How to Tell a Good Idea From a Great One

I once heard a quote from a CEO, I forget who it was, and damn if I can find who to attribute it to on the internet. And since I can't find the exact wording, I'm going to summarize. "My job is to say no to good ideas all day every day so that I can focus on the GREAT ones." See, here's the sticky wicket of being a writer. The longer you go at this the better you become. I recently looked back at my first notebooks and saw how terrible my ideas were when I first started. And even those ideas which were good, I wasn't confident enough I could pull off those ideas adequately.

Now that's I've got a few things under my belt I see the marked improvement in my ideas, and in my execution of those ideas. I feel as though I can pretty much execute any idea that rattles through my brain. And that almost all of those ideas are marketable to some studio/production company. Which presents a problem.

If I can, as I surmise, execute any idea which pops through my head, and more often then not those ideas are marketable, and I have hundreds of new ideas a year, how do I figure out which one to concentrate on at any given time? How do you figure out which one is going to be marketable enough to sell to a broad enough market and keep food on the table?

In my opinion, this is the hardest part about being a writer. The rest of it is putting in the work to make the best product. The rest of it is skill, learned and innate. But this is the marketing piece of it. This is the luck piece of it. If you make the wrong decision here, you could write a spec that doesn't sell and waste months of your life. If you make the right decision, you could make a big deal.

Because of this I often feel pulled in 100 directions, wanting to focus my energy in ten places at once, on five projects. So how do I choose which project to move forward on? It's a combination of several things.

TALKING WITH AN AGENT/MANAGER - Their job is basically to know the marketplace and what sorts of things networks/studios are looking for. I know it's not easy to find one, but even if you have a trusted friend  in the industry they can help you kick around ideas and find something that works. I never really expect my agent to sell anything that I bring to him, but I do expect him to tell me whether he thinks the concept is saleable. And that's invaluable to me.

READ EVERY TRADE YOU CAN - Not just Variety and Hollywood Reporter but Deadline, It's on the Grid, Go into the Story, and any industry blogs that have relevant information on what's selling and whose getting attached to projects. That last bit is very helpful to determine what sorts of stars you're looking at to attach to your project, since so much of selling a script these days is packaging it with star talent.

STAGGER PROJECTS - You should do this anyway regardless if you are having this problem or not, but keep multiple projects going simultaneously in different stages of development.  One should be in pre-writing, another should be in active writing of the rough draft, and the third should be in rewriting.

WRITE A LOT - Sometimes ideas won't work. Either you decide it's not the right project for you, or something gets sold with nearly your same pitch, or you realize you hate doing paranormal romance dramas, or something about the structure doesn't click. So make sure you've got a lot of projects in your hopper, and that if something doesn't work you aren't afraid to abandon it for something that does.

BRAIN DUMP - Something that I find works for me is doing what I call a brain dump. That's when I spend about a month a year writing everything that's in my head. Whether I have an outline for it or not, no matter the genre or format, I just write. This year, I got 8 scripts done in 6 weeks. Now most of them aren't very good, but a couple of them are and I'm going to pursue them to whatever end they have.

The reason I like the brain dump is that it allows you to write crap. It allows you to write stuff you might not otherwise like, and for young writers it really helps you hone your voice and the types of characters you like. It lets you throw out stuff that didn't work because you didn't spend that much time or effort on it, so you don't have that attachment writers tend to feel about their characters. And it teaches you to be quick, which is so important in order to be a professional.

It's really, really hard to do this part. How do you go about shifting through the good ideas to find the great ones?