Before you start a novel, screenplay, or any tale at all, you should look at a number of things:
1) Do you like the basic concept?
If you aren’t excited about a novel, chances are excellent that you’ll lack the energy to finish it. Your subconscious will rebel at the idea, and you’ll just go through the motions, wishing that you were working on another project. So you have to find story ideas that thrill you. You have to write from the heart.
2) Will the story sell?
You should look at the story and ask yourself, “Is this story marketable?” If it is, how marketable is it? Seriously, you might find yourself with an idea that really sounds fun to you, but which just won’t sell in the current market. For example, back in the 1920s there were a lot of magazines that featured “Thrilling Pilot Stories.”
Maybe you decide that it’s time to start a new trend, and you write a screenplay about Ulysses Samuel Adams—a bush pilot in the Everglades who has rousing adventures that feature drug smugglers, alluring swamp goddesses, the Fountain of Youth, and a dinosaur. So you spend a month writing and polishing the story. Seriously, where are you going to sell it? This kind of story might have sold in 1910, but would almost be impossible to sell today.
The story might be fun—incredible even—but if you’re looking to make a living, it probably needs to be something that you can take to market.
So you need to understand the markets. This means that you must survey your field before you ever write a story.
Here’s how: go to your bookstore and look at the bestselling books in your field that are doing well. Look at the following things:
How long is the book?
What is the reading level of my audience
What are the standards of taste? For example, find out how much violence, profanity, sexuality, and so on is acceptable in this field.
Who published the bestselling titles in this field?
Who are the agent and editor that brought this book out?
When was it written? (If it wasn’t within the last five years, the market may have changed.)
What is the sex and age of the major protagonist?
Who are the viewpoint characters?
What are the ages and sexes of the secondary viewpoint characters?
What is the primary emotional draw for this book? (Wonder, romance, humor, horror, mystery, adventure, drama, etc.)
What are the secondary and tertiary emotional draws?
What kinds of settings do the bestsellers of this type of book have in common?
What kinds of conflicts do they have in common?
What kinds of themes do these tales explore?
What kind of tone do the bestselling authors put across?
There will of course be some variation even among bestsellers, but you will find a lot of similarities, too. For example, bestselling thrillers almost always have male protagonists. Romance novels have female protagonists, but the “fascinating male”” is what the protagonist seems to dwell on. In young adult novels, the protagonist is almost always 16, while in middle-grade novels the protagonist is normally 14.
In short, before you write anything, you need to take an adequate survey of the field.
What’s “adequate”? The agent Richard Curtis once addressed this topic, and he suggested that if you as a writer haven’t been reading in a field for 10 years just for enjoyment, you’re probably not grounded well enough in your genre to break in. The person who reads just one novel and then wants to break in with something similar is likely to be very disappointed.
So do your homework. Study your field, but have fun as you do.
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”