That element is this: although the initial idea arises as something positive--the type of story I very much want to read--the development of that initial idea is governed at least as much by negatives--the kinds of things I want to avoid in telling the story.
For instance, the current project is another period piece somewhat like Death Wave, but a more fantastic, science-fictional story with greater scope and maybe a Cthulhu-style horror tinge to it as well. And as I was developing the idea, I became intrigued by the idea of setting it in Tulsa.
But from there on, I started defining it by negatives: I don't want it to be the typical story set in the city where the author lives just cause the author wants to tell everybody how awesome his home town is, so I'm thinking of making Tulsa alien and strange and downright scary. I don't want the book to follow the basic Cthulhu storyline, with doomed hero fighting a losing struggle against an immensely powerful entity that cannot be defeated, only delayed for a time. I don't want the villain to be the basic stock villain everybody uses: a greedy wealthy industrialist, for example, or a secret government conspiracy plotting to destroy freedom for the greater good, or God help me, Nazis.
A certain part of me wants to think that every writer does this--defines the story before writing it as this, but not that, circumscribes it, places limits on it, assigns it a certain format like a sonnet or a haiku--but I either take it to an extreme or else do it poorly, because I find myself writing things that I like but have no confidence in. In my quest to avoid cliche, I also manage to avoid audience identification, leaving my story filled with characters and events which are unlovable and unbelievable, but are at least not cliches, thank God.
I want to think I'm getting better at this. At least, I hope I am, because I really need for this next book to be The One, if you know what I mean. I think I've got the technical ability. Now I've just got to hit on The Story and The Character that will click with agent, editor and audience. No easy feat, and as the years press down on me, I find myself believing less and less that I will ever manage it.
But I keep trying, thinking every time, "This is The One." I hope I'm right this time, but there's a lot of words between me and that goal.