This is actually a lot simpler than most aspiring authors make it out to be. As I'd mentioned in Monday's post, ideas are a dime a dozen, and many of us have a plethora of ideas just waiting to be developed into stories. How do you know which one is worth developing? First, you must be passionate about the idea's story potential. Part of that potential includes marketability.
When I say "marketability" I don't just mean sales. I mean your audience, your future readers. You have to sell your idea to anyone who might read it, even a critique partner.
It all boils down to your one-line pitch. Why? Take a step back from your own work for a moment and review a list of others, then pick out ONE that you would read. Now ask yourself, what was it that stood out from the rest?
Well, you might say, that's all well and good for your own personal taste, but how do I know what my audience wants? This is when a registration with Publisher's Marketplace can really come in handy. Specifically, the "today's deals" email subscription. It's priceless. Every day, I receive a (confidential) email from them that lists the publishing deals made the previous day, organized into their respective categories. This is what editors are buying NOW. I focus mainly on the ones that I personally write: Women's Fic/Romance, Children's: Young Adult, and Sci-fi/Fantasy. But often times I'll read through the entire announcement, as a way of sharpening my marketing radar.
Before I go any further I have to make something very clear: gauging a story's marketability has NOTHING to do with following trends. So if you notice a bunch of YA vamp novels selling, that doesn't mean your contemp YA novel has no chance. If the idea is marketable, that's all that matters.
Which is why I'm going to use a contemp YA pitch (later) as an example. Since I write both spec fic and contemp fic, I understand that it's easy for spec fic writers to rely on their "specialness" to do the marketing for them. But this is not what I recommend. A good pitch includes a clear conflict, protag vs. antag. In spec fic, the protag and antag are usually two distinct characters at odds with each other. Focus on that, NOT solely on your unique world. When you start getting distracted by all the cool weird things you've created, you lose the necessary focus to make an effective pitch. Those things are important, but not so important that they should take center stage.
In contemp fic, you can certainly have two distinct characters at odds with each other. That is the stuff that mysteries and thrillers are made of. But what about a romance? Or a coming-of-age story? Who or what is the antag in those types of stories? This is where things tend to get vague and feel old hat, aka not worth selling. So the concept of your story has to shine in the one-line pitch.
Remember the 4 C's: Concept = Character + Clear Conflict
When you write a character-focused story, it's easy for the conflict to become muddled. A bad pitch is something like this: A middle-aged woman goes on a journey of self-discovery and learns how to rise above her problems.
So... what's that story about again? Anytime you use the phrase "such-and-such character learns..." you're in trouble. The lessons learned are important to the story, NOT the pitch. The plot--the main events--must be easily imagined, just by reading the one-liner. This is what gets us excited to read something, when we start imagining all the possibilities this concept presents.
Check out the blurb for GIRL, STOLEN by April Henry (releases in 6 days!). I could easily make a one-liner out of that by combining the first two sentences.
Sixteen year-old Cheyenne is sleeping in the back of her car while her mother fills a prescription at a pharmacy, and the car is stolen with her inside.
Without even knowing any more of the details (she is sick with pneumonia, she is blind, she is the daughter of the president of a major corporation) you can already begin to imagine the possibilities of this story concept. The character's conflict is clear, even without the details. She needs to get away from the thief and back to her mother... but will he just let her go? Not likely if she's the witness to a crime.
And there you have it--a highly marketable story without any fluff.
All of us have limited time. If you want to spend your time writing a story that people will be excited to read, gauge the marketability. Write a one-paragraph blurb about the essentials of your concept (remembering the 4 C's) and then condense that into one sentence.
Take that one-liner and test your market. To anyone and everyone. Family, friends, and especially strangers. Do this in person and pay attention to facial reactions more than their words. Some people *ahem*moms*ahem* will try to sugarcoat their response. But faces don't lie.
You'll know when you've got a winner. And you have every right to celebrate that effort, even if you haven't written a word of the story yet.