The Eternal Question: What Should I Write?

One of the questions I get most frequently over email is this:

What should I write?

The question presumably meaning, what kind of thing should I write? What genre? What story? Maybe it’s the first thing you’re ever going to write. Maybe it’s just the next thing in a long line of written things.

And the answer to this question is simple.

That answer is:

How the fuck should I know?

I mean, I’m not you. At least, not until I get my SOUL TRANSPLANT HELMET working, but that’s at least five years off — maybe seven if Elon doesn’t call me back (seriously, Elon, get your shit together, gimme a ring, Musk). Because I am (presently) not you, I have no idea what you should write. Because the advice of what to write is not a thing that has an easy answer — or, really, any answer. You want the answer to be something concrete, something that is the result of plugging variables in and punching the CALCULATE STORY button, but no such thing exists. You can’t “run the numbers” and end up with the perfect answer (“Ah! I should write — let’s see, mumble mumble, carry the three, put the DNA on the slide, shake the shoebox with the cat inside of it, et voila — I should write The Terminator meets The Gilmore Girls as if written by Mary Shelley. Bestseller status, here I come.”)

It doesn’t work like that.

But what I can do is tell you how come to terms with what I should write next. Because this isn’t a question just some writers have — it’s a question that plagues us all, I think. It plagues us at the start. It plagues us throughout our career. It plagues n00bs, midlisters, even bestsellers. It plagues traditionally-published authors and indie authors. It is a question I ask myself even as I’m writing one thing because I always need to know what’s next? And what’s next after that? If this book is successful, what else can I write in that vein? If it tanks, how do I move to an adjacent track that still makes sense? Where am I? Why am I wearing pants? Is this a curse? Did I spit in the Pants God’s eye? WHY HAS THOU FORSAKEN ME, OH PANTSLESS PANTHEON

Ahem, sorry.

Here is what I do to determine what I’m gonna write next.

First, fuck your brand.

I know, I know. But seriously, any brand you have in mind is a box, a fence, a limitation. Said it before, will say it again, but a brand is the thing a farmer sears into the ass of his livestock to make sure they don’t stray.

Fuck.

Your.

Brand.

If I thought about my brand I’d never write anything.

Second, it bears mentioning that I no longer write my ideas down. I used to. I used to hoard them like jewels until I realize they weren’t gems — they were bits of aquarium gravel. They’re dross, they’re dribble, they’re just a building material like dirt or concrete. Not valueless! But also not precious. Ideas ping my brain daily the way we’re all pelted by solar radiation. I submit ideas to Idea Thunderdome, and only those ideas that emerge victorious — by which I mean, they are persistent, like carpenter bees thumping against the window-glass — get to stay. And even then, I don’t write them down. If the idea is good, it will continue to percolate. It will bother me. It will live with me, lingering in my head like a beautiful or traumatic memory.

I usually have four or five of these ideas swirling around my head at any given time. Fireflies in a fucking jar. So, when it comes time to figure out what I want to write — I look at these effulgent little weirdos to see if there’s anything there, and if there is, I pluck it out, smash its glowy butt, and smear the bioluminescent innards onto my face like phosphorescent war paint.

If there’s not, or if I remain uncertain, onto step three:

I ask myself two questions.

a) What is exciting me right now? I don’t mean that way — not “in-the-pants-excited,” because if we’re talking about underwear excitement, I’d be writing fan-fiction about shirtless Thor and Cate Blanchett as Hela and also Loki and definitely Valkyrie and, inexplicably, the ghost from Booberry? I dunno. Don’t kinkshame me, you monsters.

No, what I mean is, what’s geeking me out right now? Not pop culture geekery, but topic geekery. You can look through my books and see the things I’m feeling dorky about at any given time — birds! ants! hackers! agriculture! mythology! — and see how that translated into those stories. Basically, I just want to be interested in something, because that gives me a reason to research it and involve myself in it and then be passionate about it on the page.

Like, have you ever been sitting down with a friend or loved one or captive enemy and you’re all like, “Man, I just read the CRAZIEST THING today, Elon Musk and this guy named Chnurk Mandog are inventing some kind of soul-stealing helmet or maybe it’s a body-snatching helmet I’m not really sure?” And you just wanna keep talking about that really cool thing? Yeah, put in a pin in those kinds of topics. If something gets you all nerdy, that’s a thing you might wanna fold into your work at some point, and it can help form the skeleton that will support the flesh of an idea, narratively.

b) What is bothering me right now? I don’t mean “that rash” or “mosquitoes,” but I’m asking you to identify something that’s troubling you. Something that’s making you scared. Or upset. Or anxious. Something that’s scratching at your brainstem like a sick rat. Again, you can look to my work and find the deeper, scarier shit (death! surveillance! artificial intelligence! class warfare!) that serves as my effort to… make sense of it. Not for you. But for me. Fiction is a great way to explore the snarliest, gnarliest depths of That Which Troubles You, just as it’s a great place to explore the heights of That Which Geeks Your Ass Out.

And fiction is best, for me, when it’s combining those things.

If it’s just troubling stuff, it ends up dour, dire, not much fun.

If it’s just the geekery nerdery excitement, then it’s light, or twee, or conflict-free.

The first is too deep, too dark.

The latter too shallow, too bright.

For me, it’s the perfect combination to find the next damn thing to write.

And here you might be saying, WHOA WHOA WHOA, WHY ARE YOU NOT TELLING ME TO CONSIDER MY CAREER, OR THE MARKET, OR TO CONSULT THE ORACLES OF PUBLISHING.

Listen, you can care about that stuff.

Maybe you even should, I dunno. It’s certainly not the worst idea to try to imagine what things might sell and what things might not. But… the reality is, nobody actually knows anything? I’ve made this point before but it demands a return visit: nobody knows anything inside publishing. They can make guesses. Many can make educated guesses based off insight and experience. But there’s no answer. And by the time you actually write the thing that might serve the market, the market will have changed. As I’ve said before, you’re aiming your spaceship at a star that has already burned out — the light from it just hasn’t caught up yet. The market is an unknowable entity. It is a lightless, doom-filled eye whose only language is chaos. It’s Sauron, it’s the Death Star, it’s Kanye West’s Twitter account. My advice is to stay away from it.

And this is where I exhort you yet again to say fuck you to branding. Because branding is you imagining yourself in relation to the marketplace. It leaves little room for you to be you, or for you to explore these questions that are uniquely your own. It leaves room for you to Provide Content, but that’s it. There’s little passion there. Little interest. Little fear. It’s finding a market niche and filling it with whatever narrative widget or story hamburger you choose to provide.

Do not worry about brand.

Worry about voice.

Voice meaning, who you are as an author. What things that speak to you as an author, and that will end up on the page because you just can’t help but put them there.

Of course, all of this is useless to you if branding is exactly what you want. And that’s okay if it is what you want — no harm, no foul, if it makes you happy. But for my mileage, the market is so unknowable, and this career so unpredictable, you might as well give writing to your own needs and desires a healthy shot.

So, when it comes down to the question of, what do I write next?

Return to this post.

Maybe it will help you.

Maybe it won’t.

Can’t hurt to try, though, can it?

* * *

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