Wednesday, December 31, 2008

How do you know what's the right book?

I was talking with another author this week who's struggling with this question, and wanted to do a follow-up post to my first post on it - but when I looked for the post I realized I hadn't posted it here at all! So here we go - a good topic for the New Year, I think.

My question today is – “How do we choose what we write next?”

When on panels or at events, I have been asked, “How do you decide what book you should write?” I have not so facetiously answered: “I write the book that someone writes me a check for.”

That’s maybe a screenwriter thing to say, and I don’t mean that in a good way, but it’s true, isn’t it?

Anything that you aren’t getting a check for you’re going to have to scramble to write, steal time for – it’s just harder. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, or that it doesn’t produce great work, but it’s harder.

As a professional writer, you’re also constricted to a certain degree by your genre, and even more so by your brand. St. Martin’s isn’t going to pay me for my next book if I turn in a chick lit story, or a flat-out gruesome horrorfest, or probably a spy story. My agent wouldn’t be too thrilled about it, either. Once you’ve published you are a certain commodity.

You’re even more restricted if you are writing a series – a kind of restriction I haven’t wanted to take on, myself. You have a certain amount of freedom about your situation and plot but – you’re going to have to write the same characters, and if your characters live in a certain place, you’re also constricted by place. I'm sure it makes every decision easier in a way, because so many elements are already defined, but it also seems extremely limiting - so I'd be really interested in hearing series authors talk about how THEY decide on the next story they write.

Myself, I don’t let a lot of time go by between when I turn in a project and start the next one.

Part of this is mental illness. I know that. My SO sighs and shakes his head. Perhaps one of these days he’ll leave me over it; it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

And maybe I would be a better writer if I took more time to decide, actually. It’s an interesting question.

But I need to know what I’m working on. For me it’s better than Xanax. I'm not a very pleasant person when I'm floundering in the gaps between projects.

It’s a huge commitment, to decide on a book to write. That’s a minimum of six months of your life just getting it written, not even factoring in revisions and promotion. You live in that world for a long, long time. Not only that, but if you're a professional writer, you're pretty much always going to be having to work on more than one book at a time. You're writing a minimum of one book while you're editing another and always doing promotion for a third.

So the book you choose to write is not just going to have to hold your attention for six to twelve months with its world and characters, but it's going to have to hold your attention while you're working just as hard on another or two or three other completely different projects at the same time. You're going to have to want to come back to that book after being on the road touring a completely different book and doing something that is both exhausting and almost antithetical to writing (promotion).

That's a lot to ask of a story.

So how does that decision process happen?

If you’ve been working at writing for a while you have a lot of stories swirling around in your head at any given moment, and even more in that story warehouse in the back of your mind – some much more baked than others. But I find it’s not necessarily the most complete idea that draws you.

Sometimes, maybe often, you need to do something different from what you’ve just done. THE HARROWING was about college students so I wanted to do something more adult. THE PRICE turned out to be maybe TOO adult – it was a very emotionally grueling book to write for me; I had to go to even darker places than usual, so instead of going on to write another book that I had completely outlined already, but was equally dark, I jumped in to a story that I only had the vaguest premise line for.

THE UNSEEN has turned out to be much more of a romp than my previous two books, insomuch as a supernatural thriller can be a romp. It’s lighter, more romantic, and more overtly sexual than the other two (that last really was because when I stayed in the haunted estate that I used for the haunted estate in the book, there was a distinctly sexual imprint on the house, and it influenced the story. I had nothing to do with it. Really.)

For my new book, I knew I wanted to do something around water, because bluntly, I want to spend more time at the ocean this year, and research is one of the job perks. You take them where you can.

But again, once I’d turned in THE UNSEEN, the ocean story that I had been working on for a while already was not the one that pulled at me. I wanted to do the beach desperately, but I wasn’t feeling excited about that story, and it finally occurred to me that it was about a character who was very isolated, and a lot of the book would be about what was going on in her head, and I was just balking at the idea of having to write that. I really wanted to do something structurally more like THE HARROWING, more of an ensemble piece, with a lot of dialogue and one-upmanship among the characters. And suddenly it hit me that I did have a story idea about a group of people that also had a lot to do with the beach and the water, which I won’t say much about because I just don’t talk about it at this early stage. But I started piecing that one together and it just started to fly – the kind of can’t-write-fast-enough-to-get-the-ideas-down writing that we all live for.

And that brings me sort of to my point.

The way I really know what to write is when the entire world around me is giving me clues. Like when I keep getting into random conversations with strangers that turn out to be exactly what my book is about. Like when I am on a plane writing a scene about rum, and I walk off the plane and the first thing I see on the causeway is a rum bar (I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a rum bar). Like when I am having no luck Googling the specific information I need on rumrunning during Prohibition and that night the History Channel has an hour special on rumrunning during Prohibition. Like when I meet a person on the street or see someone on television and realize THAT’S one of my main characters that I had been struggling to define. Like I decide to set a story in the Bahamas and suddenly get two offers of pretty much free trips to the Bahamas. And no, I'm not kidding, that really happened, and you better believe I'm going.


In other words, it doesn’t feel like working – I’m in the flow. When you’re in the flow, your book comes alive around you and all you have to do is write it down. It's being in love - an altered state in which everything feels ecstatic and RIGHT.

And you can feel the whole shape of the book in your head – it’s almost like being able to pick the story up in your hands and heft it and say – “Yeah, everything’s there. I can do this one.”

That may not make any sense, but it’s a really palpable feeling for me, physical, visceral. And such a relief to finally get there, I can’t even tell you.

And luckily St. Martin's accepted the proposal right away, so there's another sign in the book's favor!

Now, I know a lot of people are saying, yeah, right, easy to say if you're a full-time writer. How very nice for you that you get to follow your heart and get paid for it. Well, yes, you better believe it... but -

Remember what I said earlier about stealing time for books? That it's just harder?

Well, I'm doing it myself right now, because I have two contracted books yet to fulfill this year, the Bahamas one I've been hinting about and a brand-new one that I have no idea about - I don't have a single idea about any element of the story yet... and yet there's another story that just won't let go of me and I didn't want to wait until the end of 2009 to write it so I'm essentially doing the same as I did when I was writing THE HARROWING at night while working full-time on a film assignment during the day. I steal time for the other book. I don't stop working when I'm finished with my Bahamas pages for the day. I say to myself - "Just one page on the other book. Just one. You can stop after a paragraph if you want to." But I almost never do stop at one paragraph. And that one page might turn into three or five, and those pages add up, and time passes as it inevitably does, and one day you look at your secret book file and you have 300 pages.

And THAT'S a first draft. It's a miracle - but it's not. It's one page at a time.

So that day job that you hate so much, that sucks up all that time that you could be writing? That day job is actually the Universe's way of preparing you for the job of professional writer, by teaching you how to juggle multiple projects and still get good writing done. Believe me, it's a LOT easier to learn to juggle multiple projects when at least one of them is NOT a book. Writing two books at a time takes a long time to learn. Better to learn to write ONE book while you're doing something else unrelated, than to try right away to master the grueling art of writing two unrelated books at a time, which will inevitably compete with each other. Very, very few beginning authors have the skill set to juggle two books at once. I'm not sure I do, yet, even after all those years of juggling multiple film projects.

Plus the day job pays you for showing up. Writers don't get paid for showing up - they get paid for FINISHING.

So how do you decide what to write?

And how do you handle the multiple project aspect of writing?

A very happy New Year's Eve to everyone - and I wish you all your heart's desires, in writing and in life.

- Alex

- Alex


Ace Antonio Hall said...

I agree that a day job helps you learn how to multi-task, but there are those who have been fortunate enough to have a certain freedom from the usual 9-5 jobs and have excelled much quicker with their writing careers. "lucky devils"

Being that I am still unpublished and do have two agencies reading my manuscript, I at odds to which project is better to start.

My dilemma was continue a series, or try a fresh idea. I chose the fresh idea. Still, I think every day that I should continue writing the series too-at the same time. Decisions-decisions!

Gayle Carline said...

Altho I've only written the one book (being published), I have started the second one in a series about these characters in this town. I might feel restricted after a few books, talking about the same people in the same place, but right now, I really like these people and feel like there's more to learn about them and how they handle what life tosses their way. Still, I didn't want the next book to turn into "just the next mystery for Peri to solve," so I let my head wander, as you said so nicely, to places and themes that crop up in my life. I finally hit upon a storyline that feels right. Peri is a no-frills kind of gal who used to clean houses for a living, but in the new book, she has to get involved with the country club set. It's still in her hometown, but it's a different world and she has to fight her insecurities while she tries to investigate a rich woman. Of course, there will be murder, too, but her hometown is one little burg in the middle of the O.C. - I can line up a few more bodies than Cabot Cove before it looks suspicious.

Naive woman that I am, I assume when I get bored with Peri, another idea will throw itself at my feet. LOL

Bobby Mangahas said...

All I can say is that when it comes to multiple projects, it's never been that friendly to me.

I'm currently plodding through my first book and I seem to be pretty focused. However, I just saw the announcement for the next MWA anthology. YIKES! And I have an unfinished short story floating around too. Hoo boy.

Oh well, I guess it's just time to refocus a little.

And Happy New Years to everyone!!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Then again, Ace, Stephen King wrote his breakthrough, mega-bestseller CARRIE while he was working in a hotel laundering maggots off the restaurant tablecloths, and you can be the heir to the Hilton fortune and not have a brain in your head.

Life isn't fair, and it isn't even.

I sympathize with your torn-ness. Have you tried setting aside a notebook for the series idea and giving yourself just even 15 minutes a day to work on it - AFTER you do your daily quota on your current project?

Compartmentalizing like that has saved my life many a time, and you can get a lot done on a project in 15 minutes a day. More than you ever think.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Gayle, writing a series is good business - I wish I had a series idea!

I like the arena and conflict of your new book.

Of course, the O.C. - endlessly fascinating - and horrifying. ;)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

RJ, again, this idea of compartmentalizing. Especially for a short story idea. 15 minutes a day, I swear... your mind takes over and starts working on it for you.

Ace Antonio Hall said...

Great idea. I'll try it. Since the literary game can also be the waiting game, I'm sure I'll make some productive progress.

Happy New Year!

Barbara Martin said...

Once you have synchronicity with divine assistance the road is much easier for completing the project. I knew my premise idea was the correct one when I would know when to go to Indigo to pick up my next research book, or where to look on the internet for an obscure word or an element of ancient history. Then the words for the next several scenes just flow, and after reading what you've written it seems did you manage to come up with that particular solution. Sometimes these are scenarios that surprise the heck out of me, but I know I'm getting divine help to write my story. Just like you, Alex, with your synchronicity when things just happen that coincide with your work-in-progress.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree. While I was struggling with a particularly rough patch with my first draft, I had an experience happen that told me in no uncertain terms that I was meant to write this particular story right now. I took it as a sign and have been chugging along ever since.

Happy New Year!

Holly Y said...

Happy New Year Alex,
I gave myself permission to work on any project I'm interested in at any moment. To the more structured folks this may sound terrifying, but for me it has been liberating. I'd labored under the belief that I couldn't start a new project until I'd finished the old one. Boring! At least for me.

Once I expanded my work habits, my projects took off. Now I'm always working on something, always bubbling with new ideas, always excited. I keep track of the time I spend on each project, and I've found that a LOT is getting done.

So now if I get an idea I get to work on it. When it slows, I have plenty of other projects to turn to. My writing life now feels richer than ever!

BT said...

I currently work full-time; I'm a husband and father to three. I play sport on the weekends and am about to start my second year of study for an advanced diploma of arts in professional writing.

And then I write. Currently I'm working on a historical novel with a definite dark side as well as 15 or so short stories I have around the place - some submitted to market, others about to go out the door.

Finding time to write is difficult and stealing is a great way to label it - especially the writing I get done at my day job ;c)

Then there is finding time to read and I also do reviews - some I get paid for, others I don't.

Still, I'd much rather be a full-time writer and only do that - and be a husband and father...

Soon enough, I hope.

Happy New Year Alex.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Barbara said: "I knew my premise idea was the correct one when I would know when to go to Indigo to pick up my next research book, or where to look on the internet for an obscure word or an element of ancient history."

I know, it's so clear when it's right, isn't it? They used to call that "library angels:" I guess now we have "Internet angels".

It is just stupefying to me how quickly you can get EXACTLY the information you need, when you're in the flow.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

"While I was struggling with a particularly rough patch with my first draft, I had an experience happen that told me in no uncertain terms that I was meant to write this particular story right now."

Kristine, I love that. And you know, every author I know has a story like that, and usually about their breakthrough book.

I don't pretend to know who or what it is that is guiding us, but there is definitely something! And I like it that way.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

BT, I have no doubt you'll be a full-time writer very soon. The fact is, you already are - you just have to wait a little longer for the money to catch up.

But you're demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that you can handle the life, and the rest won't be long in coming.

Ace Antonio Hall said...

Library Angels, I like that! Reminds me of a Stephen King novel I read, oh but I forget the title an it was actually quite the antagonist of Library Angels, but...

Perhaps that was why there were so many reasons why I found obscure coincidences with my story---I was intune with the Universe. I used to always tell my friends that I like going to the beach or writing at 3-4 in the morning because it was when I could hear myself think...and perhaps hear the Library Angels!

Christine DeMaio-Rice said...

Bless you. I always need a new reason to feel good about my job. In addition to the health insurance, food on the table, learning new stuff every day, managing personalities and feeling like I'm part of the big soup of life, I get to learn to multitask too!
(that was my bright side talking)

I honestly don't know if I could ever write full time. Doing any one thing all day makes me a little bananas.

Currently, I work from 7:30am-4:30pm. I sneak into Starbucks at 6am to get a page in. I am about 3 pages from completion of Blue Valley and starting to plan the rewrite.

I am really enjoying your blog. And The Price was pretty good too ;) I stayed up until 4am because I HAD to finish it.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Christine, you're managing to get a huge lot done. How exciting about finishing Blue Valley - that's great!

Believe me, being a full-time writer means doing a lot of things that aren't writing. Compared to screenwriting - well, you would be shocked at how much of your time is going to be spent interviewing, lecturing, booksigning, reading. It's a very, very public job, weirdly enough.