If you want to write a book, how do you know if your idea is worth pursuing?
Living a writing life is all about wearing two hats; the creative, and the businessperson. The process that Jeff outlines in this post can help authors to find focus for their writing ideas.
When I first started writing, I had no idea what I should be writing. I loved Stephen King and C.S. Lewis. At night I spent time reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Grisham. I wanted to write, but I couldn’t decide which of my passions to pursue. When I took my conundrum to other writers they told me to, “Look at what's working in the market.”
“But which market,” I would say in agony.
To solve my struggle, I turned to a tool from my day job. Before I began writing seriously, I helped organizations develop strategic plans for growth. A tool I loved to use with struggling organizations was Jim Collins’ Hedgehog Concept.
Collins outlines the Hedgehog Concept in his classic book, Good to Great. The concept is a tool that empowers organizations to make good decisions. It helps organizations know what they should be doing and what opportunities they should be saying “no” to. The name comes from the ancient fable that while a fox has a bag of a thousand tricks, a hedgehog knows one big thing – roll into a ball, but this one thing wins the battle between the two animals every time.
Your hedgehog concept is found at the intersection of three circles.
1. In the first circle, we need to answer the question, “What are you passionate about?”
We can write anything for a month, but if we are going to sustain a career in this industry we need to be creating things we enjoy writing. When I enjoy what I’m writing, I’m more productive over longer periods of time. For me, I love telling stories that challenge how a reader sees the world. If I can tell a story that makes a reader stop and think, then I feel like I’ve won.
2. In the second circle, we should answer the question, “What fuels my economic engine?”
When I started writing, I had no idea what to put in the second circle. To figure it out, I published a collection of short stories. I included in the collection every type of short story I could figure out how to write. The collection included some memoir, some fantasy, some romance, some science fiction, some horror, even some poetry. In the back of the book, I put a link to a survey in which I asked my readers, “Which type of story would you like to for me to write more of?”
I was certain my readers were going to pick my nonfiction-memoir based short stories because that’s where my focus had been. I was surprised to learn that, while I love telling stories about my life because I find my experiences endlessly fascinating, no one else wanted to read them. My wife didn’t even vote for my memoir focused short stories. I was shocked to hear my readers say they wanted more horror and fantasy from me. So I wrote the words “horror” and “fantasy” in the second circle.
3. In the third circle, we should answer the question, “What can I be the best in the world at?”
This was a tough one for me because, like most writers I’m plagued by self-doubt. My natural response to this question is an Eeyore sounding, “I’m not good at anything.”
I found this was also the common response from the organizations I worked with. I think the idea of being “the best” at something is intimidating because the higher we set our goals the more potential there is for failure. To overcome this fear I did the same thing I used to tell organizations to do. I got real specific about what I was I good at. Being the best in the world at playing basketball is a giant and potentially impossible goal. Being the best in the world at shooting a basketball from the free-throw line is obtainable.
When I narrowed my focus I realized I had unique life experiences that could inform my writing in a way other writers couldn’t easily duplicate. Working for nonprofits in Baltimore for fifteen years gave me a deep understanding of Baltimore’s culture. Attending a public school in the inner city where I was a minority gave me a unique insight into social classes and how they interact. My work with the homeless and addicted populations of Baltimore provided me with authentic experiences that could inform my setting. Writing from this perspective is something I could potentially be the best in the world at, so I wrote that in my third circle.
When I start working on a story, I ask if it is going to fit in the intersection of my three circles. If it does, I know I'm writing a piece that my readers are going to enjoy and that I am going to be energized by. When I’m struggling to find an idea to write about, I just review my circles and let my brainstorming begin at the intersection.
In the end, there’s nothing magic about Collins' Hedgehog Concept. It’s simply a tool that increases self-understanding and confidence by helping us focus our creativity. If what you’ve been writing isn’t working, it might be that you aren’t hitting one of the three circles. I recommend you give the exercise a try.
Take some time and journal answers to the three questions. You might be surprised what you discover about your writing.
Have you tried this technique, or do you have any questions? Please leave a comment below and join the conversation.
Jeff Elkins is an author living with his wife and five kids in Baltimore, Maryland in the United States. To read more of his work, check out his website VagrantMisunderstandings.com. His newest urban fantasy novel, Mencken and the Monsters, is on Amazon, Kobo, and anywhere else you might want to buy a book.
How do you choose the ideas for your books? Have you ever used a process like the one Jeff outlines here? Please share your favorite strategies in the comments!