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How do I Know If My Idea is Any Good?

You never know when you’ll bump into a great idea.

For instance, I had a conversation with a young mom I met for the first time at a roller rink. In the din of hundreds of wheels spinning on the ancient wood floor, she overheard me gushing about my favorite true crime podcasts with my friend. She asked us about what made criminals so interesting.

“Well, their childhoods, for one thing,” I told her. “You know, like how a lot of serial killers tend to have similar backgrounds - a strong connection to or hate for their mothers, head injuries at a young age, bedwetting…”

I trailed off because, at this point, the young mom had gone completely pale.

“Oh my God,” she whispered. “My kids are gonna grow up to be murderers.”

The moment struck me as hilarious. I broke out laughing while thinking to myself, ohmygodI’mahorriblepersonwhatiswrongwithmeandwhycan’tIstoplaughing????

I love those moments of tension between terror and comedy. They make for great jokes and stories. My conversation at the roller rink got me thinking - could a story about a mother convinced her child is the next infamous serial killer be hilariously funny?

Future criminal? Photo by Amireza MirHosseini on Unsplash

Ideas like this make me take a step back and wonder if this idea works for anyone besides me. I laugh when I imagine a toddler reaching for the kitchen knives, but would anyone else?

At moments like this, I turn to the brainstorming section of my outline. It helps me work out the dark, nebulous sections of my idea and dig out the more defined characters and plot lines. It means plunging into my idea despite any misgivings, but I find this is an essential first step in writing any book.

Here’s how to do it:

Grab your outline, (I like to print mine out but you can do it digitally if you prefer) and get ready to write in that top section on page one. Set a timer or start a two to a three-minute song that you know will keep you focused. Then, hit start or play and start your first sentence with “I already know…”

When you start with what you know, the process flows much faster. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or punctuation, just get your idea out onto the paper until it reveals itself to you.

If you’re truly uncertain about the details, you can start with the genre. “I already know this is a romance, there are three people involved, and one of them doesn’t speak English…” You can zoom in as you go.

Don’t stop writing until your timer goes off or your music stops. If you have more to say, keep going on the back of the page or extend that first section as long as you need. You may find this gets a bit fevered - the act of releasing an idea is a messy business, but one full of love and excitement. Let it out.

You’ll write all kinds of things - something someone wears, a time period, a line of dialogue, the event that inspired your masterpiece. Whatever comes up, write it down. Great ideas like to hide behind mediocre thoughts, so get the mess out of the way and hunt for those nuggets of gold.

After you finish, take a break. Put your pencil down, close your laptop, and go for a beverage or a walk. If you can, take a break from your outline for the rest of the day. Tuck it away in a drawer or flip it upside down so you can’t see the words.

Then, go back to it

After your break, return to that mess of an idea and read through your notes. Notice any detail or moment that gets you excited - a character name, a note about the setting, anything. Put a star next to it and move on to the next thing. What else jumps up and insists you pay attention?

If something feels unimportant on your second look, cross it out. Anything that already seems boring or secondary definitely won’t hold a reader’s attention in the text, so best to let it wander off.

After you get to the end, look at what you have. Now you have a starting point and you know what feels exciting. That excitement will show in your text and keep your readers hooked, which every writer wants.

Use that first section as your starter notes and as a reminder of one important thing - your idea is exciting!

Here’s mine

I already know this is a story about a new, young mom. She lives in the suburbs and works at home. I know her baby is quiet and likes to sit still for long periods of time. The baby is a boy. The mom is married but her husband is a secondary character in the story - the mom and baby are in the spotlight. She consumes a lot of true crime media - podcasts, shows, Texas Monthly. She loves to hear about different trials and criminals from real life. The book asks the question of what we imagine people are versus their true nature. Is this baby truly dangerous or is his mother seeing him through a specific lens? How can a parent know if her child is dangerous? More importantly, what can she do?

An added bonus

When you take the time to explore your idea, you may find it gets boring after a few minutes. No problem! Now you don’t have to spend hours writing it. You can put it in your slush file and move on to a new, better idea.

I work with a lot of writers who get stuck on one story and appear terrified to let their initial idea go. Don’t fall into that trap. Behind that first idea, you have three more ready to emerge.

Get your idea out and see what happens. You’ll either have a start to your first novel or move on to something better and brighter.

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