on deciding what to write (and not eating your friends)

Like any family that has spent a great deal of time hiking through the mountains, my family has a couple of stupid, jokey things we do while we're on the trail.

The first is that whenever the trail splits around a boulder or a tree, somebody will inevitably sing a few lines of the song "The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond." None of us know the whole song; we barely know the few lines we sing. All we know is that years of habit compel us to sing, "You'll take the high road, and I'll take the low road," as we tramp through the whatever forest or desert we are enjoying that day.

The other is that every shortcut, every bush-whack, every deviation from the main trail is called the Hasting Cutoff. Example: "We could follow the trail this direction, or we could take the Hastings Cutoff down that way." The Hastings Cutoff is, infamously, the route the Donner Party took through Utah and Nevada on their ill-fated westward journey in 1846, which delayed their arrival in the Sierra Nevada by about a month and caused them to run wagon-first into the beginning of a ferocious Sierra winter. I think I knew the term "Hastings Cutoff" long before I knew the actual story of the Donner Party. 

I've been thinking about some questions that often come up at author readings and events. When there are writers in the audience, somebody will usually ask, "How do you pick which idea to write? How do you decide what to spend your time on?"

It takes months or years of hard work to write a novel, so deciding what to spend your time working on is no small matter. I'm afraid it's not a decision that becomes any easier with experience. For many professional writers, it only becomes harder when the external pressures of career goals, publisher expectations, community influences, economic necessity, and the whims of literary trends all combine to create a situation in which writers are excruciatingly aware of all that could go wrong if they devote years to a dead-end novel. The sneaky little truth about second-book syndrome is that it is not confined to second books. 

With all of those different pressures clamoring for attention, it can start to feel rather oppressively like writing the right novel will put you on a path toward success and happiness, whereas the wrong novel will send you rambling along the Hastings Cutoff, and you'll only realize it's an ill-chosen path when the snow is ten feet high, there is no way forward and no way back, and you're debating the moral implications of eating your neighbors because they just might taste better than ox-hide.

But that's a deceptive feeling. There is no wrong novel, not really. Neither is there a right one. 

The novel I'm writing now is one I first imagined about fifteen years ago. I wrote some disconnected scenes and world-building notes back then, a great pile of messy, stream-of-conscious garbage that I've kept but haven't really looked at more than a few times since. At the time, I wasn't about to actually write this novel or any novel. I thought I had my reasons:

1) I didn't think I could do it, becauseā€¦ well. I don't really know why. Just because. Writing novels is hard! I believed it was too hard for me, the same way that I believed math was too hard for me even while I was taking graduate-level partial differential equations courses. Self-doubt doesn't have to make sense. The curse of being raised a classic Gen X "talented and gifted" girl is that for a long time I believed that if something didn't come easily to me, that meant I couldn't do it at all. The joy of working at things that are, in fact, very difficult was something I didn't learn until much later.

2) I was in graduate school and I was supposed to be writing a doctoral dissertation. I mean, I was writing a doctoral dissertation, sort of, mostly, but I was also painfully, constantly aware of every second I spent thinking about imaginary people in imaginary worlds rather than my research. I had a lot of guilt about not doing enough research, but I also spent a lot of time not doing my research. I was a terrible grad student. It's a miracle they let me escape with my degree.

3) I didn't really know what I wanted the story to be. My idea, encapsulated in all those notes, broken scenes, maps, and ideas, was both vague and derivative. It was loose and sprawling and unfocused. I saw only parts of it clearly, like when you look down at a topographic model of a national park and press a labeled button to make a tiny light glow in a specific location. I had a bunch of tiny lights; I did not have the whole picture.

I set it aside. I finished my dissertation. I wrote short stories. I sold short stories. Eventually, I wrote novels. I sold novels! I wrote more novels.

Then, recently, I came to a point where I needed to decide What To Write Next.

For reasons that don't need to be explored at this juncture (because they are boring), I found myself completely untethered in terms of my writing plans. I had a finished novel heading toward submission but nothing in the works for after that. I had a massive spreadsheet of ideas, but I had no half-finished books calling to me. There was nobody expecting anything in particular of me, as I wasn't under contract or option clause. There was no guarantee anybody would even want to read what I wrote next. I had a big, clean, blank slate.

That's when I started thinking about that sprawling epic fantasy novel I had determinedly Not Written in graduate school. It had been so long since I had thought about it seriously it almost felt less like an actual idea for a book and more like a symbol of all the things I had once wanted to do but set aside because they were too difficult.

I considered all the reasons I had Not Written it, and I found they didn't much matter anymore.

1) I can't write a novel? Ha! I had empirically proven that false many times over, and I had the career and contracts and boxes full of author's copies to prove it! Once I wrote my first novel , the whole problem of "Can I write a novel?" just evaporated. (The first novel I wrote was not Shallow Graves, as Shallow Graves initially came into being as a sequel to my real first novel, which is about angsty monster brothers in Cleveland and never sold after earning me a whole lot of "ummmmmm young adult is not the place for cannibalism kthnxbye" rejections from both agents and editors.) Writing a novel is like making macarons, or bench-pressing, or getting a PhD. Once I did it, I knew I could do it, and that's all my doubt-filled brain needed to know.

2) My time is better spent doing more important things? Dude, writing is my more important thing now. Watching my roommate play Legend of Zelda is what I do when I ought to be doing more important things. (I don't even play. I just watch her play. I obnoxiously backseat drive the whole time.) Writing is literally my job, and I have to keep doing it to maintain the lifestyle to which I am accustomed (i.e., a lifestyle that consists mostly of writing, alone, in my room, all day, until it's time to watch Leah play Zelda).

3) I don't know what I want this big, vague, sprawling story to be? Well. See. That one was a bit tougher, because that's something I really did need to figure out before I could devote half a year or more to writing the first draft of an epic fantasy. 

In the fifteen years since I'd first come up with the idea, I had spent a lot of time thinking about stories. Reading a fuck-ton of books across all genres. Contemplating characters. Learning about storytelling. Finding the balance between planning a story and charging in without a plan. And writing, writing, writing. I had learned, somewhere along the line, to take an idea and spin it out into a story populated by people I could care about, in a world I wanted to live in for months or years or longer, going through terrible things I could take great joy in inflicting upon them. I had learned that writing a novel is how you learn to write a novel.

At some point during that time, I had crossed the line from thinking that not knowing what to do with an idea is frightening to believing that it can and should be exhilarating. If I have an idea but I don't know what to do, then I should fucking figure it out! I get to make it up. All of it! There are no wrong answers, because there is no rubric that a not-yet-written novel can be scored against. It has no shape until I give it one. It has no importance until I decide it's important. That's all up to me.

So instead of asking myself, "Should I write this epic fantasy novel now?" I found myself asking, "Why the hell shouldn't I write this epic fantasy novel now?"

Doubt-brain answers: You're not an epic fantasy writer, what a stupidly crowded genre to try to break into, you're not George R. R. Martin and you can't even grow a beard, you've never done it before, dear god do you know how long epic fantasy novels are, come on this is ridiculous, what are you doing, how can you even write this novel without drawing a map, do you even know how to write multiple points of view, this is too complicated for you, you need to stop switching genres because that's bad for your career, literally your last novel took place over twenty-four hours and this one stretches for a year or more, what are you doing, what are you doing, what are you doing.

Serious-brain answer: fuck all y'all because I'm doing it anyway.

Most writers I know who are working on their second or third or fourth books have encountered some form of this decision. For working writers, the question of "What do I write now?" is all too often tangled up in the trajectory of our careers. I know many, many writers who after their first or second book find themselves submitting countless proposals to their publishers, spending months or years trying to get a "yes" vote on their next novel. I know writers who realized after publishing their first book that it had started their career on a path they didn't want to be on, and they had to back away and course-correct in order to write what they truly wanted to write. I know writers who are told point-blank by agents and editors that they should keep writing books like what they've already written rather than branching out. It's frustrating and demoralizing. It's business.

I certainly don't have any solutions to the problem of trying to balance commercial and creative pressures as a writer. I do believe that a society that values art should make it possible for creative people to make a living at it, but that's a topic for a whole different essay.

What I've drawn from this experience is the realization that the unpredictability and unreliability of a writing career is challenging, stressful, and frightening, but it can also be clarifying. When you're a relatively new writer, with a few books under your belt but not (yet) a long line of them, there is absolutely no guarantee that writing to please publishers or follow trends or fit into a predefined career trajectory is the best choice. I don't know if it's ever the best choice, but I can't speak for writers who have been at this for more years and more books than I have.

All I know is that when everything is precarious, and everything in publishing is always precarious, it can be difficult to tease apart "What do I write next?" from "What do they want from me?" But it's important to see the two questions clearly and separately.

I don't like not knowing what my situation will be in a year or two, but I do like the bracing freedom of completely ignoring the second question. I didn't get that freedom by being a wild runaway success. I didn't get it by having a great back-up plan or a trust fund or a rich spouse. I got it by not being an instant success at all, by any measure, on any level, and therefore having very little to lose by writing this wild old idea that has been lodged in my heart, like a worm, for so many years it's now old enough to be in high school.

When writers ask, "How do you decide what to write?" they are asking a lot of things. How do you decide which story is worth it? How do you decide which is good enough? How do you know anybody will care? How do you know what will get you a book deal? How do you figure out what's popular? How do you pick the idea that people will want to read? How do you pick the idea that you'll want to write for months or years? How do you know?

You don't. You can't. You never know. You never know. It's always going to be a risk. There are absolutely no guarantees. There is nothing you can choose to write today that guarantees a successful writing career five or ten years down the road. There is nothing you can write today that guarantees devotion and support tomorrow. The publishing industry is crowded with the hollow-eyed shades of people who tried to write primarily for financial success and found that the world had shifted beneath them while they were chasing fleeting trends.

How do you decide what to write next? Find the story that's stuck in your head and can't be shaken out. It doesn't have to be there for years. It only has to be there now. Find the characters who keep following you around while you're trying to go about your life. You don't have to know them inside-out; you just have to want to get to know them better. Find the setting, the premise, the idea, the wild hare that gives you a little flutter of excitement that you greedily keep all to yourself. Don't worry if it's not bold and new. You can make it those things later. It doesn't matter if it's not well-developed. That also comes later. It doesn't matter if you've never attempted anything like it before. Every novel we write is nothing we've attempted before; we are constantly learning our craft over and over again. Find that idea. Shut down the voices in your head telling you it's the wrong novel at the wrong time. Go with it. Decide to write it.

Then write it.