Over the years, I’ve seen a number of authors struggle with ideas for novels. Very often, those ideas mature into books, and sometimes they even become huge bestsellers. But how do you know if you’ve got an idea for a big book?

Last week, a young man presented an idea that would work just fine. He had a historical character that he was interested in writing about. The very idea gave him shivers. That’s important. You need to be excited enough to write the idea.

But it shouldn’t just give you shivers. You want ideas that give other people shivers, too. In other words, I ask myself, “Does this have an audience?” I want a huge audience, the bigger the better.

In this case, a few years ago Hollywood released a very popular movie that dealt with one of the characters. It made a hundred million in theaters and has played on network television. So, yes, there was an audience, I suspect, for a deeper treatment.

But the idea that others had tackled the subject matter worried him. He checked to see if someone else had written ‘his’ proposed story, and a quick Google search showed that someone had. He was disappointed and ready to move on.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Did they do a fantastic job?” Just because another writer has written a similar tale, it doesn’t mean that you can’t do it better. 

When Stephenie Meyer wrote Twilight, there had been lots of vampire books, even some vampire romances. But she went ahead and came up with a treatment for the story that excited her, and she made vampires her own.

In this case the author researched the book in question and found that the prose was amateurish. So, he decided to tackle it.

When you think you have a big idea, ask yourself these questions:

  1. “Does it give me shivers?” If so, you’ll probably feel compelled to write it.
  2. “Does it give other people shivers?” Check with a number of people, including editors and readers. If no one else is excited by the idea, it doesn’t mean that its bad, necessarily. It may just meant that they don’t see your vision for it, so you might need to compose a chapter or two and see how people respond to it, much as Stephen King did with Carrie.
  3. “Has it been done before?” If someone else tried it and did a mediocre job, then it hasn’t really been done; however, it another writer absolutely nailed it, then you’ve got a real problem. You need to do it better, lest you look like a poor imitator.

Just remember, ideas are easy to come by. Don’t get wedded to a bad one. Even if you have a great one, ideas are meant to be played with, morphed, and perfected. You don’t want to write an entire huge novel based on a maudlin idea.

Also remember, a book isn’t based on just one idea. Your goal is to come with dozens of great ideas—for characters, settings, plot twists, interesting scenes—and weave them into one magnificent story!

Legendary Tor Books editor Beth Meacham is speaking to Apex tomorrow. She has worked for Tor Books now for 40 years and has a wealth of wisdom. Join us at  Apex-writers.com!