What to write

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What to Write?

It’s the most obvious question for a writer, and the answer should be equally obvious: You write what you have to write.

But sometimes it’s not so easy. I’ve written three novels, and yet before every new project, when I often have many ideas floating around in my head, I debate with myself over which idea to pursue. Sometimes the answer happens naturally. It’s so abundantly obvious what you’re meant to write that you’d be insane to ignore it. Practical Jean happened that way. When it does it’s a relief.

Other times, it takes a long while, and a lot of wasted words before you really know. Before Practical  Jean I spent three years and a lot of agonized writing on a novel that just never clicked for me. That’s not a process I’m keen to repeat.

So as I embark on the next project, the question of “what to write” is potent for me right now, as it might be for you if you’re about to embark on your own project. And I think I’ve figured something out that might help.

After the agonizing three years on the novel that didn’t click, the experience of writing Practical Jean was a revelation. It was utterly joyful — even though the book is about murder and death — and the words came so easily that it seemed like magic.

Part of me wondered whether I could trust that experience. I didn’t want to build in expectations for myself that “magical flow” was my new normal. That would mean that if the flow didn’t happen immediately, I was doomed. In fact as I begin the next book, I think I know that this one will be harder. And that’s okay.

But I’ve also come to realize what I need as I begin a new book. I have an understanding of what is absolutely non-negotiable … I have to feel delight.

A new idea has to spark a kind of giddiness in me. It also, yes, must feel like an idea that I can live with and build, maybe for years. It has to have a main character who I want to share with the world, someone I think the world should get to know.

But I felt some of those latter two elements with the book that didn’t click. What I didn’t feel while writing that book, ever, was delight. And that’s why it didn’t work for me. Writing a book is like travelling to a far distant land, and doing it by foot. It’s a long, at times arduous slog. You really have to want to get where you’re going, and you have to enjoy the journey while it’s happening.

So as I spend the next while figuring out “what to write,” I know that I’ll be looking for that frisson of excitement, that inner effervescence, that delight, as I imagine how the new idea might unfold. If you’re in the same position as a writer, I really recommend you search for that feeling. It will tell you you’re on the right track.