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?
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:
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 I 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.