Sunday, July 29, 2012

Evaluating Ideas

I'm trying to decide which new novel to write, and it's a hard decision. Some writers only follow their muse -- pursuing their Shiny New Ideas wherever they go. My problem is that I can't decide which ideas are truly shiny and which are fool's gold. Which ones will fizzle out by page 50, which will languish in my trunk of broken dreams, which will sell?

I wish there were a better way to evaluate new ideas before writing a book. Lately I've watched some very talented writer friends query gorgeous novels that they'd carefully crafted over periods of years, only to meet utter thudding indifference at the query stage. If the pitch, premise, or query can't get an agent to request, the beauty of pages 11 through 400 does not matter. The novel is DOA. Yet agents and editors only consider completed novels -- the only way to get them to even consider the pitch is to write the whole dang thing.

Of course, established writers are able to test their ideas earlier, not only by running them past their agents, but by selling books on pitch or proposal. Of course, it seems a tremendous luxury to write a book that is sold, but that understates the pressure of writing a half dozen pitches before one hits with the acquisition team -- and then rushing to complete the contracted novel in six weeks.

So what should the rest of us do?

I've been thinking about a model for evaluating ideas used by Karl Ulrich, Vice Dean of Innovation at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He teaches his courses on new product development in a tournament format. At the beginning of the course, students bring in their ideas. The class votes, knocking out the weak ideas at each stage and joining teams around the strongest projects. In the end, the most promising products emerge -- a cage match, if you will.

Ulrich hopes that the tournament teaches students that deciding not to pursue an idea should be considered a success, not a failure. It saves the resources that would have been spent on a doomed idea and redirects them towards a better one.

That's the principle behind sites like Authonomy, but those sites were devised more as a slushkiller to help publishers identify good stories, not for writers to find the most successful concepts in their own idea files. The site comes too late in the development cycle to help a writer gauge the appeal of his or her own ideas, and the judging system is questionable. And who wants to put their best ideas out in the public sphere before they've even written them?

One of the main problems in vetting ideas is that nobody really knows a book will sell until it does. Not even agents know, or they wouldn't have so many unsold client manuscripts gathering digital dust. Chasing trends only works if you're fast enough to catch them. Trying for high concept is no guarantee -- one of my friends had a manuscript rejected because it was "too commercial" to sell. Say again? We are still puzzling over that one.

So how do you identify which projects to work on? Do you think about the idea you're most passionate about, or do commercial considerations come into play?


Eliza Tilton said...

I just went through this. For me, it came down to what's the better hook? Or as some agents would say you're breaking in novel. I had two ideas, and of course the one that I wanted to write first wasn't as hooky as the 2nd. I think once you're an established author you can get away with writing whatever idea you want, but for us newbies....not so much.

And so, hooky idea #2 is in the works.

Kell Andrews said...

Eliza, right now I'm thinking of working on my possibly least hooky idea -- I think it will be a good novel and tell an untold story. It's not going to be a breakthrough bestseller, but I think it could sell -- it's sort of a "library" book. I wouldn't be swinging for the fences -- I'd be going for a base hit. Arggh! Just so hard to decide which idea to choose.

Lily Cate said...

I'm in exactly the same spot right now. While I'm waiting on responses from my last batch of queries/requests, I'm stuck on what to work on next. I've got three projects in various stages from completed first draft through rough stack of notes, but which one should I focus on first?? I have no idea.

tlbodine said...

"Too commercial to sell." Oh, ffs. Sometimes this industry makes me want to bash my head against something repeatedly.

I follow the ideas that get me excited, the ones I can't get out of my head, the ones I'm passionate about and feel like need to be written.

Which is probably why my query letter never gets requests ;)

Jeanmarie Anaya said...

I try not to worry too much about the commercial aspect. I could be wrong but I feel that if the story is eating at you, begging to be told, and you're having fun writing it, then you've already hit a home run.

christine said...

I think that whenever you write, you should be responsible for what you write. Some people take it too seriously while others don't even bother reading it. I usually write about things that I like, in that way, researching more facts about it would not be a burden to me.

JeffO said...

If I have two or more ideas fighting for space in my head, I tend to write both of them--work a little on this one, a little on that one--for a few days until one of them starts to take over.

Traci Kenworth said...

This time around, I started with 2 projects until the 1 eventually eclipsed the first. I'll go back and finish the other at some point, but right now I'm on the right story and nearing the end of it.