Last time I talked about that step of deciding whether you’ve got a viable project on your hands or just an idea that still needs some work before you can turn it into something. Once you’ve made it past that step, you’re really in danger of entering the Chapel Perilous of potential idea debt. In some ways, the best thing that can happen is for you to realize that you don’t actually want to do whatever you were thinking about doing. Maybe the idea isn’t as exciting now that you’ve started to think about the work required to bring it to life. Maybe you realize you just don’t have time. Whatever the reason, after some consideration, you decide that this isn’t something you’re going to pursue. You stick your Book of Lore in some “File 13” folder just in case you change your mind later, but basically you decide that the thing isn’t getting done. You put it away and go on with your life. Congratulations! You’ve just chosen to avoid idea debt.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m terrible at admitting that I’m not going to do something, so if you’re like me you probably go with option 2: put it off. Maybe you feel like you need more time to think about how to make the idea work. Maybe you have other projects that you need to finish and know starting a new one isn’t realistic. Maybe the immediate passion for the idea has passed but you’re pretty sure it will return again. In any case, you’ve got it in your head that you’ll finish this thing one of these days. Just not now. Sometimes this works out and after leaving the project on the shelf for a while you come back to it reinvigorated and create something you love. It’s happened to me, so I know it’s possible. More often, though, you’ve just taken out a huge idea debt that will periodically distract you from more productive work without ever quite reaching the critical mass necessary to finish the thing. The longer something stays in this “someday” stage, the more likely it is to turn into bad idea debt. I’ve got loads of idea debt in this category. Some it I’ve written off, but most of it I honestly believe I’ll actually get around to doing. Just not right now. Definitely later.
If you don’t scrap the idea or put it off, the idea actually turns into A Thing I’m Working On. Many people equate A Thing I’m Working On with good idea debt that will eventually turn into a finished thing that you can share with/sell to the masses, which I’ll call a Product. While all Products go through the A Thing I’m Working On stage, not all Things I’m Working On turn into Products. Once you’ve put a certain amount of work into something, you start falling victim to the Sunk Cost Fallacy and decide that you’ve put in too much work to just throw it all away. Because of that, Things I’m Working On can become much bigger idea debts than the stuff that you decided to put off for later.
One way to estimate whether you’re dealing with A Thing I’m Working On or a Potential Product is to honestly look at how much of the Grunt Work you’re doing. Creative stuff is fun and exciting, but for something to become a product, there’s a lot of dull, tedious work that has to be done. If your plan is “I’m going to write this and then get it published,” you haven’t done any Grunt Work yet. Even if your plan is to submit it to a publisher and let someone else take care of all the boring stuff, there’s still a lot of boring stuff you’re going to have to do first. If you haven’t read the submission guidelines and dug up contact information for at least a few publishers, planned out or written up whatever kind of summary or blurb or whatever those companies want to see on first contact (most publishers don’t want unsolicited manuscripts), lined up an editor or two so you can make sure your submission isn’t riddled with errors, made plans for playtesting (if you’re writing a game), and worked out at least a rough timeline for the project, there’s a much higher chance that you’re working on A Thing I’m Working On and not a Potential Product.
If you’re planning on self-publishing, there’s an even longer list of Grunt Work to do. In addition to editing and playtesting, you’re going to need art (unless you’re an artist) and probably someone to do the layout. If you’re going to do a print version, you’re going to have to make sure your formatting is something the printer can use, decide how many books to print, and figure out where you’re going to sell them (and possibly where you’re going to store them when they’re not selling). Even if you just plan to give the thing away on a website, you’re at the very least going to have to find someone to set up the site and spend more time than you want making design decisions and writing product descriptions, company bios, and other extremely not-fun-to-write nonsense that you’re going to need. And that’s before you even start to think about the endless marketing hell that you’ll have to endure if you want people to actually see the thing.
You don’t have to do all the Grunt Work right at the beginning, but if you don’t at least have a plan for it, you’re probably working on A Thing I’m Working On that won’t ever become an Actual Product. If this isn’t your first time around and you’ve already done a lot of the Grunt Work (as is the case with Hex), you’re at least less likely to give up once you start to realize the scope of unrelated nonsense you’re going to have to do to turn the Thing I’m Working On into a Product. But even that can be a double-edged sword: having a lot of the Grunt Work already done can give you false confidence. After all, if you’ve already done all the mind-numbing stuff, most of what’s left to be done is the fun, creative stuff! Unfortunately, the fun, creative stuff rarely stays fun the whole way through. We’ll talk about that next time.