably zeroed in on your next story idea. Ta-da, it’s the one on top of this final list you’ve refined. But there’s one additional step you ought to do if you want to be traditionally published. If you’re uncertain about going the traditional or self-publishing route, or are open to both (like me), then still do this step.
Step 8. Look to the Market
Market research is hard. It’s something I’ve not perfected myself yet. But this is also an important step, especially if traditional publishing is on your mind. Even if it isn’t, it’s a useful thing to know where the readership trends are.
I owe much of what I’m writing in this step to Alexa Donne, a traditionally published YA author who also runs a YouTube channel. I love her content and if you like the type of content I’m posting, you should check her out.
Traditional publishing is a business and, like every other business, it’s driven by profits. So, naturally, the literary agents and publishing houses look to readership trends to decide what they must and must not publish. In the YA category, dystopia is on a downward spiral. So, if the top idea on your list is a YA dystopian fiction, and you aspire to be traditionally published, chances are it’s not the idea you should turn into a story now. Maybe later, but not now. The game might be different with self-publishing because you’re a one-man show and any losses would affect only you.
Readership trends tend to come in cycles or waves. Some downward spirals last a decade (like YA dystopia), and some have epic reincarnations. So, never give up on an idea. Shelve it and move on to the second idea in the list and see where it fits within the market scope.
The publishing houses tend to follow trends two or three years down the line because it’s roughly how long it takes for a book to be published. Authors like Alexa are pretty adept at spotting these ebbing and surging trends and they talk about them on their channel or other media. It’s good to keep track of the pitch contests on Twitter and see where most pitches lean towards. Another amazing YouTuber I follow, iWriterly (a former literary agent), has a pitch contests calendar up on her website.
If these steps sound vague and pointless to you, you’re probably doing all these subconsciously. For many of us writers who have written a few books, these steps are a reflex. It’s like waking up and brushing teeth. So, bear with me as we sift through these stages. The posts will eventually veer towards more concrete challenges.
So, there you have it people! My 8 steps that should hopefully work for you to go from “I have an idea” to “I have my next story!”
If you found this post informative in any way, do give it a Like and feel free to comment and share anywhere you like. If you want to receive updates on my future posts in this series, consider following me here! If you want to become a beta reader for my WIP, “The Devil Within,” a New Adult Mystery/Thriller Drama, let me know!