An Idea Right to Write - Janet Raye Stevens

Welcome to March and the pre-spring edition of YA Outside the LinesThis month, we’re taking a look at how we know an idea is something we want to dive into, flesh out, research, and ultimately turn into a piece of prose. 

In other words, how do I determine if an idea is right to write?

This is a tough question, mainly because it’s hard for me to say no to an idea. I should, but in my defense, when something intriguing pops into my mind, or I read a snippet of a story from history, or hear about an interesting event or person, or have a fun and funny dream, or remember an insane thing that happened in my childhood, or a million other ors, I just want to write the story. 

Of course, that would mean I’d have 655 stories and novels cluttering up my writing file (instead of the 90 or so I have “pre-written” now).

Also, as a dedicated “pantser” (someone who works without an outline or detailed synopsis and writes “by the seat of her pants”), it’s hard to know if an idea doesn’t work much before I’ve spewed out several chapters and 10,000 or so words. After all that work, seems a shame to just jettison a perfectly good idea, eh?

Despite my penchant for diving head first into an empty swimming pool, I do have a few ways of determining if I should even begin pantsing.

First, the best way I figure out how an idea is right for me is by figuring out what is not right for me. Right off the bat, I can eliminate ideas that don’t get my creative brain zapping. A contemporary romance with a billionaire as the hero doesn’t work for me and neither does a YA about contemporary teens dealing with school, cheerleaders, and prom. 

Not that I won’t read about those worlds. Some authors do an amazing job with this type of plot. But unless that billionaire is piloting a spaceship or the teens are rah-rah-rahing for the school’s war bond drive in 1943, those ideas are not for me. Hm, on second thought, if the billionaire is a teenager organizing a 1940s theme prom at his school, maybe I could make it work.

Okay, this is a courtroom plot idea I like!
Next in the “not right for me” category are courtroom and/or prison-set plots. Pretty sure it’s my hardcore case of claustrophobia that makes me shy away from Anatomy of a MurderPresumed Innocent or Orange is the New Black type of stories. Again, some authors take these ideas and run all the way with them to the bank—and bestseller lists—but I will never be one of them.

Done with the first round of figuring out if an idea is right for me, probably the easiest part. The next steps are more complicated. Here they are in no particular order:

First, how much and what kind of research will I have to do? I’m not lazy, not by a long shot and I want to sound like I know what I’m talking about, so I research the hell out of what I write. But I have to be truly engaged to make the effort research will entail work. 

As an example, courtroom dramas—there’s a lot to research in a subject that doesn’t really get my creative fires burning.

Probably the only area of the courtroom drama oeuvre I would ever delve into is from a juror’s perspective, mainly because I have personal experience. I’ve been called for jury duty exactly twice in my life and both times ended up as one of the 12 Angry Men

Well actually, in my first courtroom experience, a 3-month grand jury, I was empaneled as one of 26 aggravated men and women (because, come on, 3 months?!!). For my second jury room go-round, a 1-day trial, I was one of 10 semi-annoyed women and men. I suppose that magic number of 12 jurors applies somewhere in America, but not in my experience.

Me, bottom left, wondering when we break for lunch
Where was I? Oh, yeah, research. To sum up, the amount and topic of research isn’t exactly an idea-killing factor, but it can put a damper on one’s enthusiasm.

The next step: does the idea inspire me to put butt in chair, hands on keyboard? I’m grappling with this right now as I am between manuscripts, trying to figure out what to write next. I have a bunch of ideas swirling around my busy brain, but nothing has stuck just yet. In the meantime, I’m noodling with a couple of short mystery stories, one set in a movie theater in 1951, the other in the New England suburbs in present day. The historical is moving along nicely, but the contemporary story has stalled and I may abandon it. Verdict: the idea may not be right for me.

Here’s a big consideration: The actual writing. Even a pantser like me has some idea of who and what they’re writing about, so I ask myself a bunch of questions before I sit with fingers poised and ready to fly--who are my characters, how can I bring them to life authentically, do I have the fire needed to make this idea shine? If the answers to these questions yield a dedicated young lawyer who visits her client in prison multiple times as she preps for the Big Trial at the story’s end, then I’ll probably settle out of court on that and move on to the next idea.

Finally, once I get all the other stuff settled, I ask myself if I have the time and energy to tackle this idea. If the answer is yes, then crank up the desktop (yes, whippersnappers, I write on a desktop, I’m an old fogie, what can I say?) and have at it.

If the answer is no, then, well, I might still give it a shot. Especially if the idea hangs on, sticking to that writing folder in my brain like a burr on a pair of sweatpants. Because, how can I say no?

Janet Raye Stevens never met an idea she didn't try to turn into a full-length novel. A 2018 RWA Golden Heart award winner, Janet writes YA, Mystery, historical paranormal (WWII), and contemporary romance. 


  1. You're right that it's good to think about which idea is right for you. I think that too many writers write stories about whatever's popular at the moment, not because it really interests them, and it shows in their work.

  2. So true! Writing to the current trend is never the best idea--by the time you're done, the publishing world has moved on to the next big thing.


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