(NOTE: This post was originally meant to be up on Wednesday, but due to the stomach flu/food poisoning Tuesday night, I’ve just now gotten to proofread and post it. Sorry about that! And now back to the post…)
From my own experience, I’ve found that writers tend to fall to one of two extremes when it comes to story ideas. Either we have a million ideas and tend to struggle with choosing and focusing on just one, or we have absolutely no ideas and struggle to write – not because we don’t want to, but because we don’t know what to write about.
I think all of us fall into each extreme at some point in our writing journeys. Some months we can’t seem to stop coming up with exciting and intriguing ideas. Other months we’re Googling writing prompts and scouring advice articles in a desperate attempt to come up with something that’s not completely cliché or boring.
Most of the time, I don’t have trouble coming up with potential stories. I actually keep a document with every intriguing – at least to me – idea that I come up with, and there’s around thirty-five partially outlined stories on that document right now, not counting sequels.
If I need to come up with an idea for a short story quickly – such as for a contest or something, then I definitely struggle sometimes. But in general, my problem is that I don’t know which story to work on, and after I’ve chosen, I have trouble focusing on just that one.
Today’s post isn’t about coming up with story ideas, but I plan to talk about that soon as well. So if you struggle with finding good ideas, stay tuned and hopefully that future post will be helpful to you. But today, what I wanted to share were some things that I consider when trying to decide which story to write next.
When choosing a story idea to work on, I like to consider five things:
- Life Experience
And when I mention each one of these, I’m referring to my current schedule, skillset, interests, life experiences, and resources. All these things naturally change over time, so I think it’s important to examine them again any time I’m choosing a new story to work on.
Obviously the shorter the project, the faster it can usually be finished. A 5,000 words or less short story is going to take far less time than a 125,000 word fantasy epic. So what kind of time do you have to devote to writing at this current stage in your life? Do you have a significant amount and want to tackle a longer, more intricate story, or even a series? Or is life crazy busy right now and you’d feel better sticking to some shorter projects for a bit?
When I consider schedule, I don’t only consider length of the potential project, but also the depth. After all, there’s nothing wrong with writing a longer story over a long period of time. Chipping away at it over months and years is how many books have been written. But some stories are deeper and more complicated, and require more mental energy than others.
I have several complicated story ideas that I want to work on, but I know that with my current schedule and how mentally drained I am by the time I can usually write, it wouldn’t be the best use of my time and energy to choose them right now. I might not have the time or energy to write a twisting mystery novel or epic fantasy, but I can and am enjoying some stories that are easier for me, such as contemporary or medieval fiction. So looking at the amount of time and energy that I can currently devote to writing is always helpful.
As writers, we’re constantly growing and learning more about writing (or we should be, anyway). I’m so glad to look back at my writing journey and see huge positive differences between my first stories and my latest ones, and I suspect you can do the same. It’s always encouraging to see ourselves improve at our craft. And it comes in handy, no matter which story we’re writing.
That said, some stories require more skills and specific knowledge than others. For example, research. I’ve spent the past couple of years learning everything I can about pirates, so that I can write my pirate novels accurately. Now I feel pretty comfortable writing stories about them. But I know the bare minimum about the Civil War, so if I was going to choose to write a story in that time period, I’d have a lot of research ahead. Which isn’t bad at all, but I should be aware of it and make sure I have time to do it properly.
Writing skills in general are something else to consider. The more complicated the story, the more nuanced the characters, the more twisting the subplots…the more experienced I should be in order to write it well. I may currently have developed sufficient skills to write good YA adventures, but I’m choosing to wait on that political drama dystopian until I’m better equipped to write it in the way I feel that it deserves. I want my writing to do the idea justice. So in the meantime, I’ll keep writing and practicing, and learning all that I can.
This is a fun, and pretty obvious one. But I will start off with a disclaimer: if you’re being hired to write a certain story, or have a contract with a publisher that is asking you to write about something specific, or in a specific genre, obviously you have to honor that if you’re going to keep the job/contract. So in some cases, you may not get to choose your story based on what you want to write about.
But in most cases, if you’re getting to choose which story idea you write next, you should definitely consider your current interests. What genres are you most enjoying right now? What plot elements are sticking out to you? Are there characters you’ve seen recently that inspire new ones of your own? Basically, what are you most interested in right now?
It’s always easier to write a story if we’re interested in it. Whether it’s the genre, plot, characters, world, themes, or anything else, we’re far more likely to finish it – and do a good job with it – if we’re enjoying the writing process. So if you have a choice, it makes sense to choose to write a story that genuinely excites you. Different stories will call to you at different places in your life, so which ones jump out at you most right now? Write those.
Just like our writing skillsets continue to grow throughout our lives, so does our store of experiences. The more time that passes and the more situations and new things we try out, the more we learn and grow. Those life experiences change us, often in ways we don’t even realize. We learn new things about people, places, themes…all sorts of things that get used in stories.
Which is why I also consider my life experiences to date before tackling a story. Especially if it’s one that I know will be sensitive, or requires a special amount of ‘insider knowledge’ to write properly. That’s not to say I think we can’t write about anything that we haven’t personally experienced – that’s impossible. While there’s controversy, I don’t agree with only writing what we know.
But I also don’t want to ignore what I do know. For example, I haven’t lost my spouse to cancer (like my character might), but I’ve lost several dear ones to illness, and can draw from those experiences. While there’s nothing to stop me from writing a story about themes I haven’t experienced – provided I’m sure to humbly and openly learn from those who have – I usually find that stories that I can personally relate to on some level turn out better. I’m more motivated to finish them, and others can tell that my heart was fully invested into it. So I like to choose story ideas that mean something to me personally.
Last but not least, the resources that are available to me are very important! In a way, this encompasses all the previous points, but to me, it also includes things like teaching courses, access to community of fellow writers (beta-readers, brainstorming buddies, pure support), writing equipment and software, and so on. Some stories require more specific resources to write the way I’d like, so I keep that in mind.
Now, stories can be written with an absolute bare minimum. I’ve written plenty of stories with a pencil (and an eraser, let’s be honest), and an old notebook, or simply with a Notes app on my device. So our ability to write stories definitely doesn’t depend on the latest, greatest gadgets or resources. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, right?
But especially when it comes to community, I like to at least know what support or help I have available to me before diving into a story that’s way over my head. If I know a story is going to require a ton of brainstorming help, or I’d really like to have a team of beta-readers to help me with plot development, I try to either see if that’s available to me currently, or if I can find it, before I start. And if not, I might set it aside for a little bit. I try to use what’s available to me in the best way that I can (but don’t always succeed, haha).
Well, those are some of the things I consider when choosing with story to work on next. As challenging as it can be sometimes, I’m grateful that I don’t usually struggle to come up with story ideas – only with choosing which one to write next! Should all my ideas be written? Probably not, and I’m sure not all of them will. But I enjoy fleshing them out!
How do YOU decide which story idea to work on? What does your process look like? I’d love to hear what works best for you, so let me know in the comments below!