Fall is my favorite season. Maybe it’s that Halloween thing, maybe it’s the “back to school” energy, maybe it’s the Santa Ana winds that were so much a part of my life growing up in Southern California that I made them a character in The Space Between, maybe it’s just that you get a jolt of ambition because it gets cooler and your brain returns to some functional temperature.
Because it’s sort of ingrained in us (whether we like it or not), that fall is the beginning of a new school year, I think fall is a good time for making resolutions. Like, about that new book you’re going to be writing for the next year or so.
Myself, I have so many books to finish right now that I can’t let myself think about any new ones until I get at least ONE more done. I’ve taken the idea of multitasking to a near-suicidal extreme. But I’m not complaining – not only do I have a job, I have my dream job.
However, given what I blog and teach about, I am aware that this is a perfect time for OTHER people to be thinking about THEIR new books. Because, you know, it’s September, but November will be here before you know it.
I’m sure many if not most here are aware that November is Nanowrimo – National Novel Writing Month. As explained at the official site here, and here and here, the goal of Nanowrimo is to bash through 50,000 words of a novel in a single month.
I could not be more supportive of this idea – it gives focus and a nice juicy competitive edge to an endeavor that can seem completely overwhelming when you’re facing it all on your own. Through peer pressure and the truly national focus on the event, Nanowrimo forces people to commit. It’s easy to get caught up in and carried along by the writing frenzy of tens of thousands – or maybe by now hundreds of thousands – of “Wrimos”. And I’ve met and heard of lots of novelists, like Carrie Ryan (The Forest of Hands and Teeth) Sara Gruen (Water For Elephants), and Lisa Daily (The Dreamgirl Academy) who started novels during Nanowrimo that went on to sell, sometimes sell big.
But as everyone who reads this blog knows, I’m not a big fan of sitting down and typing Chapter One at the top of a blank screen and seeing what comes out from there. It may be fine – but it may be a disaster, or something even worse than a disaster – an unfinished book. And it doesn’t have to be.
I’m always asked to do Nanowrimo “pep talks”. These are always in the month of November.
That makes no sense to me.
I mean, I’m happy to do it, but mid-November is way too late for that kind of thing. What people should be asking me, and other authors that they ask to do Nano support, is Nano PREP talks.
If you’re going to put a month aside to write 50,000 words, doesn’t it make a little more sense to have worked out the outline, or at least an overall roadmap, before November 1? I am pretty positive that in most cases far more writing, and far more professional writing, would get done in November if Wrimos took the month of October – at LEAST – to really think out some things about their story and characters, and where the whole book is going. It wouldn’t have to be the full-tilt-every-day frenzy that November will be, but even a half hour per day in October, even fifteen minutes a day, thinking about what you really want to be writing would do your potential novel worlds of good.
But you know what? Even if you never look at that prep work again, your brilliant subconscious mind will have been working on it for you for a whole month. (Cause let’s face it – we don’t do this mystical thing called writing all by ourselves, now, do we?).
So here’s my topic for the day, and possibly for my next blog as well:
How do you choose the next book you write?
I know, I know, it chooses you. That’s a good answer, and sometimes it IS the answer, but it’s not the only answer. And let’s face it – just like with, well, men, sometimes the one who chooses you is NOT the one YOU should be choosing. What makes anyone think it’s any different with books?
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. Not only that, but if you’re a professional writer, you’re pretty much always going to be having to work on more than one book at a time. You’re writing a minimum of one book while you’re editing another and always doing promotion for a third.
So the book you choose to write is not just going to have to hold your attention for six to twelve months with its world and characters, but it’s going to have to hold your attention while you’re working just as hard on another or two or three other completely different projects at the same time. You’re going to have to want to come back to that book after being on the road touring a completely different book and doing something that is both exhausting and almost antithetical to writing (promotion).
That’s a lot to ask of a story.
So how does that decision process happen?
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. I’m not allowed to turn in a chick lit story, or a flat-out gruesome horrorfest, or probably a spy story, either. Once you’ve published you are a certain commodity.
If you are writing a series, you’re even more restricted. 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. Now that I’m doing a couple of paranormal series, I am learning that every decision is easier in a way, because so many elements are already defined, but it’s also way more limiting than my standalones and I could see how it would get frustrating.
Input from your agent is key, of course – you are a team and you are shaping your career together. Your agent will steer you away from projects that are in a genre that is glutted, saving you years of work over the years, and s/he will help you make all kinds of big-pitcure decisions.
But what I’m really interested in today is not the restrictions but the limitless possibilities.
How DO you decide what to write?
And even more importantly – How do you decide what to READ?
Because I have a theory that it’s actually the same answer, but we’ll see.
Happy Fall, everyone!
Interesting question, Alex. Since I write standalones, I do have to start with a crucial identity for a protagonist or a plot line, but after that, it's up for grabs. My biggest concern is: is this a big enough idea to sustain me and the reader for 400 pages?
I can't decide until both story and character grab me, an event I seem to have no control over. I wish I could make these decisions earlier.
In reading, it's a character that usually grabs me and doesn't let go until I'm done with the story; the examples I can come up with are Bobbie Faye Sumrall (Toni) and Mara Jade (Timothy Zahn).
When I'm writing, however, it's usually my need to know what happens to the characters and situation that I created.
I'm interested in what you all have to say, because I may be the only one who thinks this way.
I just finished (this morning!) my contribution to Lee Goldberg's Dead Man series, and last month I finished the second Nicholas Colt book What's next? I'm not sure, but I'm thinking there might be a character with a nearly-impossible goal, and there might be a bunch of obstacles that keep getting in his way of attaining it.
In reading, it's about the characters, the voice, and the plot, in combination.
I tend to think that the the pieces of a book are collected and start taking shape in a writer's mind years before they ignite into a possible story. I suppose that's a kind of informal pre-prep? A lot of things ignite, but only a few seem like they'll hold my interest long enough as a writer (to get ti down) and a reader (to edit ti). I suppose this is why writers tend to be readers? It takes both kinds of sensibilities to make a book work.
Or maybe I'm just rambling through my hat?
My first Nanowrimo was fueled by five years of various work frustrations,including budget cuts and the prevailing idea among well-heeled and very loud people that libraries are redundant : I made the ALA the military arm of the Library of Congress, armed all the librarians, and framed one of 'em for murder. It wasn't a great novel, but it was extremely cathartic.
My current WIP started with an article about a reformed con-man assisting the government with fraud, a local P.I. who keeps calling our genealogy department, a homeless patron who used to keep his important stuff hidden behind library books, and half a page of scribbled dialogue from an enigmatic character who reacted to a simple question with a answer I didn't understand, yet. We'll see how it goes.
I am rambling. Sorry.
I wish I could answer this questions – sometimes it's what my agent likes, sometimes it's what seizes me, sometimes (especially series) it's answering the last question from the prior book. Whatever seizes my mind. But reading – I have to arrange books that will influence what I'm writing….
Alafair and Louise, since you both have the same answer – kind of! – I'm wondering if you're by the seat of your pants writers.
BJ, that's really interesting – so it's different what draws you to read a book – a character – than what compels you to write – a whole situation.
Is that right?
For me, it's always the situation that draws me to read and the situation that draws me to write, although in writing I sometimes get to the situation through a character.
Jude, that's very specific for not being sure!! Looks to me like you've isolated one of your key situations/themes, in reading and writing.
Sarah, I agree with you completely that the pieces of a story get collected over a long period of time, you put that very well.
I find myself using ideas and situations that I've thought about for years…. always seem to be looking for a place to put them until suddenly they're perfect for the new book.
JT, I'd say most of my reading is what puts me in the mood for my writing.
I didn't know if by "arrange" you mean "avoid."!
Alexandra: Yep, that's it exactly. I get drawn to specific characters when I read, but when I write in a creative sense, I don't get drawn to specific characters so much as the situation I place them in. I feel that the situation I place the characters in, both heroes and villains alike, makes a story I write seem special, but I don't like situational works ordinarily when I'm not the writer (the TV show Castle and its tie-in books together are a notable exception to this).
Sarah: Wow, that sounds like such a fun read! As a writer of a cathartic WIP myself, I understand where you're coming from. My WIP (which as been in progress for a number of years now) was largely borne out of my frustration and anger with people who hurt women in domestic violence situations.
I'm a fan of Murderati and enjoyed this approach to writing. But I don't think that this approach is for everyone. We all think, learn and work in different ways. I rarely read an instruction manual, for example, but while writing by the seat of your pants is the way I do it, I know it is not for everyone. I've posted another set of views in this blog article.
Alex, either way I look for setting within genre first.
I believe you are right about early pep talks and know that I can at least search for topic and direction before November. With my new Dragon Dictate, I hope to be physically able to do the whole 50,000 this year. And I am practicing the very intimidating process of writing with my speech as NaNo-prep.
Fascinating post, as always. And very opportune for me as I'm just planning out in detail the next Charlie Fox book, which has to be in by Jan. I already have a rough outline and a decent start, but now I need to really nail down the nitty gritty of the plot before I continue. As soon as we get back from Bouchercon, I want to be ready to re-immerse myself in the story.
As for deciding what to write next, I too have a lot of ideas on the go at the moment, but this particular story was a case of finding a new pressure, a new conflict to test my protagonist, mixed with a deep theme and a strong sense of time place.
But next I'd really like to do a supernatural thriller …
I WAS writing my third mystery (in my Peri Minneopa Mystery series), then I looked at my Kindle sales numbers and said, "Hmm… everyone's buying my book of humor columns. Maybe I should float another one of those on the market."
So I put the mystery on the back-yet-still-reachable burner and I'm putting the second humor book together (I'm having a contest on my blog to name it, if anyone' interested). I'd like to be back on the mystery by November, but I won't do NaNoWriMo again. I found out, from trying it last year, that it's just not the way I write. I'm in that region between barfing it on the page and the Dean Koontz method of make each page perfect before you move on.
As far as what I'm reading, I'm spending time with two books: Detour to Murder by Jeff Sherratt and a book of spiritually inspirational blurbs called Pronoia. What do you think it means?
Reine, that's interesting – genre is always first for me, setting usually not so much, but I totally get the "setting within genre" thing. Makes sense!
Z, can't wait to see you at BCon! I always find that the best conference for inspiration. I fully expect it to jump start the second draft of this thriller.
Gayle, I think it means that your personality is just as split as mine is! 😉
I've never done Nano myself because I'm never at the right stage in a book to just spew like that. This year I'll be editing again, unless my projections are wrong. Always a possibility!
Books don't find me in the sense of whole stories . . . they start as questions or themes about which I begin to think and can't seem to let go of. Since I'm a "pantser" I never know if what I'm going to write is going to be a short story or a book until the writing actually starts.
As to reading, it's very much based on my mood. I have shelves and shelves of books in my home and when I want to start a new read, I open many of those I haven't read and let myself experience the first few sentences — right there on the page, no back blurbs or anything — until I find the one that makes my psyche sing.
Have your turned your Nano prep blog pieces into a workbook yet?
because they are amazingly helpful, and I would love to be able to buy one!
Pari, that's a lovely way to shop for something to read. I do that too, only I'm afraid most of the time I'm looking for more of an adrenalin rush than a soul experience. But both at the same time is optimum!
Christy, thanks – I would be doing exactly that if I had ANY time at all right now; I'm just so overwhelmed with my fiction commitments I don't think I'll make it for this year. But you never know.
Next year for sure.