“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”
~Madeleine L’Engle

6 Steps To Choosing Your Next Writing Project

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Choosing what to write next is the most important decision you can make as a writer. If you choose poorly, you’ll finish your piece and realize no one is interested in reading what you’ve written. Worse, you might have to abandon it in the middle, realizing you never should have started it in the first place.

How do you choose the right project to work on next?


Photo by John Loyd

I recently finished a short story, and have spent the last week deciding what to write next. This process might not work for you, but when I decide what to write next, this is my process:

1. Relax.

I used to feel so much pressure to get started with my next project that I would tense up and rush around. It always ended in disaster.

The brainstorming process is not the time to be in a hurry. Grab a journal and a pen and go on a walk. Watch the birds. Give yourself permission to be a little lazy. Creativity requires relaxation. When you relax, your mind is allowed to wander, to jump around to lots of different ideas, to make strange, serendipitous connections.

Take the pressure off yourself to come up with the perfect idea. Give the Muse room to speak to you.

2. Come up with a lot of ideas.

Choosing the next project is a negotiation between your skills, your ambition, your audience, and your soul. When I brainstorm ideas for my next project, I ask myself four types of questions:

  • What can I write? I just finished a story in first person and it went really well. What else can I write in first person? What other story can I tell about this character? What story will showcase my skills and personal voice?
  • What story will help me become a better writer? Can I write a better first person story? Should I experiment with third-person? Or even second-person? Should I write from the perspective of a child? Or a woman? In other words: How can I test my skills with my next story?
  • What does my audience want to read? Right now, I’m writing for literary magazines. What kinds of stories do the editors of literary magazines want to read? How can I tailor my story to suit their needs?
  • What do want to write about? What have I been thinking a lot about lately? What is going on in my life that I need to process? What experience from my childhood needs to be mined for meaning? Is there a story that I need to tell?

Surprise yourself. Don’t censor your ideas, and when you come up with a silly one, let yourself laugh!

Write your ideas on a piece of paper (I prefer to write by hand at this point). How many ideas can you come up with?

3. Kill the wrong ideas.

This is the most important step. There are a lot of things that could make an idea wrong:

  • Can you write this story? It’s okay if you’re not quite good enough. It’s good to challenge yourself. But if you’re not even close to good enough, you might want to pick a project of smaller scope.
  • Does this story interest you enough? If it doesn’t interest you, you’ll quit when things get hard.
  • Is this story interesting enough to people who are not you? Will readers / editors / publishers like this story? If not considering dumping it.
  • Is the story big enough? If you’re writing a novel, will it fill a full manuscript? Could it be a short story? Is it even a story?
  • Is this story ambitious enough? Should you try for something larger and more complex?

Kill as many ideas as you can and continue to think up new ones as you go.

4. Ask your Muse.

It’s easier to finish your writing project if you believe a greater awareness wants you to write it. As I consider my list of ideas, I always go to that still, small place where my Muse lives and ask, “Should I write about this?”

If my Muse says, “No,” I don’t write about it. (It tells me “no” a lot.) Sooner or later, I stumble on an idea my Muse says “yes” to. This sounds strange, but I like to double check that it’s actually my Muse talking and not my brain (my brain is very devious and likes control). “Really? Are you sure?” I ask. If I get several “yeses” in a row, the game is on.

5. Second guess yourself.

If you’ve gone through all the steps above, it’s okay to get started now. Do a little research. Start writing a scene. Do some characterization.

But while I’m still in the initial stages, before I fully commit to an idea, I second guess myself. Is this really the story I should be working on? Is there a better story lurking within this one? If I’m going to abandon my project, I’d rather do it at the beginning, before I’ve invested a lot of time.

Note: If you know you’re a doubting person, you’ve probably already second-guessed yourself enough. Just get started.

6. Once you’ve chosen…

Before you can say “yes” to one idea, you have to say “no” to a lot of ideas. Most of this process is about saying “no” to ideas.

However, once you’ve chosen, you have to commit. There will be times when finishing this story seems stupid, painful, and not worth your time. This whole process is about developing the faith in your idea that you will need to get through the doubt that will come in the middle.

This is a marriage. Once you’ve chosen your story, you’re committed. So don’t choose the wrong one.

How do you choose your next project? What makes you say “no” to ideas?


Brainstorm your next story. Come up with as many ideas as you can (and say “no” to as many as you can, too).

Brainstorm for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, choose your favorite story and offer a short explanation about why you like it. Then, post your list and explanation in the comments section.

Have fun!

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

  • If writing stories is a marriage, then I’m a polygamist.

    • But should you only sleep with one at a time? 

    • Oddznns

      One of the things on my list that I decided I couldn’t write… but after this exchange perhaps I’ll give it a go. You guys are so inspriring!

      Foreign Bangladeshi construction worker meets 3 female domestic helpers in a middle class neighbourhood park while eating his dinner on the top platform of the kiddie climbing gym.
      They all become friendly.
      There’s tension which of the girls (who are Catholics from the Philippines) he’ll chose to take to the little dip at the dark end of the park.
      In the end, he tells them he’ll choose all 3… As long as they’re given equal time, it’s allowed in his culture.
      I want to make the 3 women be okay with it. As the only solution.

      I know nothing about foreign workers. I can’t do Filipina accents. Having the women agree and be okay with this proposal, and for the man to make it in good faith is just so outside my values and experience I can’t see how I’m going to do it.

      But I see that man and the 3 girls jn the park every night. It’s a story that’s definitely calling.

      Oh yeah, and that other one about the straight married man people begin to think is gay.

      The embroyonic stories are definitely pulling me somewhere OTHER.

      • Themagicviolinist

         I don’t like to plan out my whole stories ahead of time before I write it. I usually get and idea about what’s going to happen in the beginning, middle, or end. Most of the time I know the beginning and part of what’s happening in the end. But once I get an idea that keeps me up until midnight that I can’t stop thinking about it, I start to write. I just keep writing and usually figure out the story along the way (along with some surprising twists and turns that my muse threw in).

        So my suggestion would be to just start writing your story. You’ll figure it out as you write. 🙂

        Good luck! 😀

        • Oddznns

          Thanks Magic.  Problem is I’ve got to finish re-editing something else… so these are just little niggly scratches on my consciousness right now. You are right though, I should get to it or it’ll just keep scratching and scratching at me.  Maybe for Nanowrimo.

      • Themagicviolinist

         My other piece of advice (that I forgot to mention) would be to research. Research foregin workers. Research the accents. Research anything else that you have no idea how to write. I’m sure it’ll help. 🙂

  • ArizonaLynn

    Thanks. This is timely for me. I will share this with my writing group.

  • These are some great ideas. One I would add (that I got from another blog post I read this morning) is to brainstorm a list of titles. This may work better for non-fiction than fiction… but I still found it incredibly helpful in getting my idea-machine cranking!

    I had a blast coming up with blog post titles… if you’re interested, I’d love to hear what you think of them! (It’s long, so I’ll just link to my blog here: http://thesjs.com/48-titles-from-my-future-blog/)

    Thanks, all, for your commitment to the craft of writing and to supporting other writers! You’ve really helped me get back on the wagon in terms of my passion for writing.

  • I did the brainstorm in longhand in the school library during the very last period before cross-country practice. We have a meet tomorrow.

    That’s the background information. While I wrote down ten ideas (all of them pre-existing), one stood out:

    “Just Ride”: A woman goes on the road to escape her dead, abusive father, and encounters an older man that may redeem her–or break her again.”

    Two reasons why this stood out: It can work as both a mood and event-driven piece. But it also inspired by “Ride” by Lana Del Rey. The music video for that song was released today: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Py_-3di1yx0&feature=g-u-u

    • This sounds cool. I’d be interested in reading it when you’re done.

    • Lana Del Rey is incredible and your story sounds great, CZ. I love combining other art forms into my stories. My last story mixed in a bit of jazz history.

  • As someone who needs to come up with a new idea every week, I can tell you relaxation is incredibly important. I’ll get frustrated and upset when nothing comes to me on Monday, but I tend to have something by Thursday at the latest.
    I just recently came up with a whole list of stories myself. They’re more like ideas, but I could grow them into stories. I’ve felt pretty good about a lot of them, and a few have stuck out. One of them involves time travelers. I like time travelers.

    • Me too, Jack. In fact, I loved the part on the show I watched recently, where the scientists agreed that time travel machines may one day be a real possibility. Don’t you love that idea?

  • Another good question might be, “Is this too ambitious? Do I have so much going on that I don’t even know what the core of the story is?”

    The only thing I disagree with on the list is being overly concerned about what people might like to read. Asking “what is my intended audience?” is different from asking, “will anyone like this?” It’s easy to define your audience; it’s too hard to predict what others will love or hate. Also, some people have such self-confidence issues that they assume no one will ever want to read anything they write, ever. For those people, wondering “will anyone like this?” is the death of relaxation. The relevance of that question also depends on why you’re writing: to be published, just to improve your craft, because you’re bored, etc. I mean, I wouldn’t write a slasher short story for a highbrow literary magazine, but I think that has more to do with audience than whether people like it.

    • My writing teacher, Kate de Goldi, taught us, not to think about getting published at all. She urged us to write what is in your soul to write….

  • Jeff Ellis

    I actually just became aware of a new publisher in the industry called Plympton. I can’t link to it because I’m at work and it’s blocked, but Google Plympton + Kickstarter and you should find them. They’re interested in bringing back serialized fiction as a legitimate art form and so am I. While I have yet to see any of my submitted short stories published, I am hoping to find work with Plympton for my next project:

    A starship crash lands on a medeival planet, its lifepods jettisoned to the four corners of the worl during its descent. Most of the passengers die in the crash, but a few survive. My story follows a boy who survived the crash and was found by a tribe of monster-hunting vikings. He is considered something of a good luck charm, having fallen from the sky the day the “star” (ship) fell from the heavens. The story is an adventure novel at its heart and will see the main character and his friends confronting the evil of the world, including other survivors of the ship, using their advanced technology to try to rule the world.

    I’ve just started work on it today (and I’m talking, broad strokes here) so obviously it will change into something even better, but right now I’m happy to be writing an adventure. I finished reading Ready player One by Ernest Cline today and it’s not only a phenomenal adventure story, but the best book I’ve read all year. We’ll see how my current book, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad compares 🙂

    • Rebecca Klempner

      Serial fiction survives in a few markets. I’ve cowritten a serial before. It’s a very rigorous process, that is in many ways similar to writing a TV show that has a storyline that arcs across the season. The main challenge is to maintain that long-term story arc and the consistency of the characters, yet a payoff in each episode so that the reader doesn’t feel like they’ve wasted their time each time they sit down to read.

      • That’s what I’ve heard Rebecca. I am trying to figure out plotting a story so that there is essentially a smaller story in each chapter. I’ve been looking to incorporate this into my writing for a long time now and I think working on a serial, which is actually devoted to this sort of format, will really help me practice. Thanks for the tips 🙂

  • Hi, Joe! I’m back in the land of the living after having pushed myself physically to the limit, to finish my WIP. With the aid of my writing partner, I decided to try finishing the book in time for the Harper Voyager offer–to submit an unagented fantasy novel, by Oct 14th. Hence, my absence from social media in past weeks. However, the manuscript is complete and submitted to due process now, so I can happily join the soiree online again.
    Btw: just so you know, I updated my website, about all of this, yesterday, over on http://www.yvettecarol.com
    I had started out working with my writing partner on my book called, The Lost Island, from the series, The Grandfather Diaries. Under my partner’s guidance and tutelage, we made dramatic changes. We cut off the prologue/epilogue of the story which rendered the series title null and void. So I retitled it ‘The Records of Aden’. On facebook I asked for input on the title and took the best of them, changing this book to Aden Weaver & the Or’in of Tane Mahuta.
    Lucky for me, I am not standing with pistols at dawn, facing down my muse, over what I get to write next. That’s because I know! Ha. I have finished book one, now I get to work on book two.

    • marianne

      I’m glad you’re back Yvette and congratulations on getting all that done.  

  • Themagicviolinist

    I have tons of story ideas that I would love to write, but I’ve been brainstorming with my muse for quite some time now on what story I should write for NaNoWriMo. I do the kids program where you can set your own word count goal, and this year I’m thinking of doing 40,000 words. 🙂 So far I’ve narrowed it down to two ideas that are pretty similar:

    1. A story where every character is based on someone I know (obviously I’d change their names, since I have some villains based on people I know) and my best friends go on a fantasy adventure. 

    2. A story where most everyone is based on someone I know. It would be about two peasants who live in a kingdom where the queen is in charge. Then they find out that her maid is plotting a rebellion so she can be queen. They also find out that she is recruiting an army of evil magical creatures, so the two peasants start recruiting an army of good magical creatures.

    I love writing fantasy stories, and since I’ve visited the renaissance faire a couple times recently, I’ve been getting into medieval stories. This would also give me a chance to write my friends into my stories as I see them.

    I think I’m going to do the second story idea, but I’m still not positive.

    Which one do you think I should write? 🙂

  • Adam

    I’m writing a story right now called The Splintered Race, but I have plenty of story ideas for when I finish. Here are two of them.

    In the year 2045, a boy is moved out of his reclusive country life in the Hunter Valley to the bustling city of a transformed New York City after World War Three in a world with only three million people. He falls in love with a girl, but at the same time unearths a disturbing secret amongst the ruins of the Old New York that leads him to believe his parents were the reason World War III started. He has to race against the clock to solve the mystery of his heritage and ultimately a secret centuries of years old. But he’s not the only one looking for it…

    Joshua Lore had always known he wasn’t normal. Ever since he was five, Josh had been aware of a unnaturally canny instinct he had; Joshua seemed to be able to look into the very imminent future. In a fight, he knew what his opponent was going to do seconds before he did it. But he had always kept that to himself. Until three men that move into the neighbourhood begin to take an interest in Josh.
    Joshua Lore is a Gifted. And what happens next will send him on a danger-riddled mission into uncharted seas in search of the Grudger- a keystone with the power to open up dimensional rifts through time and space.

    • The first one grabbed my interested.

      The second one, the only turn-off for me was the “Gifted”. The terminology is overused, in my opinion.

      Here is two of mine:

      Greybo: A Dwarven Tale

      Still struggling with the death of his father, Darowyn, a melancholy
      dwarf finds a darker part of himself rising to power once again. Afraid
      of losing himself, he is pushed overcome a past that he cannot remember. Or die trying. Meanwhile, an unknown enemy lurks the forest and the underground. Being the only one that has seen them, the dwarf wonders if they are an ancient enemy or just the illusions of his crazed mind and shattered past.

      Project Golem

      In underground cities built on technology and magic, humans struggle to survive. With dangers above them and below them, danger is man’s new best friend. Resources are limited and cities find themselves struggling against one another to survive. Etzin has revolutionized robotics, magic, and warfare with a brand new golem made of Adamantium and Sorrenthril. Will his invention allow his city to dominate and bring order and unity to the chaos of the underground cities? Will it bring peace or more war? Or will it change history?

      • Adam

        Thanks for the reply, James. And I love the idea of your two books! They sound very interesting!