Choosing What to Write Next

— January 05, 2011 (10 comments)
Usually, the way I choose the next story -- assuming I have more than one idea -- is just to write the one I like the most. But after two failed query rounds, and my hopes resting all too precariously on an upcoming third, I'm taking more care with what I invest my writing time in. In my friend Ricardo's words, I'm leveling up.

I have two criteria now for what I write next:
  1. It has to be something people want to read.
  2. It has to be something I want to write.
Not that I (or anyone, really) knows what the public wants. Mostly the first criteria helps me look critically at my concepts. Is it a strong premise I can explain in a sentence? Has it been done before? If it has, do I have a unique enough twist on it to keep it interesting? (Or was it done so obscurely that I can do it again without anyone noticing?)

The second criteria is more about theme. Usually I just jump into a story because I think the plot or the world is cool; only when I get to the end do I realize the story's supposed to mean something too. I've been a Professional Aspiring Writer* long enough to know that I'll enjoy most any speculative premise, but I can't be passionate about every theme.

So now I'm thinking not just what are the themes of my story ideas, but what themes am I interested in writing? Like I had this idea of a kid born perfect in a Gattaca-style world where people are obsessed with genetic perfection, but he resents the pressure and attention people put on him. I like the idea a lot, and the theme of trying to be yourself is common enough I think I could write it. But the idea of writing a popular kid, when popularity is something I've never really "struggled" with, makes me wonder if it's really my story to tell. Especially when I've got other characters in my head whose struggles I have shared.

That doesn't mean I won't write it (I really like the idea), but it's one of the negative points I'm going to weigh when I decide what to write next. Although maybe I should finish these current projects first...

What about you? How do you decide what to write next?

* Feel free to borrow that term.

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  1. This is an endlessly fascinating topic to me. First, I think writers absolutely should stretch to write characters they are not familiar with, but you are right that can be difficult.

    Second, I have newly minted ideas about this based on my reading of Robert McKee's Story.

    He talks about the idea of pitching a screenplay before actually drafting it. First, he says to spend more than half the time you would spend on the full screenplay developing what is essentially a rigorous outline. Then sitting down for 10 min to pitch the idea, including plot twists and ending, to several people to gauge their reaction. Only if you have satisfactory feedback on the story do you sit down to draft the screenplay.

    For novels, I translated this to mean: spend several months on developing your story via outlining. Then write a 5 page synopsis and send it to people to see what they thought. Based on that feedback, tweak the story. Then sit down to draft it.

    I could not possibly have considered this for the first three novels I wrote, but now I think I could pull off a process like that - and I think I'll give it a go for this next Shiny New Idea. :)

  2. I do try to consider what will sell, but I can't write something that doesn't enthuse me. Or I should say I won't stick to it.

    My humble opinion (and perhaps arrogance) is that if you write it well, someone will buy it. I know it's not really true, that a lot of great novels are passed on and mediochre ones sell and are even best sellers; but that's how I think the world should work and Ioperate on that principal, lol.

  3. Well first of all I've only ever written one novel, and I'm not sure that any other novel worthy ideas will ever come to me, but I really connect with and agree with your point about themes.

    My own story has an underlying theme about the environment and if it wasn't something I cared about, I can easily see how all the months and years of revision and trying to find an agent and such would become too much for me too handle. And it's not as if that theme is enough to be the only thing that matters to me about the story, but it helps, as you say, to be passionate about it.

  4. I work on the story I'm most excited to get out on paper, but reasons for excitement vary. I also cheat and work on more than one sometimes. In the short run, this slows me down, but I'm hoping it'll be a good thing in the long run.

  5. I tend to fall in line with Writtenwyrdd in that I like to believe anything can be done well, and that if you write a darned good book, it will find an audience.

    That said, you're right to consider whether other people will read something. It's part of the process of figuring out how to write something that wouldn't normally resonate with others--but which you intend to make resonate with them.

  6. Hey Adam. I hope your third round kicks ass!

    Re: what to write next, I just write what I'm most on fire about and assume that if I'm super-excited about it and if I write it well enough, someone else will will enjoy it too.

    That "well enough" part is tricky part.

    Susan: I found something similar to be true. When I was working on my novel, Jack of Hearts, it was only afterwards, when I tried to write a synopsis, that I *really* felt I learned what the story was. Completing the synopsis caused me to go back and revise the novel heavily.

    Not sure if I would ever synopsize (is that a word?) first because I like to explore around, but, either way, it's a valuable analytical tool.

  7. Wow, it's like I wrote this. (Don't worry, I'm not stealing it). It's just amazing to me how the journey goes for different people-- and yet sometimes how similar it can be.

    The first MS that I queried (also my very first completed novel) was a book that I wanted to write for me. The second MS was a book that wanted to be written. The third is a book that wants to be read (hopefully). Here's hoping, for both of our sakes, that the third time really is the charm!

  8. Carpe Editio, LT. ¡Viva la revoluciĆ³n!

    I think writing what you want to read, and writing a good book (regardless of theme/idea), are excellent criteria for choosing what to write next. Especially since we can't really know what others want to read, writing what we like is a good stopgap :-)

  9. Yes, I like the idea of writing what you want to read. It helps fuel the passion brought about by the original idea. I'm trying to write a story right now that has great potential except that I feel little to no passion for it. :( I suspect, should I find an idea that really pops my cork, I'll be off this project. ;/ In my own defense, I've written a large portion of the book while caring very little. LOL

  10. I feel the same way about the popular kid thing. I think it's a really interesting premise--it's been done, but not as much as the downtrodden loser.

    Then again, it takes a lot for a book about someone struggling with popularity to not irritate me...