My question today is – “How do we choose what we write next?” And I really, really want to know.
When on panels or at events, I have been asked, “How do you decide what book you should write?” I have not so facetiously answered: “I write the book that someone writes me a check for.”
That’s maybe a screenwriter thing to say, and I don’t mean that in a good way, but it’s true, isn’t it?
Anything that you aren’t getting a check for you’re going to have to scramble to write, steal time for – it’s just harder. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, or that it doesn’t produce great work, but it’s harder.
As a professional writer, you’re also constricted to a certain degree by your genre, and even more so by your brand. St. Martin’s isn’t going to pay me for my next book if I turn in a chick lit story, or a flat-out gruesome horrorfest, or probably a spy story, either. My agent wouldn’t be too thrilled about it, either. Once you’ve published you are a certain commodity.
You’re even more restricted if you are writing a series – a kind of restriction I haven’t wanted to take on, myself. You have a certain amount of freedom about your situation and plot but – you’re going to have to write the same characters, and if your characters live in a certain place, you’re also constricted by place, so I’m really interested in hearing our series authors talk about how THEY decide on the next story they write.
I don’t let a lot of time go by between when I turn in a project and start the next one.
Part of this is mental illness. I know that. My SO sighs and shakes his head. Perhaps one of these days he’ll leave me over it; it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
And maybe I would be a better writer if I took more time to decide. actually. It’s an interesting question.
But I need to know what I’m working on. For me it’s better than Xanax. I’m not a very pleasant person when I’m floundering in the gaps between projects.
It’s a huge commitment, to decide on a book to write. That’s a minimum of six months of your life just getting it written, not even factoring in revisions and promotion. You live in that world for a long, long time.
But how does that decision process happen?
If you’ve been working at writing for a while you have a lot of stories swirling around in your head at any given moment, and even more in that story warehouse in the back of your mind – some much more baked than others. But I find it’s not necessarily the most complete idea that draws you.
Sometimes, maybe often, you need to do something different from what you’ve just done. THE HARROWING was about college students so I wanted to do something more adult. THE PRICE turned out to be maybe TOO adult – it was a very emotionally grueling book to write for me; I had to go to even darker places than usual, so instead of going on to write another book that I had completely outlined already, but was equally dark, I jumped in to a story that I only had the vaguest premise line for. THE UNSEEN has turned out to be much more of a romp than my previous two books, insomuch as a supernatural thriller can be a romp. It’s lighter, more romantic, and more overtly sexual than the other two (that last really was because when I stayed in the haunted estate that I used for the haunted estate in the book, there was a distinctly sexual imprint on the house, and it influenced the story. I had nothing to do with it. Really.)
For my new book, I knew I wanted to do something around water, because bluntly, I want to spend more time at the ocean this year, and research is one of the job perks. You take them where you can.
But again, once I’d turned in THE UNSEEN, the ocean story that I had been working on for a while already was not the one that pulled at me. I wanted to do the beach desperately, but I wasn’t feeling excited about that story, and it finally occurred to me that it was about a character who was very isolated, and a lot of the book would be about what was going on in her head, and I was just balking at the idea of having to write that. I really wanted to do something structurally more like THE HARROWING, more of an ensemble piece, with a lot of dialogue and one-upmanship among the characters. And suddenly it hit me that I did have a story idea about a group of people that also had a lot to do with the beach and the water, which I won’t say much about because I just don’t talk about it at this early stage. But I started piecing that one together and it just started to fly – the kind of can’t-write-fast-enough-to-get-the-ideas-down writing that we all live for.
And that brings me sort of to my point.
The way I really know what to write is when the entire world around me is giving me clues. Like when I keep getting into random conversations with strangers that turn out to be exactly what my book is about. Like when I am writing a scene about rum on the plane and I walk off the plane and the first thing I see on the causeway is a rum bar (I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a rum bar). Like when I meet a person on the street or see someone on television and realize THAT’S one of my main characters that I had been struggling to define.
In other words, it doesn’t feel like working – I’m in the flow. When you’re in the flow, your book comes alive around you and all you have to do is write it down. It’s being in love – an altered state in which everything feels ecstatic and RIGHT.
And you can feel the whole shape of the book in your head – it’s almost like being able to pick the story up in your hands and heft it and say – “Yeah, everything’s there. I can do this one.”
That may not make any sense, but it’s a really palpable feeling for me, physical, visceral. And such a relief to finally get there, I can’t even tell you.
So how do YOU know?
Brett, Naomi and I will be among the hundreds of authors speaking and signing at the West Hollywood Book Fair tomorrow, Sunday, in West Hollywood Park. If you’re in the LA area, hope you can come by!
ETA: Devastated to report that Paul Newman has died.