Darts On A Dartboard: How Do You Choose Your Next Project?
Let’s straight up reverse this shit.
Normally, I stand here on my wobbly soapbox (actually, it’s a milk crate, so you shut up) and I preach to you about How To Write and How To Be A Writer. That usually works out pretty well for me. It’s fuel for my ego-furnace. It makes it sound like I know what I’m talking about. It makes me appear tall. And plus, I really like milk crates. They just feel good to me. Maybe it’s because I was born in a milk crate. They didn’t have hospitals back when I was a wee tot on the farm. Best you could do was a box or a crate of some kind, and a little raccoon dressed up like a doctor. Ahh, good ol’ Doctor Wrigglefingers.
Did you know that Wikipedia has a picture of a raccoon’s penis bone? No, really.
…ah, shoot. This post has already jumped the track. I’m not 200 words into it and talking about the sexual instruments of common vermin. Might be a damn record.
Let’s see if we can’t get back on the road.
What I’m saying is, normally I blubber and stammer advice at you, but now?
Now I’m asking for your advice.
I’m finding myself at a point where it’s time to get moving on a new project. A personal project. Probably a novel, but maybe a screenplay. I literally have like, 10 possible things I can write. Over the course of years, my ideas basically engage in some Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest competition behind the scenes in my subconscious. Ideas that persevere — meaning, those ideas that I return to when I’m in the shower or mowing the lawn or having a tea party with the dogs — are ideas that will eventually find a home on paper. This means that, over time, I collect potential projects, but only the ones that really strike the right bell inside my brainchamber. (If I kept every idea I had, I’d have a list of thousands of projects; I’d be buried beneath them. I get one or two new ideas a day. “Wouldn’t it be cool if…!”)
I won’t go into too much detail as to what these projects are. One of them is inadvertently a YA (Young Adult) kind of story, with a whiff of paranormal romance. A couple-few are horror, a couple-few are sci-fi, one is… I don’t even know, urban fantasy? One is… erm, supernatural crime? Then I’ve got sequels to Blackbirds, the novel that currently waits in the hands of the agent (and is being shopped around as we speak, probably earning said agent stunned glances and furrowed brows).
I’m not asking you to help me pick the particular project.
I’m asking you: how do you pick your project? What are the qualifications and considerations?
I’m really unsure as to which project to pick. Obviously, I want to write every last one of them — they survived in the gladiatorial arena, after all, stepping over the corpses of weaker ideas. The question is, in what order? The question is, which one now?
Looking over it, I can think of a few elements worth considering, but I don’t know how to weight these elements or if they’re the only elements on the table. What elements am I talking about?
Some of these projects I respond to emotionally. That feels important, somehow. Two of them are about fathers and sons. The Blackbird sequels are very much about death (and my obsession with it), and are bound up in one of my favorite themes at present: Fate Versus Free Will. To have that emotional response is good. It means that, at least from where I’m sitting, I have an authentic and personal take on the subject. The downside is, that can also muddy up the story. You’re stirring up troubled waters. Instead of clarity, you might end up with gross turbidity.
And that, by the way, is a fun word to say.
Say it with me: “Turbidity.”
It’s like a party in your mouth.
Fun matters. The more fun a project is to write, the faster I write it. And, arguably, the more fun it is for the reader as a result. One of the sci-fi-ish novels would be loosely based on a short story of mine, “Product Placement.” That story was fun as hell to write, and I suspect that the same would come from the novel. The horror novels, too, would be a blast. I love to write horror. Horror fiction is like a vacation for me. Horrible, and on some level probably kind of fucked up, but true.
Still: fun ain’t everything. “Fun” also often countermands “challenging.” And challenging can be good.
Level of Challenge
Some projects will be more challenging than others. One of the horror novels — a little something-something I got cooking up which is kind of a “serial killer Western” — would be lean and mean. An easy 70k to write, probably. The YA project is much more robust. Not just in length, but it goes well-beyond the scope of a single novel. (Yes, it has Harry Potter comparisons. Please believe me, though, that this story’s been with me since before Harry Potter ever entered my worldview.) The Blackbirds sequels contains a character with whom I am very, very comfortable. I know her faults. I know her flavor. She is a comfortable pair of shoes, that one, and I could dance in those all night.
The one novel has been with me since I was maybe 18 or 19, and it has so many possibilities for What Happens Inside The Story that I can never get my head around it. I go around and around. I get lost in it, and am never able to decide. So, while the writing itself won’t be difficult, the planning would fucking murder me. (Ah, but-but-but, the result would also probably be rewarding.)
How much does that matter? In the end, the challenge on the front end might not have that much affect on what people read on the back end, right? (Heh. Back end. Don’t judge me.) Then again, do I really want to take on a project that’s going to bury me for a year? Or one I can do in three months? I’ve got other things on the table, so you’d think that something I can “fit in” amidst other work is a smart play. But maybe it’s not the best play in terms of quality, or output.
Work Put In
These projects are all at various stages of “planned.” The Blackbirds sequels — three of ‘em — are mind-mapped out. Robustly so. I know how those stories go. I could throw together an outline for the next one (tentatively titled Mockingbirds, as right now I have a bird thing going on), and move fast. One of the sci-fi stories, which is effectively a very weird time-travel retelling of the Pandora’s Box myth, is robustly researched. I have a notebook that literally bulges with notes. The others, not so much. They’d need more groundwork. More attention. More detail.
On the one hand, why not build off the work I’ve done? On the other, is that the only consideration?
Hey, I hate to think it, but I have to wonder: will this sell?
The Blackbirds sequels — my initial plan was to just dive in. Of course, if the novel doesn’t actually sell, then is that really the smartest idea? To start building an empire of unsellable books with a protagonist nobody wants to read? (To be clear, if that first book doesn’t sell, I will find a way to get it out there. I love it too much to just let it sit here.) YA is certainly hot right now, as is anything with “paranormal” or “supernatural” attached to it, but by the time I get through these, will they be hot? Trends are a moving target, and you’re better off not trying to hit them, I think. That said, if your novel is a philosophical “road novel” starring James Joyce and a talking can of paint, and it’s written partly in Aramaic, and it’s about 350,000 words long, then that’s probably not a “commercially viable” novel.
If I’m writing a book I don’t think will sell, then as The Guy Who Wants To Make Money From Writing, I’m basically hamstringing myself with a rusty knife before the race even begins.
What Else? What Am I Missing?
How do you judge? What factors are most important for you in regards to choosing a project? Do you even have this problem? I don’t get writer’s block, but I damn sure can get jammed up with this question. I won’t let it paralyze me — if I don’t figure it out before too long, I will throw a dart and see which project it pierces. I’d obviously prefer to have “randomness” not end up as the chief vector of choice, y’know?
So. Help me out, Faithful Terribleminds Readers. You are collectively one giant Obi-Wan.
You, giant Obi-Wan, are my only hope.