Where Personal and Professional Life Collide...

My life in 8 words: Organized chaos, by preference. Exhausting, but never boring

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There is No Secret Push
surrender the manuscript
I had this question land in my in-box, and it, plus the asker's response, made me decide to repost my answer.

Question (paraphrased to keep it short) "How do you decide what story idea to follow through on? I have so many ideas, but I never seem to be able to settle on one to write all the way through."

My answer:

I'm really not sure how to answer your question (and I've been thinking about it for a few days now). You settle on an idea the same way you choose the clothes that you put on in the morning: you say "hrm, that works" and you put them on, and unless something happens during the day, you wear them all day until you take them off. Or, in the case of a story, you write it until it's done, or you decide, for whatever reason, that it doesn't work the way you thought it would, and you either rework it until it does work, or you shelve it.

Sometimes you write a project because someone's going to pay you for it. If I had to choose between writing the next book under contract and a new idea, I'd write the book under contract because that's my job. I'd keep the new shiny idea until I had time to develop it (occasionally this leads to me writing several books at once. I don't recommend that).

Coming up with ideas, as the saying goes, is the easy part. Sitting down to write it, start to finish, is what makes you a professional. As you've discovered, it ain't easy...

The response (again paraphrased): "Thanks for trying. I guess I'll keep asking other people until someone tells me something useful."


People, just as there is no secret handshake that will get you published, there is no secret push that will get your book written. It's AiC all the way down. Pick your shot, follow through, start at the beginning and end at the end, and that's how you write a book. No other damned way. If you get distracted by a shinier idea, over and over again, then you're not a writer, because You're. Not. Writing.

I'm sorry if that wasn't the answer someone was looking for. It's the only answer I know.


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(Deleted comment)
Sheesh. Don't these people know it's customary to enclose a bribe of no less than $50 if they want the secret password to publishing success?

small unmarked bills or a prepaid Starbucks card, please.

"Thanks for trying. I guess I'll keep asking other people until someone tells me something useful."

Publishing Darwinism, at its finest.

That is the only answer I have ever heard. It is like losing weight, you have to do the work.

And you're the only one who can do the work, yeah. That's what the q&a really boils down to: there are 101 different ways to screw up the nerve to do it, but the only way to get it done is, well, to sit down and say "this one, here, now."

Only wear one pair of pants at a time, to maintain the metaphor.

One foot in front of the other til you get there. Picking which isn't nearly as important as picking one at all. sigh. Good answer, Meer.

"Ass In chair."


Otherwise known as "Shut up and keep typing."

But was she really asking for the Sekrit Handshake? It didn't sound like it to me. But then I'm not published yet, either, so maybe I just don't know anything. Either that or I'm simply extremely fortunate that my ideas seem to come only one at a time.

He wasn't asking for the secret handshake, no, but he was definitely asking for the Secret Push. His response -- "I've posed [the question] to many other people, and apparently it's quite a difficult one to answer... I guess I'm just looking for a push in the right direction, somehow" -- indicated a rather determined objection to a reality-based answer when it's put in front of him.

We all get lots of ideas. You pick one and you write it. Nobody can 'push' you except you.

Ah. Well, I can sort of see that as objecting to reality. Maybe [g].

But then I don't deal day in and day out with this sort of thing, and I'm on the other side of the table, when I do, anyway.

I'm not sure what you're saying -- do you think that I misread his question? His response? Or do you think that there's a better answer I could have given him, that would have satisfied him (and still been honest)?

None of the above. I just think you're a lot more cynical than I am due to overexposure to people who want things you can't give them.

Either that or there's a lot more in his original post that you didn't share, which is perfectly fine, too.

Like I said, just expressing an opinion, not trying to get anyone's back up.

don't worry, my back's not up, I just didn't understand where you were going with that.

and it's less cynical than it is tired. I am more than willing to answer questions anyone has, but when they want Quick Fixes, not answers, I at least feel that they're denigrating the very real, very hard work writers put into their job.

But see, I'm still not convinced that a Quick Fix was what he wanted, not from the snippets you've shown. And that's why I'm calling it cynical, although tired could certainly factor into it [g].

Anyway. You say to-may-to...

And now, back to the revisions.

What do you think he was looking for, then? I gave him an answer, he indicated that it didn't satisfy him, and that he had asked other people and also not gotten the response he was hoping for... I'm not sure what other than "Here Is The Secret" he could be searching for.

And there is no Secret.

It sounds like the equivalent to a chronic over eater/lazy person wanting to know the secret to losing weight and being told "eat right and exercise," and not liking the answer.

I'm unpublished with my work sent to query... This is my first rodeo (yeehaw!) so it's been a very interesting learning process. There's oodles of resources with information on the internet if you're willing to look for it, wade through it and LISTEN to what people are saying and then put it to use.

I don't know. He may not know, either, esp. if he's a rank beginner and didn't know he wasn't supposed to ask things like that yet (there's a whole world full of naive questions that I had no clue were Not To Be Asked until I started reading agent blogs). I haven't read his whole post, so you have the advantage of me there. There may be something in it that leads you to believe he was looking for the Magic Push that I don't see because I have a different point of view. Like I said, I wasn't trying to get your back up, but I appear to be doing so. If I am, I apologize.

I just don't think his saying that he'd just have to keep asking was necessarily code for "you didn't give me the Magic Push," is all. It could be. But I think the chances are just as good that it wasn't.

Anyway, we're obviously talking across each other now. [attempts to bow out gracefully, trips over own feet instead]

Thanks for taking the time to discuss this with me. I appreciate it.

Based solely on your paraphrase, I was wondering if maybe he was asking, "How do you know which is the story you should choose?"

i.e., "How does one know what will be the right sort of story to put in front of an editor?" More specifically: "Do I write the space opera or the vampire urban fantasy?"

That's a question I see a lot. Alas, it has just as unsatisfying an answer for those wanting a shortcut.

well, if he was asking that question, my answer would have been exactly the same. Pick one. Write it. Nobody knows what's going to sell until it's actually developed.

There. That's the secret. Horrible, isn't it? You can't sell anything until it's actually written. Life would be a lot easier if we could all sell on an idea.... *sighs*

Dag...and here I thought debg was holding out on me...any tips for un-keying a Jaguar?
I'm totally kidding, writers whom I don't know...

touch the jag and I'll help her tip you into the nearest mud puddle...

Trust me, that is a total John Kennedy Toole Goodbye Cruel World gambit.
I think we all know that.
Like suicide by cop with crossbows and rock-star profanity.
Not ready for that just yet.

It can be hard to prioritize when you've got a few projects, none of which are your great passion, and you're not at a place where finances make a big difference.
Um, not that I know anything about that, but my friend does.
So, sometimes I just pick one.

Writers are good at different things. People who have a hard time starting a story tend to have an easier time finishing once the ice is broken. People who have an easy time starting a story usually have a hard time sticking with it to the end. It takes practice.

Sometimes it helps to set goals and reward yourself when you meet them. If you miss, you can always try again next time.

All true. But it starts by taking a deep breath and, well, starting. As my screen saver reminds me, "the cats won't write it for you!"

For what it's worth, I completely agree with your reading of the question and its response. People tend to prefer cut and dried answers: Plug this into slot A, and then you can switch the toggle to the on postion. I have had students who prefer grammar exercises to other kinds of exercises that are more useful in a professional situation because there is only one right response. *sigh*

If you get distracted by a shinier idea, over and over again, then you're not a writer, because You're. Not. Writing.

Possibly that's what you should tell him. of course, it's not the answer he'll want either. "You just pick one" is the only answer there /is/.

well, my comment glossing my original answer is harsher than I wanted to sound, first time around (I figured the clothing example would get the point across) but yeah. AiC and POD (pick one, dummy).

(or POA [pick one already] if you wanted to be nice)

"You just pick one" is the only answer there /is/.

I disagree with that. (See my reply below.) Not everybody is able to formulate their decision-making process, and being rational about it isn't always a good idea, but if you have a complex problem like which idea to develop, it is perfectly possible to develop complex problem-solving strategies.

They might still come out wrongly, but that's another matter. I think 'you just pick one' becomes a lot easier once you have confidence in your ability to finish stories and make them good; which is something a new writer might lack.

if you have a complex problem like which idea to develop

It's not a complex problem. You look at the ideas (the clothing in your closet) and you decide what suits you right then and there, for the day you're going to have. If picking an idea to develop and write is complicated, then actually writing a full novel is going to blow your mind. Seriously.

Wake up. Put clothing on. Choose your breakfast. Choose your route to work. Choose your poison. Choose your story.

Pick one and move forward. it may end up being the wrong one. We all have that happen. We all look back and say "OMG what was I thinking?" IOt all starts with making a damned choice. It's that simple.

I addressed your other comment below, but to sum up: you choose the idea that speaks to you the most. And here's the only 'Secret' I have to share: That's the project that's most likely to sell. Go click on my LJ tag for 'vineart' if you don't believe me.

Try to write a flow chart for putting on clothing and tell me it's a simple task again...

There are some things that are *a lot easier* if you can hand them to your subconscious, and for me, writing a novel is one of them. I could not get through one consciously - I have rotten ideas, and it would be clichee central - hand the keyboard to my characters, and I come up with intricate plots full of 'he did what???' but I could not consciously invent those people or events.

When I started writing, I had no way of telling a viable story from one that was not, and I have a number of fragments on my hard drive that will never grow into books because certain vital ingredients were just missing. (Such as 'a plot.' Ahem.) Some of them might be fixable, but they'd still be terribly clicheed. So learning to recognise them earlier would have been a good skill.

That's the project that's most likely to sell.

I would love to believe you. Unfortunately, there seems to be next to no market for a coming-of-age stories set in an alternative Renaissance world with academic magic.
I've pulled the finished novel because I've found some serious issues - I'm not saying it ought to be published, just that everybody goes 'meh' when they hear about it, however much I love the story; and that's the world and the characters who are ambushing me fiercely.
My WIP that's moving at a crawling pace (and that I love too, although it's a completely different kind of book) goes by the short name of 'archaeology in Faerie' and it's about a new kind of film that allows the imaging of invisible features, and the resulting archaeological expedition and the people who don't want this technology to be used, and it moves random strangers to comment in my journal just so they can tell me they love the idea.

Only I've had problems trying to keep it at a reasonable length, and looking at it again, yep, like almost everything else I write, it's a trilogy, and at the rate I'm writing it's going to be another three or four years before I have a first draft.

I could probably sum up the basics of my clothing choices on a given day in less than ten sentences. Not a flow chart, but a number of other simple processes don't translate into flowchart format. Unless you're assuming someone coming in raw without knowledge of their own closet or needs, the process is simple.

Which is, of course, where it departs from the process of choosing a project when you haven't tried writing before, because that is kind of like dipping into a closet of clothes you're not really used to or familiar with.

However, the way you phrased this "learning to recognize them earlier would have been a good skill" kind of pinged.

To me, the process of writing started with play. A lot of play. Play meant, take an idea, fiddle with it, throw it aside, grab another. Which is, in fact, this same process of learning to winnow the good ideas from the bad. The difference is, even when I foolishly sent out short stories to be rejected, I knew it was early. And in fact I did this for YEARS.

The impression you give is that you entered that opening phase knowing it was learning, and putting hard pressure on yourself to learn faster, harder, that all those useless words or stories that ought never see the light of day were *wasted*.

I'd like to suggest, perhaps, that it is not so. That you are past the aspiring writer who didn't like, "Just pick one" because of all those words.

And similarly, because you have now made progress beyond that initial state and into a place where you can recognize a good idea to drive to completion, you seem frustrated that not all your ideas are immediate grabbers. Alas, that seems to be the next phrase (And one I'm similarly stuck in. I have a few Projects I love that get no love from editors or agents. And though usually dismissed at the initial stages, the opening chapters -- or short stories, which have no query but themselves -- turned down often enough that i know it isn't merely my lack of skill at sales pitches doing it.)

But mostly, I felt caught by your last comment... sometimes, yes, I see the long stretch of years, and think "Augh!" But... for me, and you may disagree, I decided that this, the time when I'm inadequately published and under no professional deadline pressure,is exactly the time to do all of that. The time to play with the characters who are pushing. If not now, then when? And it has meant, in the past, that I put off attempting to sell my work for a gap of four extra years. (Not useless, inactive years. I attended workshops, got critiques, edited, and wrote. And lived. Nor did I know it would be four years. it was only intended to be "Until i finish *this* draft, and its edits and revisions, and have *that* one X far along." Which i thought would be over a year less than it was.)

Because I realised that the words don't expire. I could afford to hone those last few skills, even if the price was to put off the attempt to sell that much longer. And now I've started the selling phase again, but I feel better about waiting, because I feel my chances are better, my results are better.

(And though I'd feel somewhat loathe to do so myself, and sympathise if you feel this is an issue, it's more than possible to sell book one of a trilogy before book three is at least far enough along to know the closure.)

None of this is meant to say anything; it may not have anything to do with where you are. It's just another perspective, because I thought it sounded like I was in a similar actual place to where you are.

the process of choosing a project when you haven't tried writing before

And after a while, you learn to recognise the kind of ideas that make viable novels, and the kinds that need to steep a while longer, and what kind of writing skills you need in order to do them... a lot of choices most people make subconsciously.

this same process of learning to winnow the good ideas from the bad

And some of it, at least, can be formalized, though they might not take well to being spelled out, much less as rules. You can learn as much on viable projects as you can on non-viable ones - maybe more (because you don't just learn to write beginnings, you get to do middles and endings as well)

I put off attempting to sell my work for a gap of four extra years

Thank you for that. It wasn't an easy choice for me. I'm at the point where I'm getting rejections of 'great writing, but you have the wrong product' which should mean that if I hit the right idea I ought to be able to produce something saleable, right?

Apparently not. And my most commercial idea has just turned into a longuish trilogy.

words don't expire

After <mumblemumble> years of doing this seriously, I'm starting to lose faith in the expiry dates :-(

And after a while, you learn to recognise the kind of ideas that make viable novels, and the kinds that need to steep a while longer, and what kind of writing skills you need in order to do them... a lot of choices most people make subconsciously.

It always seems to me to be astonishing, which parts of a process different people find easy or hard. matociquala's difficulty coming up with a linear narrative to fit the story, for instance, is a problem that almost every other writer does instinctually first. sartorias' remark that she had to teach herself to see the words, and how clumsy they were, because she was so caught up in the visuals inside her head, seems more common (And I share a small part of that). I wouldn't be surprised if there are plenty of people for whom any process that looks automatic or unconscious is hard-learned.

And then there's the reverse; the point at which you have to take a process you previously left to your unconscious,and figure it out, so you can progress to another level.

And some of it, at least, can be formalized, though they might not take well to being spelled out, much less as rules.

Yes, although it's hard to teach a process one does, or originally did, unconsciously. And, to be fair to our host, I do think the query about how to choose a project sounds, this time, not like someone fighting this kind of fight, trying to learn what everyone else just seems to "know", but like someone asking for a passkey. (The paraphrasings are more ambiguous than intended, but the expanded commentary through the comments makes me think this wasn't a case of mistaken intention.)

. I'm at the point where I'm getting rejections of 'great writing, but you have the wrong product' which should mean that if I hit the right idea I ought to be able to produce something saleable, right?

Probably... but define salable. It's impossible: My most commercial idea started life as a trilogy. THe standalone I'm trying to market is 180K, and I tried to divide it in two a few times, and it won't. At least, not into two standalones with a proper break in the middle.

And for me, the curse is how LONG it takes to write a novel. The patience and the decision to let myself wait a few more years aren't really innate too my nature, or didn't used to be. I can be amazingly impatient. And yes, things happen in life to make you not want to wait, and in my case, a little worried about having waited too long.

But I want to sell novels, not short fiction. So the process... stretches.

And in the end, if the words make it onto the page of a real book; they'll still be shiny and new to the reader.

It sounds like you have a different problem (and question) than the original person. (and why would you WANT to do a flow chart for getting dressed?)

I would love to believe you.

Well, I'm speaking as someone with 20+ years in the business, and have heard the same thing from pretty much everyone I've ever worked with. So take that for whatever you think it's worth.

Unfortunately, there seems to be next to no market for a coming-of-age stories set in an alternative Renaissance world with academic magic.

Well hell, I didn't think there was going to be a market for a coming-of-age story set in an second world version of 14th C. Burgundy with wine-magic, but it's coming out in October. As always, it's a case of "right project, right editor, right time." Nobody can predict it, so why waste time writing something you don't love/enjoy/get enthused about?

In my experience (rank amateur, no finished novels yet), not being able to decide what to write is an excuse for not writing, whether because I'm afraid of failure, afraid of success, or just plain scared of the work it's going to take to actually complete a book.

It doesn't sound like your querent understands yet that he or she's asking the wrong question, of the wrong person. The only one who can hold you back from writing is yourself, and the only one who can make you sit down and write is yourself.

'Pick one and write' is exactly right. If this person has similar issues to me, though, it sounds like he doesn't realize yet that he's not having trouble picking an idea - he's using not knowing which idea to follow as an excuse not to start. Until he realizes that, and starts asking himself why he's keeping himself from writing, and working on whatever that reason is, he won't get anywhere.

yeah, the fear of finishing a story and then having to take THE NEXT STEP can immobilize anyone. And it's a real fear, because the writing is all you have control over. Sometimes that control turns into a chokehold...

Hmm. My internet mind-reading skills feel strong today.

I'll bet he wanted you to tell him: "Romance and romance crossover subgenres sell best, so write those if you have them. High thrillers are also snapped up all the time, if you can manage teh research, and the research is killer. Hard SF is always in demand but they don't sell a ton of copies.

Epic fantasy is down but due for a comeback. Urban Fantasy is a crowded field and by the time you finish your book it might be on the downward slide. Mysteries are still doing well, but not as well as..."

Et cetera.

You told him to decide for himself, and he wants an expert to tell where the most fertile soil is. Which doesn't really work, of course.

As a Jag owner...::sits firmly on the hands that are creeping towards the iron bar of the steering lock::

My reply could be paraphrased as 'for God's sake, just get on with it.' It's Ass in Chair all over again. You decide to write something, you don't let yourself get distracted (this is known as personal discipline), you finish it, and you do the thing that might have distracted you. As for how to choose which project to work on, o hypothetical enquirer, how should I fucking know? How do you choose what to have for dinner? How do you choose your socks? What are we, your mum?

I will tiptoe away now like the Snark as I feel a Moment coming on and for the record, LAG, I think you have been remarkably patient with this person.

I'm actually all out of patience, but the joy of text is that I can stop, delete my original comment, and come back at it again after a few breathing exercises.... *rueful grin*

And if someone gets out of this understanding that it's not only okay to choose the wrong idea but that it happens to everyone -- the only way to know is to actually write the damn thing... then the frustration's worth it.

Yours is the answer that works for you, but I think your questioner was looking for an insight in your strategy. I can't give him that (and 'the book under contract' doth top all), but here's my take:

Assuming that you have a number of valid ideas, and that you're looking for publication, I'd be looking at things like:

- which of these stories are live? You might have an idea that you think is immanently publishable, but another where the characters are clamouring at you.
- have you already written (and not had success with) a similar book? Same characters, same world? In that case, picking something different and getting further advice on the original sounds like a good strategy.
- in the same vein: if you have a choice between two stories, and one of them is much less likely to appeal to agents and editors, that might be a consideration which one to pick.
- how much research do these ideas need? How excited are you about doing that research? You might be better off writing one story and putting aside a day a week to do background reading for another than spending three months doing research and no writing at all.
- is the story a good match for your skillset? If you think you can 'just dash it off' you're probably going to end up not taking it seriously enough and not doing it justice; if you find it hard because it's in a genre/style/whatever you haven't got experience in, you could get frustrated and/or bogged down. When in doubt, go for the story that is a slight stretch.

I think asking questions about the decision-making process is perfectly legitimate - this is something no how-to book will tell you, so you have to ask writers, and for a writer with too many ideas and, maybe, trouble finishing, acquiring the skills to pick the right idea sounds useful. (As your answer proves, acquiring the skills to turn any idea into a valid book would be an even better skill.)

[This does not excuse the rather snotty reply, but I don't think that the questioner was looking for a secret handshake at all.]

Right now, I'm at a place where *my* decision-making process turns out to have been extremely flawed and where making sensible decisions has proved to be a disaster. I'm at a point where it seems I can either strive to be published or write my best. This does not please me, but right now, doing something that makes a book _less_ publishable [expanding it into a trilogy instead of cutting it down into a single book] seems like the right thing to do, particularly as I've not had any success with the alternative strategy.)

YMMV and all that.

[This does not excuse the rather snotty reply, but I don't think that the questioner was looking for a secret handshake at all.]

Off his original comment, I would have agreed with you, which was why I responded the way I did -- with as helpful an answer as I had. It was his response to me (which I did not quote in full because I did not have permission -- doubtless the cause of so many new writers being irate with me) was very much of the "oh, well, nobody is giving me the answer I want, I hate bothering people but I'll keep looking until I find the thing that I want" and NOT "okay, can you clarify...." Had it been the latter, the rant would never have happened.

Your answers, while true to a certain extend, assume a certain level of knowledge about market interest and personal abilities that differ for every person. He had never actually managed to write anything all the way through, because he couldn't settle on a single idea.

His question ("I have too many ideas and can't settle on one") got the best response I have ("pick one and write it."). It really doesn't get any more complicated than that.

For the record, I would not tell a new writer to choose a story idea based on its assumed marketability, because by the time that you finish the project and submit it, the market is likely to have changed and you'll have wasted your energy.

I understand how this person feels. It happens to me all the time. But I understand that there is nothing else to do but pick an idea and run with it.

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