All of the Ideas

Something that you hear a lot when you’re a writer is, “Hey! I’ve got a book idea for you!” or some variation thereof. Now, I know that when people say this, they are (usually) just trying to be helpful, but it can be a little irritating (and I’m sure that many writers will sympathize) because it’s not as if I can’t come up with my own ideas. In fact, I usually have the opposite problem: I have so many ideas it can be hard to decide what to to write next, or indeed to imagine ever having the time to write them all.

So how do I decide? Well, often I feel like I don’t choose the idea so much as the idea chooses me – sometimes an amazing, exciting idea will hit me out of nowhere (or after a long time of thinking and percolating and playing with different pieces of the idea until it suddenly clicks and comes together) and I just know that I NEED to start writing it, RIGHT AWAY. This is a feeling that my friend Lindsay has described as having your “brain on fire with genius”, and I think that describes it perfectly. When you’re hit with that kind of thrilling idea, you can’t NOT start writing. So when that happens, the decision is easy.

But what happens when you have multiple ideas you’re excited about? How do you decide?

It’s a good question, and one that I’m thinking about a lot right now, since I’m in that exact boat. I have a few ideas that I’m trying to decide between, and lately it seems like I prefer whichever one I worked on last.

There are a few factors I take into consideration. One is, what am I in the mood to write? It’s the same as when deciding what to read – usually I’m in the mood for a certain kind of story. My projects tend to be pretty similar genre-wise, so this is more about the tone or feeling of the story.

Another thing to consider, when thinking about publication, is what kind of book/story makes sense as the potential next book in my career trajectory. I don’t want something too similar to a previous book, and certainly not to the one that immediately preceded it; I also don’t want anything too wildly different. This is a place where my agent’s input can be very helpful, as she is more used to thinking in these terms than I am.

Along those lines, the current market is another thing to think about. Is there a readership for this particular story? Who will it likely appeal to? Is it too similar to one or more books that have already been published? Are books like this selling well right now? Thinking about this point in particular is a tricky balancing act – I try not to be too concerned with it until after I’ve started writing. If I’m excited about something and am enjoying working on it, that’s good enough to get started; when it seems like it might be a project I wanted to stick with and would like to publish, I consider these business aspects more closely. Again, this is another area in which my agent’s expertise is invaluable.

While all these things are important, at the end of the day what it always comes back to for me is: do I love this idea enough to put in the time necessary to make it into a real book? If it doesn’t speak to me on some sort of emotional level, it’s not worth pursuing. You need to spend so much time with an idea, with a story, in order to make it into a book: from the hours and hours spent drafting and revising, talking with your editor about edits, making line edits and copy edits and reading pass pages, and then talking about it in promotion. If you don’t really love it, this can all become a total slog – especially when you consider that even with a “book of your heart”, so much close and hard work on it can at times be very draining anyway. And so, when I’m in the position I’m in now, it’ll take a lot of thinking and playing around with the ideas and maybe talking about them and making notes before I can really decide which one needs to be next.

I have lots of basic ideas about people or events I’d like to write about, but the time for them just hasn’t come yet. I’m not sufficiently excited about them yet to drop everything and start actually writing them. I’m still waiting for that spark, for that last bit of inspiration, the last piece of the puzzle that will take an idea from a basic premise into something that I NEED to write. It’s happened before, where an initial idea that I had long before develops over time into just what it needs to be. That probably won’t happen for every book idea I’ve ever had, and that’s okay. I’ve got plenty to keep me occupied.

I have to be excited. I have to be inspired, and feel that the story has a place and has something to say. Because if I don’t love what I’m writing, why should I expect any readers to?

So if you tell me that you’ve got a great idea for a book for me, I will respond politely; I will maybe even agree with you that yes, that WOULD make a great novel. I am just not the person to write it. (My usual response lately is: “I think YOU should write that book!”) I’ve found that novel ideas can be a bit like dating: many of them are perfectly nice, but unless I feel that spark, unless there’s that certain undefinable chemistry, it’s just not going to work out.


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