How do you know what’s the right book?

by Alexandra Sokoloff

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.

Synchronicities.

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?

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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!

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ETA: Devastated to report that Paul Newman has died.

19 thoughts on “How do you know what’s the right book?

  1. R.J. Mangahas

    Alex, you really pose an interesting question here. How DO we choose what to write next? As I’ve written mostly shorts, I usually have a treasure chest (okay, maybe a shoe box) of stuff that I want to write.

    But since I’ve started on a novel, I haven’t had that problem yet. However, my problem now is that even though I’ve settled in to a longer work, I still have so many ideas floating around in my head that I find that I can lose focus. I somehow want to cram all those ideas into my WIP, but if I did that, my book would be WAY too long and probably be all scatterbrained. Sometimes I feel like I just can’t win. AAAARRRRRRGGGGHHH!!!!!!

    Reply
  2. billie

    Well, as you know, it makes PERFECT sense to me!

    I think the most striking single example of this for me was when I was struggling with a scene that took place at a little no-name motel off the beaten path. I was upstairs in my garret writing and stopping and writing and stopping. The phone kept ringing but I ignored it.

    When I finally got up to check, it was from a motel – one of the smaller chains, in the little town where my scene took place. I thought how odd that was, but otoh, not REALLY odd b/c of course we know these things happen all the time.

    Later that week I happened to be driving past the little no-name motel and was absolutely dumbstruck to see that it had been changed to the little chain that had called me all those times.

    The phone calls were coming from the motel I had been writing about.

    At that point I sort of wished I had answered!

    My writing partner calls this writing “live fiction.” It starts to get really eerie, but mostly it’s like tapping into the pulse of the universe. There’s nothing better.

    Reply
  3. Louise Ure

    I don’t often have those moments of epiphany and synchronicity, but I love it when I do!

    How to decide on the next book? If I can come up with one of those “what if” questions whose answer still intrigues me 48 hours later.

    Reply
  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    RJ, that’s interesting. I hear some writers say they put everything they think of into their WIP, but that would never work for me. I always have OTHER ideas that I know don’t go into my current book, so I store them for a different time.

    Billie, that is so eerie and so you! I just want your life. I think it would be heaven to be so in the flow all the time.

    Reply
  5. J.D. Rhoades

    Alex, thank you so much for this, since I am going through exactly the same decision process right now. In the end, as I tell people, I write the book that demands to be written. The one whose movie I’m seeing in my head. I’ve got one stuck in there right now, but it’s one I’m a little afraid of. I’m probably going to have to leave town after it’s published.

    Reply
  6. James T. Simpson

    Once I start writing a manuscript, whatever ideas I have for stories I jot on the back of envelopes. I usually do this late at night, while at work. By the time I finish what I am working on, the next story is demanding to be written. I feel like I barely have a choice in the matter. By then I may have a shoe box full of envelopes with characters and plot and so forth to begin setting it up. Great Post.

    Reply
  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Now that’s interesting, too – two people in a row saying “It’s the story that demands to be written.”

    I know what you’re saying although I rarely feel something so categorical myself. I can totally see how that kind of imperative would be welcome when you have so many choices all around you all the time.

    Reply
  8. Christa

    Normally I make the decision pretty much the way you describe, but in the last few months it was way harder than usual. I had three projects going at once – one crime and two horror – and couldn’t figure out which to commit to; I thought about possibilities for them equally on a daily basis, and any of them seemed like good ones to get into.

    Finally I met up with another writer who agreed to be an “accountability partner” (which I’d never needed before, but felt I did this time, because I just. Wasn’t. Committing). I decided to work on the crime story, mainly because she’s a writer of the same piece of cloth.

    And I couldn’t do it. It took me hours to get a single paragraph down. Not because I wasn’t disciplined, but because I just wasn’t feeling the love. And that scared me. I even wondered whether I was moving away from fiction. (Lots of stuff happening in my freelance career made me consider maybe it was all about the nonfiction.)

    Fortunately about two weeks into it, my husband made me sit down and watch a movie – 28 Days Later – with him. And that reminded me of all the cool things I want to do with the other two projects (part of a loose trilogy), so I sent an email to my partner to let her know. And ever since then, the fiction is back in the flow. Funny how that worked out!

    Reply
  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Christa, I know EXACTLY what you mean. It’s often a movie that makes me realize what I want to write, and sometimes watching a whole lot of movies is the best way for me to trigger what I want to write next, because movies are so much about an emotional response.

    I think seeing TRANSSIBERIAN (fabulous thriller!!!) really helped me realize why I wasn’t getting excited about the beach story I just shelved. I loved the interplay between characters in that film and it made me understand that I wanted to do a piece with more characters and erotic connections in it right now.

    Reply
  10. toni mcgee causey

    Writing a series character requires thinking about her growth; I’m not interested in writing a stagnant character, and I have moved her emotionally from the starting point in book 1. There’s a lot more growth in book 3, because there’ve been certain events which have to impact her emotionally and maturity-wise. At the same time, I want to keep her skewed, ironic, subversive view of her world.

    But I am working on another book because it hasn’t left me alone. And when I thought about your question, I realized I’m writing a story that breaks my heart with the questions it asks, and the answers aren’t going to be easy or pretty, but I want to figure out how these characters survive those answers. So that’s the bottom line for me–what are the questions, and am I interested enough in the journey to excavate for the answers.

    Reply
  11. spyscribbler

    What a question, Alexandra! I wonder how I decide, too, especially when I’m trying to decide what to write next. (Or usually I’m deciding what to write two or three stories after next.)

    I have two people in myself: the career manager and the writer. Career manager plots the path, decides on stories, etc. Two years ago, the career manager thought writer should “slip in” a spy thriller “between” her other stories. Something NY could possibly consider, something that would feed said writer a little better than her regular gig.

    Writer nodded, agreed. She always nods and agrees. She doesn’t engage in discussion. She just writes.

    About half a million words have been written since then, only a couple thousand of which are a spy thriller. Career manager tries her best, but the writer always seems to just sit down and write without informing anyone of her decision-making process. So I’m clueless.

    Reply
  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Toni, you have my sympathies on that one. That was what THE PRICE was about for me and it nearly killed me to write it. I’m taking it a little easier now, because I don’t think I could do that with every book I write. And I’m not sure I want to put my readers though it every time, either!

    Reply
  13. L.J. Sellers

    For me it’s always a culmination of little things: a crime I read about that stuck in my mind, an attitude expressed by a detective I’ve interviewed, a social injustice, a character that keeps trying to insert herself in other stories. Eventually, I pull it all together and tweak it until I have working plot.

    Reply
  14. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    What an interesting post! I usually know before I’ve finished one book, what the next one is about. I like to lay in threads that I know I’m going to come back to next time.

    But I agree totally about it being the one that you see the most vividly, the one that won’t leave you alone. The one that scenes and snatches of dialogue just arrive for, out of nowhere, demanding to be heard.

    Reply

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