How do you determine what writing projects are worth moving forward with?

by Alex

Question: I've been writing down every idea that comes to my head lately. Some ideas are easily eliminated because they've been done similarly before or they have too many plot holes. Right now, I have three books that I'm working on. Two of them I've started outlining, but I'm not quite finished. The third is a book that I wrote a while ago that I want to rewrite.

My question is, how can you determine if a book is worth writing (or rewriting) and when to decide to completely drop a project if you have mixed feelings about it.

Answer: Great question!

There's no absolute way to make this determination, but there are several tests you can use to arrive at a decision.

1. How passionate are you about the story?

It's really hard to write a story you're not excited about. And your odds of actually finishing a novel that doesn't interest you are slim. Writing usually goes best when it feels like fun, not work.

Besides, if you are not passionate about the story, it's probably because there's a flaw in the concept or a missing element -- which means readers may not find it a great read either.

2. Does it contain enough reader appeal?

There are 6 elements readers typically find appealing about stories:

a) conflict/violence
b) romance/sex
c) suffering
d) wickedness (someone benefiting him/herself at another's expense)
e) humour
f) novelty

I would add one more element, style, if I were writing literary fiction.

A great concept will have at least four of these elements (five for a literary work).

Novelty addresses your concern about too many similar stories. A good story should strike the reader as noticeably different and therefore interesting, perhaps because of the novel setting, plot twist, subject matter, concept, character, or some other element.

3. Is the story missing any of the main plot elements?

Screenwriters will often write the basic idea for a story in the form of a 1-2 sentence logline containing the basic elements of the plot.

Loglines can be used to test a story idea before the
writer has spent months working on a screenplay. If the logline is missing one or more of the required elements, it's a weak story idea.

Here's a formula for a logline...

After (an event that changes everything), a (unique and appealing character) attempts to (achieve a goal) by (a series of steps or plan of action) in order to prevent (a disastrous outcome). This becomes increasingly difficult because of (obstacle).

You might try writing a logline for each of your current story ideas. Show the loglines to people whose opinion you trust and see which ones sound the most appealing.

The good news is that, if you discover that a story idea you really love is missing one or more of the key elements, you can improve the idea by adding in what's absent.

Or, if you decide there is no way that makes sense to add the missing elements in, you can move on to the next idea.

The one element you cannot control, unfortunately, is timing. Public interest in certain types of stories comes in waves, and it is very difficult to predict that the next hot trend will be. When you see a certain type of story is currently popular (e.g. like YA dystopian SF was a few years ago), it's often too late to get in. All you can do is write the stories that seem fresh and interesting to you and try to keep a finger on the pulse of your readership.

Finally, if you have mixed feelings about a story and cannot see a way to make it work, the best thing may be to set it aside for a time.

However... do not ever throw a story out! It often happens that when you return to a project, after a span of months, years, or even decades, you see quite clearly where the concept went wrong and how to fix it. Whatever mental block you have about a project tends to dissolve when you take a break from it. Looking at a project with fresh eyes will usually lead to better ideas.

Best of luck.

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