If you're any kind of writing perfectionist, someone's helpfully chimed "You can't fix what's not on the paper." I might even be the one who said it.
And it's true: You can't fix prose that's not on the page.
But if your story idea is going in completely the wrong direction, wouldn't it be nice to figure that out before you spend those weeks writing it?
I had a similar problem when I was trying to start writing A Fistful of Earth. (Yes, that one's given me about every type of trouble you can imagine.) I couldn't figure out why it felt like such a mass of… mush, when I thought about it.
So I tried the method of writing the blurb before I wrote the story, which worked. A Fistful of Earth has 3 major events going on, and I had to figure out which one the story was really about: the political problems, the family problems, or the love story.
Yes, it's still all 3, but writing the blurb helped me untangle which were the actual story and which were only what the narrator thought was going on. (That comment will make sense once the book comes out. Or at least it should.)
Now, no two writers are exactly alike. But sometimes, everyone can benefit from a little story analysis before they sit down to write that story. The question is, what are your particular strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and what methods work for checking your weak spots?
So. What techniques can a writer use to make sure a story's ready to be written? (Note: when I say "outline," I'm referring to all types of outlines: sentence outlines, topical outlines, numbered outlines, bullet outlines, cork board plans, note card plans, etc.)
- The gut check: Does the story excite you? No? That's a major problem sign, right there, even if the problem is that you fear you'll screw up that idea.
- The elevator pitch: Figure out the "elevator pitch" for your story or book: one sentence that sums it up. Jami Gold really has the definitive post compiling all possible pitch sentence types, as of February 2012. (Specifying because you never know when someone will top it.)
- The cover blurb: Write for your story or non-fiction piece. Pitches are short, probably 2–3 paragraphs long, and capture the primary conflict of the story or the primary focus and intention of the piece. (This can also be what goes in the query letter.)
- The structural outline: Take a basic outline of the points involved in 3-act structure (or however many "acts" you want to use) and make sure your story fits the structure before you start writing it.
- The rough outline: Outline down your goals for the story, which may involve the plot, characters, situations, themes, etc. Make sure they match up. If your theme is that some sins can't be forgiven, making your MC a devout Christian who's theologically required to forgive his enemies may not work—or it might, depending on other details involved.
- The detailed outline: Organize your entire story before you write it, breaking it down as far as you want, making sure that each chapter or scene (or however far you've broken it down) naturally leads into the next one.
- The idea tests: Jot down all your ideas for scenes, etc., to have in the story, even the contradictory ones. Arrange the ones that fit best for the story you want to tell, fill in the gaps, and put the ditched ones aside in case you need them later. (This one seems like it would be easiest with note cards.)
- The research test: Research your idea, whether that means conducting the data research or researching comparable stories (or books). The author's goals will determine if a lack or a surplus of results is better. (For example, if 4,747 people already wrote books comparable to what the author has in mind, she might be pleased at the evidence of a market, or displeased that it's such a well-tapped niche.)
That's all the pre-evaluation methods I'm familiar with, just now, but then again, I only started doing this recently.
Have you ever evaluated something you were to write before you sat down and wrote it? (School papers count.) What method(s) did you use? What worked for you? Do you have any not-listed methods to share?