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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Owen

On Choosing My Next Project

I wrote a post recently on how I “won” NaNoWriMo 2020 (it's here), what I did and what I got out of it. Having done so not only means I have a blog post, but also a project with fifty thousand words in it, all loosely associated with the same setting, characters and (rough) story. The natural thing would be to once more take the writing tiger by the tail and hang on for dear life as I try to create some order from the NaNo chaos, right?


At least, wrong for me. As with all things writing and writing-adjacent on this blog/site, this is about what works for me, my process and my results. What works for you may be entirely different.

With that caveat out of the way, let me tell you why I’m not going back to my NaNo project as the next thing I pick up. Short version: it’s simultaneously too fresh and not fresh enough. Sound paradoxical? It kind of is, but this is art so that sort of nonsense is to be expected.

What I mean is that I’ve spent a month hammering away at this thing every day. That’s given me a lot, as you’ll know if you read my previous post. It’s also left me quite burned out on that particular project. Even now, the idea of opening it up fills me with a sort of hollow dread. What I really need now is some space.

Sorry project; it’s not you, it’s me. I just feel like we should see other people.

As is customary, what I actually mean by that is that I’m bored and I want to see other projects. I’ll be back, of course. Give it a couple of months and I’ll be doing the writerly equivalent of drunk texting my NaNo project at 2am. Whether the project and I still have anything to talk about at that point, well, we’ll have to see. For the time being, the fifty thousand words I’ve just spent a month hammering at is going in a save file (backed up, of course; I’m tired of it, not insane) and I’ll look again in no less than a month.

What to do for that month, though. If you’re anything like me, you probably have a drawer (file folder, whatever) full of half-formed ideas and jotted notes for stuff, or maybe a stack of notebooks with folded up bits of A4 paper sticking out at odd angles. The easy way to select something to work on is to open one of those at random and pick the first idea that comes to hand. Crazy as it may sound, if you’re stuck for what to write on a particular day this is actually a really good little exercise - it’s like a free write but with a shove off to get your started.

All writers seem to have a stack of tatty notebooks and bits of odd paper - this is part of mine

I’m looking for something a little meatier this time, however. Doing my NaNo project has put me in the mood to work on something more substantial.

The question then becomes what to choose. Again, if you’re anything like me you likely have quite a few ideas you’ve thought would make a pretty good novel. Now you come to look at them, though, which is going to be the novel? Which idea is going to spend weeks topping bestseller lists, get you a million five star reviews on goodreads and make you famous? This is the question that can have you agonisingly bouncing back and forth between ideas, poking your head into research, twiddling at characters, getting fed up and trying another idea. Which idea is right for you? Which idea is current? Which idea will be popular?

The answer: it doesn’t matter that much.

It’s not any particular idea that’s going to achieve any of those things. If anything makes your book blow up, it will be your writing. The central ideas of most successful books are, at heart, quite simple. I suspect you already have a notebook or three stuffed with ideas, any of which could be transformed into a prize-winning novel. What’s important is to pick an idea you find interesting and go for it.

If you don’t have a single idea that you find interesting, go make a coffee and come back in a better mood.

I’m (mostly) kidding; you’re great as you are. If you really can look through all your ideas and genuinely say that none of them interest you at all, first wonder why you wrote them down, next come up with something. And yes, I know that “come up with something” sounds ludicrously simple for a task so monstrously significant, but there’s the problem - you’re attaching too much significance to it.

Ideas are everywhere in the world around you. They're buzzing around in your head constantly; you just reject most of them because they're not instant prize-winners. But the big secret is that there are almost no instantly brilliant ideas. Most ideas exist in the mundane, waiting for a writer to come along and make them special. I took this photo on my phone less than half a mile from where I'm writing this. Have a look.

What do you see in this picture? How do you think it came to be there? Congratulations, you've just had an idea.

Your idea is fine. Your writing is what will make it great. And while you’re in the process of that writing, I promise you’ll come up with a whole bunch of new stuff to get excited about. Besides, starting on something half-arsed is better than doing nothing then fretting about doing nothing because you only have half-arsed things to do.

I’ll put it another way: how many of your ideas that you’ve actually written about have come out in the same form they started? Not many, right? Whatever you choose, it’s going to change, so pick something and get changing.

For me, I quite like numbers and mathematics. I’ve been thinking recently about how mathematics can be used to predict rare events given large enough datasets. Sound boring? Yep. I know. But it’s an idea, and that’s somewhere to start, so that’s what I’m going to do. If your idea is somehow more boring-sounding than mine, I salute you.

So that’s what I’m going to start on. I’ll come back soon and lay out some of my process, but for now what’s important is getting started.

What about you? What are you starting?

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