Three Steps to Figuring out What to Write

Writers write. Writers who want to be published spend an inordinate amount of time wondering what they should write now, next, and going forward.

Unfortunately, wondering about what to write means they aren’t actually writing. It wasn’t a coincidence that the day I wrote this post I also read a chapter called “What to Write” in the writing book I’m reading Dancing on the Head of a Pen by Robert Benson.

When the Muse finally shows up, I am usually wandering around.

Robert Benson Dancing on the Head of a Pen

As with many writers, Benson didn’t have any clear cut ideas about finding the next thing to write. Or how to start writing. But he did know that for him the process of finding something to write about involves a lot of wandering around and soaking in the world.

This is similar to Ernest Hemingway’s advice: “In order to write about life, first you must live it.” But neither of those truisms help a writer figure out what to write next.

But, as Marie Forleo says, “Everything is figureoutable.”

Here are three guides I use to help me select the next project or story to work on.

Write What You Know

It’s the most over-used piece of writing advice: write what you know.

But I don’t mean that if you’re a nurse, you should only write about nursing. Or if you’ve never traveled beyond the backwoods of Minnesota, all your stories must be set there.

I’m talking about genre.

Every book must fit into a genre. And every genre has readers with expectations for the stories they read from that genre.
When I say write what you know, I mean write in a genre you’re familiar with.

If you’ve never read a Christian living book, you have no business writing one. However, if you have an idea for a book in that genre, get to the library and start reading books from that classification. Even better if they’re on a related topic.

We learn to write by reading. We learn how to structure a good story by reading stories that are structured well. Stories. Plural.
Good writers are voracious readers. Perhaps you don’t read fast, so being a voracious reader in your world means consuming one book per week. Great. Make sure at least half of what you’re reading is from the genre you’d like to write in.

Write What Will Sell

Many professional writers use this piece of advice to land on the next project they’re going to write. If you want to sell what you write, it’s important to write something that will sell.

No, I didn’t just tell you to write according to market trends. But plenty of authors have done so and made a boatload of money.

I had a conversation with author Patricia Briggs about some books I’d read that she wrote. I wondered if she planned to write in that story world again because I really liked the characters and thought many of them deserved their own story.

Her reply: “After I finish the Mercy Thompson series. That is what’s selling with my audience, so that’s what I’m writing.”

I was bummed about this reply, sure, but I understood it. I did the same thing, writing many sweet romances set in the same fictional town that were linked together by shared characters.

If you’ve already written and published something that’s popular, you might consider writing another book in that world or with the same characters. Yes, series can be an income funnel if you can hook readers on them.

But I’m not the person that thinks you shouldn’t write a story just because someone tells you there’s no audience for it.

Write What Calls to You

Which brings us to the third thing that might generate your next story idea: ideas.

Specifically an idea that you can’t shake off. Even when you jot down the gist of it and carry on, it plagues you.

The next day, you’re at that page scribbling a few more ideas. In fact, another plot point pops into your head while you’re watching TV and something quirky about the main character haunts your dreams.

This is an idea that’s “calling” to your creativity. It’s a story that wants to be told.

Once you finish your current project, let this inspired idea have free reign and you might discover the easiest story you’ve ever written. No, it won’t be perfect. No first draft ever is, but it might fall onto the page fully formed and you won’t have to bribe yourself to show up at the page to write it.

A writer can complete the assignment she set for herself and still not write the work she meant to write.

Robert Benson Dancing on the Head of a Pen

One of my coaching clients asked how she would know if an idea was worth writing about. If the idea won’t let you leave it alone, that’s the biggest clue that it’s a story that needs to be written.

Which of these generated your last story idea? Or was it something else?

What do you think? Add to the discussion here.