Thursday, September 15, 2011


I see writers asking this question from time to time, most recently tracy_d74: How do you choose your next project, especially if you have more than one nipping at your ankles?

I've seen some writers use a method that amazes me: posting the options online and asking people to vote for the project they'd most like to see. Were I to do that, my stubborn Muse would just laugh and ignore the poll results, whatever they were.

I'm sure there must be sensible authors out there who use rational thought processes to choose their next project. I know there are people writing series who don't even have to worry about this decision (at least, until the series is over). But for me, the decision is not even up to me--or at least it feels that way. I don't choose the project as much as it chooses me.

I get story ideas all the time. Sometimes they grip me quite strongly. I'll write a sentence, or a paragraph, or a page, or ten pages. And then the idea dies. I don't know where to take it next, or I just don't care where it goes. Not enough "there" there. The downside: this happens a lot. The upside: I haven't invested a whole lot of time before I realize the idea won't work. Sometimes an idea goes from "Brilliant!" to "Yawn" in less than an hour.

Short stories don't require nearly as much of a commitment. I can finish a first draft in a matter of hours, and polish it in days or weeks. But novels take months or years. What I'm looking for in a novel idea is an interesting plot, a great voice, and characters that I can stand living with for a couple of years. Most of all, I need a certain energy to seize me--and to have staying power. The story must fascinate me through draft after draft. I must care about the topic passionately; I'll even say it should hurt a little, too. (For me and my stories, that is. I imagine that if you're writing humor, it doesn't have to hurt!)

Starting a new project is like finding a vein of gold, but not being sure how deep or far it goes. At some point, often around page 10 of a draft, I will have a sense of whether this vein is a mother lode, or whether it dies out.

I don't know how to manufacture that energy, the drive that tells me this idea will be my next novel. But I know it when I feel it.


  1. Thanks for sharing this, Jennifer. I think I am slowly coming around to that is how it works for me too...and learning to just let the project go and _move_ on to the next idea...

  2. Hi Deb: Everyone has his or her own process. Most of all, we probably just need reassurance that it's OK to find our own way to the next project, and it may not be a straight-line journey!

  3. Thanks for sharing this! I linked to it in my post on choosing story ideas. :)