Ideas are cheap, easy to come up with, but are they worth developing and turning into an actual product? Is your book worth writing? This is the question that stumped me when I had an idea for my first novel. I didn’t know if the idea was worth the effort it would take to write the book and finish it. Would the story work? Would anyone be interested in it? And did I have the skill to realise my vision for the book?
I can give you my opinion on your idea in my Story Sculpting Facebook Group. Just download my Novel Revision Checklist and you’ll be eligible for group membership, but you should also consider the points laid out below.
I believe that all ideas, with sufficient time, skill and commitment, have the potential to turn into a book worth reading, even if it is only for a small market, but some ideas will be easier to realise than others, and some ideas will be a lot easier to sell, so how do you know where your idea fits along this spectrum?
Time commitment & skill level
The following categorisations are not in themselves an indication of whether or not an idea is worth doing but an indication of what you’re in for in terms of time and commitment and skill level. This is just one of the things you’ll want to consider when deciding whether or not to go ahead with an idea.
1 – Ideas that are relatively easy to realise:
- Genre fiction set in our time and culture (no world building required), especially if the story is based on your own experience;
- Ideas with a strong plot line—a protagonist with a clear goal and an antagonist with a clear reason to stop the protagonist from achieving their goal;
- Fiction written in first person;
- Fiction with one point of view character.
2 – Ideas that take more skill and time to realise well:
- Fantasy fiction—world building and descriptive writing skills are required;
- Mystery—police procedures need researching, and the plot needs lots of twists and surprises;
- Historical fiction – needs research, world building and descriptive writing skills;
- Anything involving a culture that is not your own—same as for historical fiction;
- Stories written in third person intimate;
- Stories with more than one point of view character.
3 – Ideas that take even more skill and time to realise well:
- Science fiction—requires scientific knowledge and world-building skills;
- Fiction without the usual protagonist/antagonist plot structure;
- Fiction with deep conceptual, emotional, psychological, philosophical or issue-based themes;
- Stories written in omniscient third person—many beginners try to write in this form, but it is a difficult point of view to do well;
- Epic stories that span generations and involve complex politics and relationships.
If your story fits the first category, then go for it. Simple stories can be very powerful and very popular, and anything in the first category makes a good first book on which to hone your writing skills. Even if it never gets published, it’s worth writing just as a learning experience. And if you’re an experienced author, then such a book will be relatively quick and painless to write.
If your story fits the second category and also has a strong plot line, then it’s also a good bet for an idea that is worth working on, especially if it’s written in first person, but you will need to develop good descriptive writing and world-building skills, and if you’re writing in third person with more than one point of view character, you’ll need to study how to change points of view smoothly.
If your story fits the third category and it’s your first book, it might be a good idea to write a simpler book to start with. Many writing teachers suggest writing a practice novel, a novel that you write purely as an exercise while you study the craft of writing.
Of course, that’s not what I did! The idea that inspired me fitted squarely into the third category. I didn’t want to write anything else. And you might be the same, but that’s okay, because if I as a rank beginner managed to realise my philosophical, epic fantasy to such a degree that it won awards, then so can others. It took me a lot of work, a lot of time and some financial investment, but I did it, and I now have a series of books that I am very proud of. I achieved my goal, and with the same kind of commitment, you can too.
When considering whether or not an idea is worth developing into a final product, if we’re looking at time spent in terms of potential financial return, then how well a book might sell is an important consideration. Bear in mind that the average author doesn’t earn a lot of money from book sales, and that a financial investment in editing and marketing must be made if you want your work to be commercially viable.
Popular genres such as thrillers, crime, mystery and romance are the easiest to sell because they have a big market. Those are the most reliable genres. Fantasy and science fiction as general categories are also popular but they have many subcategories such as dystopian, paranormal, post-apocalyptic and so on that move in and out of popularity. Research best-selling genres to see what’s selling well right now, and if your book idea fits into a popular genre you can take that as an encouraging sign.
Publishers think in categories because readers tend to do the same thing. Any book that doesn’t fit neatly into a category will be harder to sell than one that is clearly one thing or the other, unless you’re aiming for the literary fiction market—but literary fiction is not as easy to sell as genre fiction. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write it; it’s just something you need to be aware of if you’re to have realistic expectations.
My first series was YA fantasy with demons as the bad guys, but by the time I got it to publishers, they were saying that they had enough books with demons in them and they were looking for the next new thing, so bear in mind that what’s popular now might be old hat by the time you get your book finished. Likewise, your idea may not be popular now, but it might be the next big thing. You never know. Such things are hard to predict.
Books that are the hardest to sell are unknown and unusual genres such as metaphysical, visionary, magical realism, transrealist and so on. Those words pretty much describe my books, but I still wrote them! These kinds of genres are niche markets because they have a small readership, and it’s hard to get new readers for these genres because most readers don’t even know what they are, let alone know whether or not they might like them. Your book might be very popular in one of these genres, but you won’t be selling as many books as an author who is popular in the thriller genre.
Remember, however, that books in popular genres, though they may be the easiest to sell because there is a big market, are also the areas where there is the most competition. There are large numbers of readers for popular genres, but in order to stand out from the crowd, your book does need to be of a high standard.
So is your book worth writing? Although you now may have a realistic idea of your time commitment and your book’s sales potential, you probably still haven’t decided. After all, my first series is the worst case scenario in times of time commitment, skill required and sales potential and yet I still wrote the four books of the Diamond Peak series. Why? I was simply really inspired. Was it worth it? Yes, without a doubt, but not in terms of money for time. What made the time and effort worth it was that I gained a huge amount of satisfaction from creating a classic in metaphysical fantasy, and those books will remain after my death as a tribute to my vision and creativity. They are critically acclaimed, but they are not great sellers because they’re niche market and I’m not that great at marketing, nor do I have the resources to pay someone to do the marketing for me.
So this brings us back to inspiration and purpose. If your purpose in writing is to earn money, then the above factors are vital. However, if your purpose is to express yourself, then the only thing that really matters for deciding whether or not your idea is worth turning into a book is how inspired you are.
A quick quiz:
- Does your idea really excite you?
- Do you get visual images of your story popping into your mind at all sorts of time?
- Do you think it’s a really great idea?
- Is it a unique idea that fits a genre but is different to anything else available in that genre?
- Do your characters seem like real people to you?
- Do you really love your central character?
- Does the topic have great personal meaning or significance for you?
The more times you say ‘yes’ in answer to those questions, the higher your inspiration level, and the higher your inspiration level, the more your answer to whether or not you should write your book is ‘yes’.
Running it by others—the elevator pitch.
Another important factor to take into account when trying to work out if your idea is worth developing or not is to run the idea by other people. Tell them your idea and ask if they would read such a book. In order to ask them, you’ll need to put your story idea into one or two sentences that present it well. You might have a great idea, but if you don’t have what’s known in publishing as an ‘elevator pitch’ your idea won’t have a chance to appeal to anyone.
This brief summary of a book is called an elevator pitch because it’s designed for an author to use when they’re at a conference and they jump into an elevator with a publisher or agent. What are you going to say when you’re standing next to someone who could put your book on every bookstore in the country? How are you going to sell them your book idea? You can’t give them a long involved description, you have to say something that will grab them immediately.
If your elevator pitch grabs people, then it’s definitely a story worth writing, and if you can write an interesting sounding elevator pitch right at the beginning of your writing project, it will make the writing go more smoothly. I didn’t do it until after I’d written several drafts, but once I’d done it, I wished I’d done it sooner. Writing my elevator pitch helped me to clarify just what my story was about.
So is your book worth writing? Still not sure?
This is part of a series of blog posts on how to write a novel. It won’t just cover the technical details, but also the emotional journey we take and the personal challenges we meet on the road from potential author to author. Join the journey now, and don’t miss a post, click here to get my Novel Revision Checklist and links to the articles sent to your inbox.
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