by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig
I had an interesting email exchange with another writer after Friday’s post ran. She mentioned that she had been at an event recently to talk with new writers and had been surprised by the folks who said they wanted to write but didn’t know what to write about.
I emailed back that I had also been very surprised by hearing this from other new writers. For many writers, the problem is having too many ideas and not being sure which to work on.
But I’ve run into more and more writers who aren’t sure what direction to go in with their writing. They seem almost overwhelmed with the possibilities.
When I’ve run into writers like that, I’ve always tried to figure out what it is that they want. Sometimes they haven’t thought about what they actually want—and they start to.
Some writers will want to write completely for themselves and don’t want to share their work with others. Some will want to write a book that they pour their heart into and hope that it will find readers who love it as much as they do. Some will want to write blockbusters or books with high commercial appeal.
Knowing what you want helps define your direction in this business.
Deciding your publishing direction also ties in with a post from Porter Anderson in an extra edition of his popular Writing on the Ether column for Jane Friedman. The entire column makes for good reading, but the section, in particular, that I found interesting was “Jacob Silverman to Will Self” toward the end of the post.
“I don’t really write for readers,” Self says …”I think that’s the defining characteristic of being serious as a writer. I mean, I’ve said in the past I write for myself. That’s probably some kind of insane egotism but I actually think that’s the only way to proceed – to write what you think you have to write. I write desperately trying to keep myself amused or engaged in what I’m doing and in the world. And if people like it, great, and if they don’t like it, well, that’s that – what can you do? You can’t go round and hold a gun to their head.”
I think there is a lot of merit in that viewpoint. I wrote for myself for years and found a lot of satisfaction in it. And you’re a writer, even if you never publish a book. I recently read a thought-provoking post by writer Mark Charan Newton for Tor Books on “The Joys of Private Writing.”
But I also think that writing for readers is not only possibly more satisfying than writing for oneself (at least, I’ve found it more so), it can also be a way to develop skills and a readership while you’re waiting to release the book you’ve written for your own benefit (or for art’s sake.) Admittedly-- I’m sometimes pragmatic to a fault…and prone also to look at the dollars and cents side to projects.
I’ve found some reward, in other words, in being paid for writing.
So, from that viewpoint, I’m going to suggest points to mull over as you’re exploring your direction and book ideas. These are, obviously, intended for writers who are interested in pursuing publishing—not those who’d like to write completely for themselves.
What if you know you have an interest in writing, but you’re not sure what to write? Here are some points it might be helpful to consider:
Your own interests, as a reader: What do you naturally lean toward when writing or reading? Which genre? What do you think you’d most enjoy writing? We have to spend a long time with a book—we need to enjoy the process and pour that love of writing into the book. Which story would you enjoy telling the most?
Analytics of the genre: In that genre, what are some of the factors that make it a good read? Humor, action, strong characters, magical powers, three murder victims, etc.? As a reader, what do you enjoy most about the genre?
Market saturation: Is there an area or subgenre that is currently saturated? Or does it seem like the readers are avidly buying the books as fast as they are written, even if it IS saturated? (Vampires and zombies come to mind.)
Book length: What is the length of most of these books? Have you got an idea that you can develop into that length? Is your idea too broad and can’t fit into one book? Book length, of course, is also going through a change with the digital trend—but you still want to shoot for the right ballpark. Editing a trilogy out of a single book can be a bear.
What are publishers of this genre looking for currently? If you’re going traditional, who represents and publishes this genre? Go online and see what kinds of things they might be asking for on their submissions page.
If you have many ideas, which should you work on?
Protagonist: Which protagonist can carry my story better? Which is better-developed? Does one have more opportunity for internal conflict? Does one have ample growth potential?
Characters: Which project has secondary characters that are more appealing? Which create depth for my protagonist by interacting with him/her? Which may be a villain that readers will love to hate?
Plot: Which storyline can I easily picture? Which one has more conflict and more depth?
Time: Is there a story that requires more research than another? How much time do I have for the project? How long would I, ideally, prefer to spend on a single project?
Market: Which story will appeal to a greater number of readers? Which has more of a hook to sell to a publisher? Or…which has the better hook for a direct-to-reader/self pubbed book?
Series potential: This may be genre-book specific---but is there a story that lends itself to more than one novel?
There’s a really fine balance here between being calculating and embracing an idea because we love it and because we want to write it to personally satisfy our own creative need. We can always choose to write the “book of our heart” as I’ve heard it called and have faith that others will love it as much as we do.
The business-oriented side of me thinks that it might be helpful to write something that we think has commercial appeal and that we’re excited about writing (don’t write something in a genre you don’t enjoy, just because you think it will sell—if you hate the book, or hate the genre, that disdain is going to show) and then release the book of our heart later, after we’ve developed readership. In traditional publishing, if the book of your heart tanks, it sure is hard to find another gig. Although having a traditionally published book tank might offer the perfect opportunity to move our next book into the self-pub realm.
Again, y’all, this is all in the for-what-it’s-worth category. And…another important thing to remember is that we shouldn’t have our whole writing career riding on one book. The fear of failure has got to be a huge factor in this writer hesitation when choosing an idea. The important thing about failure is dusting ourselves off, learning what it was that we did poorly, and writing another—better—book. Better because we failed or didn’t meet our own expectations. It’s killed me when a couple of great writers that I know have completely given up writing when their books didn’t do as well as they hoped. We’ve got to keep on going.
Now I’m interested in hearing your ideas. If you publish your work, how do you balance art and commercialism? How much do you focus on audience when you write? How do you decide what to write?