How To Determine If An Idea Warrants The Investment

An idea wakes you up. Stumbling to where a notebook and pen wait—no time for the computer to boot before the idea evaporates—you scrawl in a half-asleep daze.

Perhaps an idea pops into your head during a walk (or any of a thousand instances—why is it always when I’m in the shower?) and you scratch it out on anything handy. It’s not perfect, you know, just a seed of the “greatest damn idea you’ve ever had.”

Take a deep breath.

Ideas streak through your mind many times every day, but not all are worthy of a story or novel. It doesn’t matter; write them down anyway. Testing ideas to ensure they are worthy of the time needed to mold them into a completed project is the next crucial step. Not all ideas, no matter how great they at first appear, are worthy.

Writing projects take time. Validating an idea worthy of a novel, especially, can save months of gut-wrenching agony when you realize, at page 201, the story has no destination.

Due Diligence

My wife and I have owned and operated several businesses. We approached starting or purchasing a business with a set of tough questions geared to making the best decision based on information available at the time: This is referred to as Due Diligence.

Determining whether a writing project is worthy incorporates a similar Due Diligence process, which includes answering questions about the Costs, the Value, and the Expectations.

The Costs

The cost of writing is the approximate time required to complete a project. Unlike a business (whether online or brick-and-mortar) where tangibles exist—wages, taxes, equipment, travel time, rent, luring potential customers—writing has its own set of rules.

For me, a blog post takes between 2-4 hours; a short story may take a month or two; I calculate writing a novel at 1 year. Each of these approximates include several drafts and many edits.

The cost of writing invariably falls to time. How much time you set aside each day dictates output. 500 words a day equals 15,000 words a month—2 to 4 short stories (more if Flash Fiction), 8-12 blog posts, or 20% of a 75,000 word novel. Considering most writers have numerous projects in the works simultaneously, monthly completion is combined across varied projects.

Prioritizing the ideas comes when you have determined the worthiness of each project.


Valuating a story or novel idea gets dicey. A great deal of thought is required to estimate if the seed idea is worth pursing to completion, not to mention the emotional upheaval caused when things don’t go right.

The idea must have great value to you, first and foremost. Taking an idea and transforming it into a full-fledged story will become an integral part of your life; you live with the characters, become them, anguish with them, and share in their joys. Many craft issues will also present themselves over the course of creation.

As best you can (and this is difficult), at this point remove emotion from the equation.

Secondly, the story must have value for your reader. Is the story unique? Are the characters’ lives intriguing and their goals reasonable to pursue?  Must the story be told?

Answering these questions enhances your decision of whether to proceed.


Expectation starts with completing the story. Why else begin if you don’t plan to finish?

A caveat: No matter how much the Due Diligence convinces you to write a story, some languish in spite of your best efforts. At some point—hopefully not on page 201 of the novel—you realize the story has not gestated enough. That’s fine, and it’s okay to put it aside a while longer to allow your subconscious to figure out the rough spots. Regardless, the plan is to finish the story at some point. I have dozens of ideas awaiting my attention when my subconscious informs me the story is ready to continue.

If you plan to sell the story, whether to a magazine editor, agent, or publisher, is the idea fresh enough and the writing strong enough to withstand the scrutiny? This is a hazy gray area.

Less than perfect stories sell all the time, even dreadful stories make it past an editor’s icy glare. There is no accounting for taste, and that is true within the publishing world as anywhere else.

If your desire is to publish, especially in the traditional sense where somebody pays for your writing, several things can be done to improve your odds: beta readers, critique groups, a professional editing, etc.

Whether seeking the traditional path or self publishing, write the best you are able, compose a story only you can tell, and finish it. First Draft, editing, Second Draft, editing—repeat until the story satisfies the best you can do.

Some ideas demand to be written—they consume you. When this happens, forget the Due Diligence and write: evaluation can come later. When in the throes of the electric creative energy, get it down on paper. The story will not be complete at this point, but writing as much as possible makes the evaluation process easier, and in the long run is the best course of action.

No amount of planning guarantees success; too many variables can occur to derail even the greatest of ideas. But determining that an idea is worthy of the investment is the only way to tilt the pendulum in your favor.

In the end, you must believe in the idea with every fiber. Yes, there will be roadblocks, setbacks, and push-backs, and only your complete confidence in the idea will enable you to leap past the many hurdles toward your goal.

If there are no hurdles in your life, you are not running the race.

When the story or novel is the best you can do at this point in your career, send it to an editor or agent. A Writer writes, an author submits.

See you on the next page,


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Writing — Whatever it Takes

writing just do it

This morning I had a long discussion with myself about writing—the why’s, the how’s, the what for’s—and found I was talking to an idiot.

The idiot told me not to write today: “It’s too hard,” he whined. “I’m not ready.”

I nodded. Some days thoughts and ideas bubble forth faster than I can type, a fast-moving river carving new landscapes; other writing days resemble a muddy puddle—today was the latter.

The murky writing days are not caused by the proverbial Writer’s Block—ideas and sentences do exist in my mind—but pulling them from brain to page requires a will not damaged and lethargic.

“Maybe read a book,” the idiot suggested, and that made sense because reading often loosens the creative spirit and lubricates a tired will. “There’s also the Netflix movie that just arrived,” he added.

Brainless entertainment. “That sounds good,” I agreed, and as soon as I voiced the words, realized I was being manipulated. I sat up straight, fingers arched over the keyboard. “This is writing time, damnit!”

It was a dark and stormy night . . . redrum, redrum . . . It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . .

“It sure is the worst of times,” the idiot pointed out. “There’s not an original thought in your head.”

“I have my own thoughts,” I countered, a defensive resolve tightening through my shoulders,  “and they are unique to me. I have to share them.”


“Other writers may be having trouble right now. Perhaps I can help the same way you helped me?”


“Having this conversation has opened the wellspring, you know, the writing tap is flowing again.”

“You used me?”

I couldn’t contain the smile. “That’s right. I started typing our conversation, and here I am, almost done with the blog. And it’s given me a new idea for my novel.”

“That’s pretty underhanded, if you ask me.”

“I didn’t ask you, and I won’t, but when it comes to writing, whatever it takes to get the words down is fine with me. After all, you internal critics are idiots, so what does it matter?”

Now, off to work on that new idea for the novel . . . .

See you on the next page,


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Tilling the Field of Ideas

Fields of WheatSeldom, if ever, do story ideas arrive in full bloom. As mentioned in my August 1st post, “Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas,” any number of things can trigger an idea, and thereby plant the seed that may or may not grow to fruition. Sometimes the story is an idea beat to death (zombies, anyone?) or not worthy to pursue in the first place. As writer and creator, it is up to you to deem a project’s validity—therein the dilemma.

Is the idea unique enough to develop?

Prior to spending a year or more on a novel, a writer needs to feel compelled to tell the tale, and be willing to put in the necessary time and effort to complete such an extended project. The idea better excite you. The characters need to entice and intrigue you. For me, mystery draws me forward; I need to be surprised once in a while, and when I am, it’s pretty certain the reader will be also.

So, how do you know when an idea has what it takes to be viable? There have been times I have discounted an initial idea, only to have it keep reappearing, each time with either a new direction or perspective I cannot ignore. Let it happen; make notes. You never know where your subconscious might travel.

I have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating until ingrained: it is imperative to not let any of the possible ideas fade, and they will if you do not write them down when they appear. There have been times, much to my chagrin, when an idea “pops” into my mind (whether a word, sentence, or scene) and I do not have paper or pen. By the time I gather the tools of my trade, the idea is lost or watered down so that I have a poor reflection of the original. My heart sinks; never again will the idea appear in its purest form. Still, I write down what I have; an under-nourished seed perhaps, but a burgeoning idea nonetheless.

In addition to being excited and having a special affinity with the characters, you need to ask yourself a few questions: how is the story unique from other similar writings? What events and plot twists will make yours stand out in the crowded field of stories that cross the desk of an agent or editor? How is the character—characters are the foundation of all stories—multi-faceted and how does his/her flaws work against reaching the goals you set forth? Is the resolution believable and natural within the confines of the character(s) and plot? Again, we come to the three C’s of any story or novel:


Because of the answers to these and other questions, a writer will know when he must write the story, deep in those private places where he converses with himself, that place where delusion is not an option, where emotions are flayed like from a butcher’s chosen blade. Tough questions, tougher answers.

Trust your instincts and you will know when that seed will grow to sapling, stronger still into a full-fledged tree, and then you will realize the fruit of your labors.

See You on the Next Page,


Important Note: Once again, the University of Iowa is offering their FREE online “How Writers Write Fiction” course. I participated last year, and will again; I learned a great deal about the processes of writing from fellow students . . . nearly a 1,000 from around the world, as I recall. Here is the invite I received and the link. There is no grading, no requirements; only honest feedback from other writers at various levels of skill. Recommended.

Greetings from the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program!

Fall is in the air here in Iowa City, and we are delighted to invite you to join our new MOOC, How Writers Write Fiction 2015! Opening on September 24 and closing on November 24, 2015, this online course offers an interactive progression through the principles and practice of writing fiction. The course is open to everyone in the world, free of charge, and we’re excited to be teaching it on NovoEd, an online platform designed for interactive and creative community learning. Join us!

Learn more and sign up here

This Week’s Writing Quote:

“There are thousands of thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up the pen and writes.” William Makepeace Thackeray


Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas?


A question that arises when a non-writer meets a writer: where do you get your ideas? I have been asked this question many times, and like most writers, I shrug and admit I do not really know. That is not entirely true; it’s just that the way ideas formulate is many-faceted and can take several forms. To pigeon-hole the exact process can be difficult.

Often, a kernel of an idea will strike from an unknown origin, usually raw without much else to go with it. When I wrote the story, The Accomplice (published in Women’s World in their mini-mystery section), the seed was simply, “a double-cross.” Soon after, I developed the main character, Deke, a petty thief who is hired by an antiquities trader to “steal” a valuable chalice and collect the insurance money. That is all I had when I sat down to write the story.

Once seizing on an idea for The Accomplice, I played the What If game; what if Deke sees a double-cross coming—how would he prevent it? I knew Deke was the protagonist from the outset, which gave me half of the puzzle, leaving only the identify of the antagonist. That was simple, the collector.

Having my lead and his adversary in place, now came the questions of setting, plot, and the other workings of the story. But here, I am talking about getting ideas, not explaining how the story developed—that will come in a later post. (You can read the published story here.)

What is important is the What If game: what if Roxanne’s ill-fated marriage to Franklin ends in a murder right after (or during) the ceremony? What if Franklin is killed in a gangland style assassination? What if Franklin, a CPA, had connections and clients Roxanne knew nothing about despite being his secretary? What if . . . . ? You see what I mean; asking What If starts the mind working on possibilities, ideas that may become the kernel for a story, but maybe not. Write the ideas down anyway, because even if the original thought does not develop into a story as planned, it may prove useful in a completely disconnected way, perhaps a subordinate plot twist in another story not yet conceived.

I have dozens—if not hundreds—of snippets, and every once in a while I look them over with fresh eyes. On more than one occasion, I have used these notes to strengthen and add depth to an entirely different story.

Back to how a writer gets ideas. Sometimes a potential title flickers through my mind, a character’s name or trait, or just a concept. The idea for my fantasy novel, The Returning, began with an answer to What If an immortal, plagued by endless lives without purpose, grew weary of the lives he is forced to endure? (I had already made the assumption that rather than living in one body for endless generations, my character returned to a new body at the death of the current person he possessed.) From there ideas swept upon me, each adding depth and prospect to the initial idea of an immortal yearning to be dead.

A current story I am developing started with a character’s name, Whimsy Woo, and from there came the title, The Untold Story of Whimsy Woo.

The idea for an undeveloped story started with a title: Turmoil in Paradise.

These are examples of how ideas come to me, but only a short list. Sometimes ideas have to be (or simply are) prompted by the world around us. Newspapers, magazines, internet posts and even books can germinate an idea into a story. A couple years ago, I read of a grandma who was a master jewel thief. What made the story unique is that she would dress in fine clothes, wear exquisite jewelry (that which she had previously stolen) and shop at busy stores where she asked to see certain pieces; distracting the clerks, she would then slip an expensive piece in her sequined handbag, politely thank the clerk, and leave the store without making a purchase. She did this over a hundred times, if memory serves. The What if to this particular scenario sparks an avalanche of story ideas.

Ideas avail themselves at awkward times and places, so be sure you have a pen and notebook with you at all times. Ideas have come to me in the shower, while shopping, interacting with others (or just people-watching), and a host of other times, many of them inconvenient. Be ready for those sparks, and a funny thing happens—the sparks become more frequent, clearer and ready to add to other pieces of the puzzle that is your growing story.

Now that ideas are popping up, go write them down, massage them, nestle with them beneath a shady oak, and walk the path that is your character’s journey.

A Note: Next week’s blog, The Writer’s Three Hats — A Review will be posted on Wednesday rather than Saturday because my daughter is getting married over the weekend.

Now, go write.


This Week’s Quote:
“Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable.” Francis Bacon