Ideas: Selecting and Refining

Ideas: Selecting and Refining

Welcome back, loyal listeners! We apologize for the delay in getting this audio cast up for you, and hope you’ll forgive us. This week, we talk about selecting and refining your ideas. As always, you may listen and watch below. Don’t forget to hit the “like” button and leave us a rating on iTunes!


Ask the Author: What are some things that separate an amateur tale from a captivating story people love? Jacob Sorensen 

Aaron: For me, it’s an issue of how much the author trusts the reader. Amateur writing relies more on gimmicks and cliches and tends to over-explain things that should be handled more with subtlety. It tends to gravitate more toward sensationalism than subtlety. Once a professional trusts their own writing, they’re more comfortable cutting and trimming things that are unnecessary or cliche. I also look for something that starts strong and ends strong, and understands the ebb and flow of the story. Great storytellers get out of the way of the story. 

Al: Clarity over clutter; a writer who loves the story more than the fame it might bring; characters I can connect to and who continue to haunt me long after I’ve finished the book. Great books somehow transcend normal existence and carries the reader along for the journey. 

MJ: My first reaction to this question is professional presentation. Everyone can tell a story. We recount our daily events for family and friends, yet when it comes to writing stories, there’s sometimes a coherency that’s missing. As an editor, I naturally pick apart stories. It’s the great writings with no punctuation errors or stylistic challenges, the ones where I forget I’m an editor, that are the great stories.

Selecting and Refining your ideas:

So you’ve done some brainstorming, and you’ve got a ton of ideas in your idea bank. Now, how do you choose which one to write?

First questions: Which ones are novels? Which are short stories?

  • Approximately how many pages will it take you to tell this story? Do you have several plot lines to weave together? If so, you’re looking at a novel. Do you have one central conflict, then it may be a short story.
    • Example: A husband and wife reconciling–short story
    • Example: A family rebuilding after a child has been abducted for a number of years–because this has more plot lines (what happened to the child, how he adjusts, how the rest of the family adjusts, etc.), this is more likely a novel Remember Me Like This
  • How many characters do you anticipate having? Remember, each character you add will add a number of pages.
  • Each conflict (plot line) you add increases the size of the product.
  • Each character you add does the same.
  • You may need to cut characters or conflicts (or conversely, add) if you’re in the great in-between. (Aaron: My first novel started as a short story. My second novel is a collection of short stories woven together with a single over-arching narrative).
  • How many settings will you have? The more settings you have, the more you’ll have to write to establish each.

Which ideas are viable? Which need more work?

  • Is the story complete in your mind? Do you need to do more brainstorming?
  • Will the story have an audience? If so, how will the story conform to audience expectations? In which way will it challenge them?
  • Which one are you most passionate about? Try writing a few pages of each and see where they go.
  • The Percolation Process. Ideas seldom arrive already written. A good idea is a seductress drawing the writer into her world. Most ideas need to marinate in the mind. You might, as Al has done on occasion, see the big building blocks of the tale, but the heart of the story is found in the details. This doesn’t mean you have to have to know all the twists and turns before you write.
  • Does the idea get you in the gut? If not, then you might have come up with a great idea for someone else to write. Your project should be personal to you. Writing is an act of endurance and if your story doesn’t haunt you, then you’ll grow weary of it by the second act.
  • Remember that choosing idea #4 doesn’t mean ideas 1-3 are second rate. It just may not be their time. I’ve written books years after the original idea came to me. Some ideas need aging. Keep that list of ideas at hand.
  • What moves you about the idea? The characters or the plot? Neither is better than the other, but it’s good to know how the story connects to you because that is how it will connect to readers.
  • The Visual Clue. Which idea do you SEE? The best writers write for visual effect. Readers see the action. Can you “see” the story?
  • Does your story hit on all human cylinders? People have four parts: mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical. Will your tale tickle all of those areas?
  • Does one question lead to another in your mind? (Al: I have an image in my mind, a short scene, and it has filled me with questions). Ex. I was teaching at a college in Indiana on writing the suspense novel and I had the students work on this one one idea: You’re an attendant in a commuter plane. The plan goes down and from your seat you can see the passengers. All are terrified but one who continues to read his magazine. The aircraft crashes only you survive, severely injured and burned. After months in the hospital you recognize a man–the man who had been reading on the plane–and he looks the same. What questions come to mind?
  • The Practical Factor. Which of your ideas is salable? Unless you’re writing for yourself, then you need a way to get the story out there. That’s where publishers come in.

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