Finding the optimal format for a project and for myself

I’ve got a new idea for a story.

This isn’t unusual. This isn’t unusual for this year or this month or even this week. I get new ideas for stories all the time. Writers of all stripes will tell you they’re in the same boat: Too many ideas with nowhere near enough time to use all of them.

The difference here is that — and many creative types will also be familiar with this key aspect — this idea is sticking around.

That can’t be overstated. Especially for me, with my terrible memory, when a single idea sticks with me for a while and rises above the constant images and notions always bouncing around in my head and endlessly distracting me (all too often, away from what else I’m working on), it’s something worth paying attention to.

Further still, the idea stood up to a few stress tests of more scrutiny. There’s limitless ideas for settings and characters and situations, and for me the vast bulk of those are just standalone concepts: A character I don’t have a world to use her in (yet). A cool world concept with no usable characters to populate it with (yet). A scenario or set-up that doesn’t have a world or characters it can operate among (yet). But when I look at a persistent idea from various angles and I can readily add stuff to it that could maybe work — Ah, what if this character is in this kind of world? Or what if this scenario is caused by this kind of world with this kind of people in it? — there may be something there.

When I’ve gotten an idea that far and it’s still interesting enough, I’ll often then run it by a specific friend to kind of ask, Hey, is this a thing? One particular friend I’ve had since early grade school is a unique blend of high intelligence, creativity, humour, and gets me better than probably anyone else on the planet, in no small part because of that decades-long close friendship. And despite our having a lot of overlap in tastes, he can also offer a more objective take on the idea than I can. And he knows when I come to him with an idea (for a story, for a game, for anything), I’m looking for sincere feedback. I don’t want a pat on the head and to be told it’s good, as if I’m a dog who’s just brought his owner The Best Stick. I want to know if there’s actually something there to work with and what about it could maybe change to make it better. As I tell new beta readers of my stuff: I need brutal honesty about what they’re diving into, whether that’s good, bad, or ugly. He gets that and delivers exactly what I need in order to help me separate wheat from chaff at this critical stage of deciding whether or not an idea is worth pursuing.

This new, persistent and promising idea passed all those tests, and this key friend’s feedback, and it’s still standing strong.

So I’m now filling out more details of situation and character and some specific story elements, and it’s only getting better and more appealing the more I noodle on it. I’ve come to realize that as a writer I’m more a planner than a pantser (the term given to those who prefer to just jump in with basics of an idea and discover much of the detail and situation as they go, or as it were, flying by the seat of their pants). So while I’m happy to discover more as I go, I need to have at least a good idea of situation and characters and events and tent pole moments I want to hit at key points of the story before I start. And with this one, I’m getting close to having enough to go on that I’ll want to start writing it soon.


One big issue I’ve yet to take on is what format this story will be in.

Ideas often occur to me paired with what kind of format they feel best suited to. This one idea is short and complete, so probably a short story. This other one feels like it would be better served visually, so maybe a graphic novel. This one is definitely a movie and not a book. That one’s longer and more nuanced, so maybe a TV show? That kind of thing.

But that doesn’t always happen. And it hasn’t here.

And the real hurdle is that my nature tends toward not… wanting to? being able to? having been trained to?… focus on one idea for too long. Meaning, once I’ve gotten it to the point where I’m actively working on it, there’s an indeterminate countdown timer started somewhere in my mind on how long the idea will hold me and be at the forefront of my interest.

I realized way too late in life that that’s I’m pretty sure why I leaned for decades into writing short (short) stories: Little McNuggets of entertainment that you could read (and more to the point, I could write) quickly and then move on from. And I know for a fact that this countdown-to-zero interest issue of mine is why I left so much unfinished creative work in my wake. An idea would have me in its grip for a time. And then, sure as the sun rises in the morning, soon another idea comes along and it’s sometimes one engaging enough to draw me away from the one I’m actively working on. I’ve likened myself to a crow before, always distracted by the sparkle of a new idea.

And as I’ve long suspected and recently proved to myself, writing novels is exceedingly challenging for me. The amount of attention to detail and exploration and writing down all the necessary nuances isn’t how my brain (at least naturally) works on fiction. Ideas usually strike me as big picture and then it’s up to me to figure out the details and make them work. But at a certain level of finding and writing details in an engaging way, my mind goes walkabout and distracts itself with other things, too often leaving the current project for good. Because if my heart isn’t into it any more (along with my brain), I’m not going to give that project its due attention and focus. Not like I can give to this new idea.

Rinse and repeat.

I think this is also why I like writing screenplays (i.e. scripts for movies): Yes, they’re longer ideas than just short stories, but they’re by nature slim on written nuances. With screenplays, you must be very brief on details. Quick set-up of a scene location and its needed elements, then get to the dialogue (itself with little, or better still, no descriptors of how it’s said). And because screenplays can be big ideas but are lean on detail, I find them relatively appealing and fast to write. Far moreso than, say, a novel.

The problem with all of that is that a life goal for as long as I can remember is to see my work out in the world while making an even modest living from writing it.

And I do mean modest. Would I like to earn tens of millions a year doing it like Stephen King? Absolutely. Could I handle being made a literal billionaire from the popularity of something I write like JK Rowling? I’m sure I’d find a way to be okay with that. But honestly I’d quit any job I had and be over the moon if I knew I could even effectively make minimum wage by writing my own material that saw the light of day.

I should say here that I’ve never worked on an idea because it can maybe be sold. Left to its own devices, my brain works the way it works on whatever it finds most interesting today, without the least consideration for whether or not something is marketable or even worthwhile to anyone other than myself. I write stories I want to read. I write screenplays I’d like to see as movies. I work on tabletop games I’d like to play.

Could any of those be sold? Well… maybe? Hopefully? That’s not why I worked on them. But with them done as the finished projects I wanted to make, I certainly wouldn’t say no if someone offered me money to now put them out into the world.

And that’s where my preferred writing formats and the reality of maybe making money from writing my own stuff are at direct odds. And what is giving me pause on how to approach this current idea.

Short stories have their place here and there, but that’s a tiny market even in the notoriously low-income world of published writing. The overwhelming percentage of people who have published books aren’t making a living doing so. The big name writers you’ve heard of are the proverbial one percent of writers making a good living from it, of the one percent of writers who make enough money writing to live on, of the one percent of writers making anything at all from writing. There are millions of other writers you’ve never heard of, and maybe even some you have, who write for very little — or are even losing money via self-publishing — while they have a regular job to pays the bills.

So suffice to say, short stories will always be my first writing love but aren’t going to earn me much, if anything. And screenplays can earn a writer decent money, but thanks to the many gatekeepers involved in green-lighting relatively small numbers of scripts in movie production companies, those are difficult to sell.

In other words, the formats I work well in are hard to sell in industries already hard for writers to make money in.

So now that I’ve got this story idea that has real potential, I need to try to first figure out a format that will work for it and, way secondly, hope that whatever it winds up looking like — assuming it gets finished and then polished enough to shop around — will be something that can earn a couple of bucks while getting published or produced somewhere.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on how long my mind will even want to stay focused on this idea.

So much to work on, so many formats, so little time.


  1. You are sounding much like myself, with different projects. I start making a blanket, crochet, and discover a different colour of yarn that would be wonderful as a hat — then discover another project that should be finished for Christmas — then origami should be done before Christmas for a different set of recipients — then, I’ve left the dishes dirty for two days…. and so on.
    If you have your “Great Idea”, and your effective methods are established (whenever I wrote anything, it was by the seat of my pants!) , hang on, hang in, hang tough, and please yourself with the outcome. Your outcome will guarantee to please some readers!

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, as always.

      Yes, the often used advice for writers is to just write what you want to write, as personally and as well as you can, and the work will find itself genuine fans of it. If you try to force something — a style or a genre that’s outside your wheelhouse and you’re hammering at it to get it to work — readers will pick up on that and won’t be as engaged, if interested at all.

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