I’m in a situation that I haven’t been in for four years. Now that I’ve delivered my latest book, I’m no longer under contract to a publisher expecting my next novel. This is the first time since I signed my first publishing contract in 2009 that I don’t have a hard deadline. It’s both a scary and liberating scenario because I have to decide what to write next.
Like every other author, I often get the dreaded question, Where do you get your ideas? I can usually come up with a response that sounds reasonable and interesting, but the real answer is that I don’t know where they come from. I wish I did. It would make everything so much easier. I wish I could flip a switch in my mind that goes, “Okay, Brain, time for the next idea. What sounds good to you?”
Instead, Brain usually tells me to buzz off. It’s much too busy forcing me to watch TV or worrying about whether I forgot to lock the car when I left it in the mall parking lot. Other times, Brain is throwing ideas at me left and right, many of which are versions of stories that have already been done, but dumber.
Brain: Hey, what about a book about a sea creature that terrorizes a small coastal town, but this time it’s a crazed man-eating jellyfish?
Me: I hate you.
But ideas typically aren’t a problem for an author. I’ve got plenty of ideas. I just have no clue whether any of them will make good stories. I’ve started at least eight books that never made it past page 150. A few of them never made it past page ten. Some of them may grow into full novels one day, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if none of them did.
The question for me is, how should I get started on the next book? Do I need a breather to gather a bunch of new ideas and select the right one or should I plunge back into it and trust that the alchemy will produce something worthwhile?
Some authors, like Stephen King, stick to their word count every day no matter what. They force themselves to hunt down the muse and throttle it until it gives up the goods. Other authors, like Chuck Palahniuk, can take a year off to recharge and explore the world until the pressure builds up so much that they have to sit down and write the story. The muse tells them when the story is ready to go.
I think Stephen King’s process works well for “pantsers,” authors who don’t outline and write without knowing where the story will take them. But I don’t know how that can work if you are a “plotter” and you outline and research to see how a story fits together. How can you write to a word count that day if you haven’t plotted out how the next scene contributes to the story?
One technique that I’m trying was suggested by my agent. It’s called the List of Twenty. You come up with a list of twenty of ideas for a novel. The first ten or so will be obvious, so obvious that someone else may be having the same idea as you’re typing (which is why we end up with situations like two movies this year about the White House being taken over by terrorists).
But when you exhaust those first ten ideas, you start having to come up with more unusual and off-the-wall ideas, and that’s where you find the gold. Those are the ideas likelier to be unique and amazing.
Even then, you may still come up with an idea similar to someone else’s, but your spin on it might be so intriguing that it’s worth doing anyway (look at how Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games explored a different take on the kids-fighting-to-the-death scenario that Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale had already established).
After having completed six novels, I thought this process would have gotten easier. It hasn’t, and I don’t think it ever will. But when that inspiration does strike and the muse becomes your partner in crime, the exhilaration makes all of the struggle worth it. For me, that’s the thrill of the hunt.