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July 21, 2016

Decisions, Decisions: What Should We Write Next?

Kitten in tall grass with text: Are Shiny Ideas Stalking You?

Me: 0. Poor planning: 1

Before I left for the Romance Writers of America conference, I ran a Bonus Contest using comments with blog post ideas as the way to enter. Great! I’m always on the lookout for suggestions, and even though I haven’t run out of ideas after six years of solid blogging, I still fear the possibility. *smile*

But then—as what always happens when I attend a writing conference—I came back from San Diego with a ton of ideas for posts as well. So now I’m drowning in ideas and struggling with deciding which ones to tackle first.

The same is often true for us with fiction. We might have multiple story ideas, so how do we decide which one we should write next?

We need a way to choose which story to develop that will prevent us from second guessing our choice. (Well, we’ll probably second guess ourselves no matter what, but we might avoid a debilitating level of indecision if we have a plan. *grin*)

We want to pick one that we feel strongly enough about that when the going gets hard—and it will—we won’t be tempted by a different shiny idea. So how should we decide?

There’s No One Right Answer

As with most things writing, there’s no one right answer. The best story idea for one author’s career path or goals or voice isn’t going to be the same for another writer. So it might not do us any good to get advice from those around us.

Instead, we can think about some of the factors that we should consider. These factors might help us develop and weigh our lists of pros and cons for our various ideas. Let’s take a look…

Story Ideas: Factors for Our Decision-Making Process

What Are Our Contracts and Other Obligations?

One problem many writers along the traditional-publishing path run into is having to deliver a book in X series because they have a contract deadline, and yet they’re really in the mood to work on Y. Usually, we can’t get around those obligations unless we’re willing to forfeit our contract and any advance.

In that situation, the best we could do is find a way to be excited about X or work backward from our deadline to figure out how many words a day (or week) we need to write. Then we could let ourselves play with our preferred story after we’ve met that word count goal on our contracted work.

Here on my blog, my Tuesday/Thursday post schedule is a similar obligation. Although it’s thankfully not a legal obligation, I’ve taken that posting schedule seriously for six years, and I don’t want to mess with my readers’ expectations or my reputation for reliability.

I have a love/hate relationship with that obligation, however. Many times, I would have preferred to skip that post, but at the same time, I know my laziness would get the best of me if I weren’t strict with myself about it.

For example, yesterday afternoon, as I was figuring out what to write for this post, my surgeon discovered that all the work we’ve done to rebuild my mouth after my jawbone infection has to come out. Yep, the infection that flared up last week and never went away—even with several antibiotics at once, at least one on the MRSA-fighting list for being extra strong—means the past six months of surgeries to remove the original infection and rebuild the bone didn’t fix anything, and we have to start back at square one. *weeps*

I came home and stared at my computer with several variations of “Crap, I still have to write my blog post” going through my head. If I didn’t have that feeling of obligation, you can bet I wouldn’t do the work.

For this instance, I’m sure my reason would be forgivable (I’m probably in surgery to remove the infected bone graft as you’re reading this), but life always happens. What about the next time, when I’m simply feeling sick? Or the time after that, when I just don’t feel like it?

If we let one thing slide, it can be easy to let other things join that pile. Even self-published authors often set deadlines just to force themselves to get things done. So we can have a positive attitude about obligations.

Whether we feel like working on it or not,
everything we finish is an accomplishment
.

What Would Be the Best for Our Career?

If we don’t have obligations, our decision process can get a little murkier. Even so, depending on our goals, we might be able to pick one option over another.

If our goals are focused on income

  • we might pick the story idea that works with current trends,
  • we might work on the next idea for the series that’s bringing in more money,
  • or if we have two books in a series, maybe we’d write a third so we can add another product to our list with a box set of all three together.

If our goals are focused on keeping our readers happy

  • we might pick the idea that our readers are asking for right now,
  • we might work on the idea they’ve been asking about the longest,
  • or we might work on the idea they’re asking for the loudest.

If our goals are to expand our reach, explore a new genre, or otherwise develop our career path along different lines, we might choose something that others wouldn’t expect. That’s why we shouldn’t always follow others’ advice for this question.

If our goals are simply to feel accomplished by finally finishing one of our stories, we might need to examine why we’ve dropped our other stories partway and see which idea doesn’t suffer from the same problems. Or maybe we’ll feel more accomplished if we complete a trilogy that’s been hanging around, begging for closure.

Yet we should also note that these goals (and there are many others—this isn’t an exhaustive list by any means) aren’t exclusive. We could pick a story idea that allows us to explore a new genre that’s trending right now.

Or maybe we want to keep our readers happy and focus on income or finishing a series. In that case, we could brainstorm ways to make more money with the story our readers are asking for (such as the box set example) or combine our sense of accomplishment with their happiness.

Whether others share our goals or not,
we have to decide what will help us the most.

What Do We Feel Passionate about Right Now?

If we don’t have obligations or if any of our ideas would help with our goals, we might be stuck with deciding based on gut instinct. In general, it’s hard to feel accomplished about a series of dead-end story beginnings. So our goal might be to pick a story idea that we’ll be able to see through to the end.

We can ask ourselves if there’s one idea we’re more excited about. If so, why are we excited?

  • Is one a stronger story idea (“stronger” could be high-concept, more hooks, more unique premise, etc.)?
  • Do we have one more fully developed than the others?
  • Does one idea resonate more with us plot, theme, or character-wise?
  • Do we feel more confident that we’d be able to finish one more than the others? Or that we’d get less distracted by tangents with one?
  • Does one speak to our current mood more? Or seem more helpful to our current mood?

When it comes to my blog post ideas, my decision often comes down to this last step. While I have the expectation from others to write a post, I don’t usually have topic-specific obligations, and with two posts a week, I can usually put off a subject until I feel like writing it.

My decision process consists of me scanning my list of blog post ideas (yes, we should keep lists) and seeing which ones I feel most excited by. Are there any ideas that strike me as more cool, or interesting, or topical than the others?

Sometimes the answer is “none of the above,” and that’s when I end up writing my post late into the night when the obligation aspect finally kicks in with the “must do”-whether-I-feel-like-it-or-not step. *smile*

Conversely, if we’re in the middle of drafting a story idea, and we find ourselves tempted by a shiny new idea, we need to ask ourselves why. Why are we more excited by this other idea?

  • Is it just that we’ve gotten to the hard part of our current idea?
  • Are we scared we won’t be able to pull off our current idea?
  • Are we suffering from writer’s block on our current idea?

If so, we’re distracting ourselves with shiny. Trust me: The shiny idea will have a hard part, a scary part, and a stuck part too.

In that case, we might be better off thinking about what made us excited about our current idea to begin with. Maybe we lost our way from our original premise. We could also brainstorm with others to get past the hard part or block, or we could ask for cheerleading that we’ll be able to pull off our idea.

Or maybe we do need to let that current idea percolate longer to find its essence, and another project in the meantime is the perfect thing. Or perhaps the shiny new idea is noticeably stronger or better (and not just because we’re making excuses for ourselves).

For example, I started my debut novel, Treasured Claim, when I was frustrated with the revisions of my currently-trunked story, and I ended up never going back to my original idea (yet). But switching to a new story and characters helped me discover my voice (and let me explore a different genre). So it’s possible for it to be a good thing to follow the shiny idea, as long as we don’t make a habit of not finishing stories.

Whether we’re passionate about an idea or not,
we can’t let that aspect allow us to make excuses.

Final Thoughts…

The reason we often struggle to decide and/or second guess ourselves is because there usually isn’t a right or wrong answer. We can work on multiple ideas at once, we can make decisions that fulfill many goals, and while we can fix most issues in a story, sometimes letting it go might be the better thing to do.

But that’s one reason why writing is such a great career. Many decisions we make aren’t permanent.

We can revise our not-quite-right prose, we can tweak our story arcs and themes, and we can either promise ourselves to work on that shiny idea after we’ve finished our current idea, or we can switch right now to the idea that speaks to us.

As long as we’re finishing stories, it usually won’t matter if we finish a story this month or three or six months from now. As long as we’re finishing stories or learning how to make stronger ideas from each abandoned story, we are accomplishing something—and that means we shouldn’t beat ourselves up or second guess ourselves too much. *smile*

Do you often have many story ideas to choose from? Do you struggle with deciding which one to work on next? Do you second guess yourself midway through a story? How do you handle the problem? Do you have any other suggestions or factors to keep in mind for our decision?

(And what do you know… Writing this post distracted me from my surgery worries. There’s the love in this love/hate relationship. *smile*)

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What do you think?

14 Comments on "Decisions, Decisions: What Should We Write Next?"

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Mary Kate

I recently wrote about this to! For me it comes down to:

1. Making sure my idea isn’t coming about because of current publishing trends
2. For the most part, I like my new project to be different from the one I just finished
3. I choose the idea I’m the most excited about!

Anne R. Allen

Jami–I’m so, so sorry to hear about the medical challenges. That’s just miserable. I hope the next time gets it all fixed.

I think we face these decisions no matter what stage we’re at in our careers. I have a book I need to work on with a deadline looming, but another one that excites me is bubbling up and needs to be written. I don’t want to lose momentum on the bubbling one, but I’m also a professional who needs to meet my deadlines. Ack!

Cathleen Townsend

Excellent post. Sometimes I force myself to grind out the blog posts, too. I love applying cold reason to self-discipline. The two are a formidable pair. 🙂

Clare O'Beara

Sorry to hear about your health issues. They must be very debilitating.
Quite often I find the work readers are asking to see next, is the one that has the best prospects of selling anyway. So two reasons in one!

Anne
Anne
Jami, Your medical issues sound like a ‘special hell’ which I hope you can escape from very soon. My own jaw aches just reading your post (or because I just had a dental cleaning and my gums are throbbing anyway. *wink*). This post comes at a very opportune moment for me. I’ve completed the planning stage, I have my scene list with a little summary of each scene, but I’ve never written this way before. All I can think of is how ‘before’, the words came so fast, I couldn’t get them all down. Unfortunately, I think that extra ‘wordiness’ came from me rambling all over the place. Now, I’ve got a path to follow (yay!) and I’m trying to stay with-in the plot I’ve laid out. But it’s much slower going than I expected it to be. Since I don’t have any advice about choosing (because you asked the same questions I ask), I’ll share a piece of advice. I received this advice when I reached the ‘whiteout’ stage of my current novel: “The only way out is through.” So, despite my worries and ‘can I handle this?’ doubts, I’m pushing through. THIS novel will get completed. THIS novel will show all the studying and reading I’ve done. THIS novel will be the one that goes out the door and into an agent’s/editor’s hands. 🙂 (Can you tell I’ve been repeating ALL of this to myself a LOT lately?) I really hope your surgery went well (better, even!) and… Read more »
Deborah Makarios

Yikes! Keeping on with your work through all that is a real achievement. All the best for a better result this time!
I can’t remember seeing another post on this topic, but it’s something I’ve often wondered about. Thanks!

Roland Clarke

First, I pray that your medical crisis is dealt with properly. As someone with a disability, I feel that Health has to be the priority.

Some helpful advise in there. I have an ongoing ‘Decisions, Decisions’ problem, which means I have more than one project on the go. I try to prioritise the one(s) that hold my attention and feel more advanced and likely to reach THE END.

However, that doesn’t stop new ideas from sneaking in. So as you so wisely suggest, I have to ask the question: “Why are we more excited by this other idea?” – plus recognise that I’m already struggling to cope with existing projects. So I have to be disciplined and just accumulate notes/research on new idea.

Christina Hawthorne

No, no, no…I’m so sorry to hear your health setback has led to having to begin again. I know you’re strong and will persevere, but it pains me you should suffer. My thoughts are with you.

I found it apt that your topic applied to no one more than you. I do hope you heed it and prioritize so you have the best chance for recovery.

Tamar Hela

Sending you good thoughts and prayers, Jami! Hope your health improves fast and that there’s nowhere else to go but up! Big hugs.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Wow, yeah, I always have so many projects going on at the same time. There’s a new project that I want to start–eventually, but it’s got me very excited. Nevertheless, it’s great that after getting distracted by multiple other stories, including my fun sci fi/ fantasy, action-adventure LGBT romantic comedy one, I returned to editing my partially edited sci-fi book, lol. It was actually a good thing that I “procrastinated”, though, because between the time I stopped editing (near the end of March 2016), and the time I picked it up again (a week or so ago), I read TONS of books (been almost finishing a book every two days, though admittedly they were almost all under 400 pages), and now I know so much more about writing. So there are many things that I would never have noticed back in March 2016, but now I do notice because of this recent great exposure to more books. N.B. The good thing about reading a great number of short books (i.e. less than 400 pages) is that you get to see a vast range of different writing and story styles (and characters) in a short period of time. The experience is incredibly eye-opening!! And you know how good books make you think about life and humanity? Well, since I’m binge-reading books nowadays, I’ve been thinking about these social and human issues even more frequently and intensely than before, lol. If you don’t mind me seguing to the topic of editing, have… Read more »
Lillian C.

Hi Jami,

I’ve been a long-time lurker (and admirer) of your site and this post has finally lured me out of hiding. Having been thinking about trying my hand at fiction for almost the past five years now, I’ve never gotten past writing more than a chapter (if that) before giving up. Whether it was chasing another shiny idea or self-doubt or my inner perfectionist coming out to play, I always found a reason not to keep going. In the first two years, it was easy to tell myself I just wasn’t ready and didn’t know enough about fiction writing. But now, after five years, that excuse is kind of wearing thin.
It was so helpful to read your thoughts about this because like you said, there’s no right or wrong answer. I constantly ask myself questions but clearly, I wasn’t asking the right ones. Now I’m feeling a glimmer of excitement over a potential idea and you’ve given me some food for thought in terms of whether or not it’s the right one to chase.
Thank you for all your helpful posts despite your personal ups and downs. I’m so impressed (and inspired) by your fighting spirit that I really have no excuse to not get cracking on my own work. 🙂

Julie Glover

You had some great tips here on choosing. One thing that has helped me is realizing that while editing a big project—which can be frustrating and doesn’t always feel as creative—it can be nice to allow myself a day each week to free-write on that other idea. It keeps my writing chops sharp and lets me release some of that creativity, but I do have to make sure it stays that: my “Sunday book,” as I heard author Joy Preble call it. If I still want to write that story when I’m done with the big project, I can turn my attention there then.

This also clarifies for me why it’s been so hard to work on one of my WIPs that friends are pushing me to devote time to: I love the idea and the characters, but I just can’t see the whole story clearly enough yet. I may need more mulling time, and in the meantime, I have other projects to keep me busy.

A.C. Nixon

I have a problem with the new shiny thing. So to keep myself from getting too bored, I’m working on two series. Once those are done, what comes next?

Well, I also have a premade cover addiction, so whatever comes next has to be written for one of my existing covers.

I wish you the best with your medical issues.

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[…] Every writer struggles with similar ideas and problems—that’s why knowing other writers is so valuable. It makes you feel less alone when we face these things together. J. Todd Scott has 3 things he stopped doing that got him writing again, Florence Osmund shares 4 truths and 4 myths every new novelist should know, and Jami Gold tackles the age-old dilemma of what to write next. […]

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