The Author Burnout Coach
Episode 16: How to Choose Your Next Project
Hey writers friends! Welcome to episode 16, and it’s going to be a good one! I know I say this every week, but I’m so excited for this topic. It’s something that comes up for writers at every stage of their career, and it’s also a decision that can be really fraught for a lot of us.
As writers–hell, as humans–we love there to be a right answer. Unfortunately, when it comes to picking your next novel (or screenplay or whatever it is you write), there is truly no right answer. No one can predict the whims of reader interest or publisher trends. Even publishers can’t predict with perfect accuracy which books will hit big and which will flop.
Some books they’ll bet big on, pay a ton of money for and shell out for lots and lots of fancy marketing. And then the book won’t do much of anything saleswise (or at least, it doesn’t hit the bestseller list like they’d hoped). Meanwhile, there are books that publishers mostly ignore but hit just right with the readership and go on to be huge successes.
Now, that’s not to say that publisher support of a book doesn’t matter. I’m saying this to illustrate that there are no guarantees in this business. Even the really big names, like Stephen King and Nora Roberts, their books don’t sell the same number of copies book to book. They may always sell really well, but it’s not a perfect upward trajectory forever. And that’s not a problem!
It also means that there’s no perfect answer to the question of “What should I write next?”
Now, sometimes, publishing decides for us. We have contracts to fulfill and our publishers have a say in what will indeed satisfies that contract. But outside of that, when all the contracts are completed and we have only ourselves and our creativity to answer to, then, what the fuck do we do?
Do we write another YA novel or write something in the adult space? Do we try idea 1 or idea 2? Do we stick in our familiar fantasy genre or try that space opera that’s been calling to us? Ooh, or that horror idea?
Your agent may have some thoughts on what makes sense given the context of the rest of your career, but they may only be able to help you narrow down to two or three choices that they think would work. And now? Now it’s all up to you.
A lot of the advice about what to pick next hinges on determining which idea you’re most excited about. And when there’s a clear difference, that works great! I’m all for following the idea that’s calling to your heart.
But sometimes…you can really talk yourself in either direction. They all feel equally exciting. Or maybe you waffle back and forth between them.
When that’s your circumstance, when your agent has given you the greenlight on both ideas and you genuinely can’t decide where to go next, I have a two questions you can ask yourself to determine your path forward.
First - If you were guaranteed to succeed no matter which book you picked, which would you choose?
And if you were guaranteed to fail no matter which book you picked, which would you be the most glad you wrote anyway?
Let those questions sink in for a second. If you were going to succeed either way, which book do you want to succeed with? And if you’re going to fail either way, which book would be worth the effort regardless of the outcome?
I love the duality of these questions, because as people, we tend to go to one extreme or another. We either picture our future and only see the good parts or we only see the obstacles. But if you remember from last week’s episode, life is 50/50. No matter what you choose, you will have struggles and obstacles and joys and fun.
For me, I tend to fall to the side of eternal optimism, or as one of my coaches Kara Loewentheil calls it, I tend to indulge in perfectionist fantasies. I’ll think of a new book idea and get excited about the characters and the magic, and then I’ll imagine this unrealistic future where the book is super easy to write and everything comes together perfectly and it’s an instant best seller.
Which, compared to the reality with its messy first drafts and the way stories come together for me across multiple iterations and heavy lifting in revision, that’s . . . never how it goes. But because I spent so much mental energy imagining how easy and fun it’ll be, those little speed bumps can feel catastrophic.
On the other side of the spectrum are the folks who are drawn to imagine all the challenges. They might get a book idea and then their mind goes to all the research they’ll have to do and how tricky the plot will be and how the market isn’t quite right for the project. When they go that direction, they might not be able to even get started, because they don’t have a good grasp of the positive 50 percent of the experience.
Neither of these tendencies is better or worse than the other, as each one is missing an entire half of the equation! Which is why it’s important to ask BOTH of the questions. If I’ll succeed either way, which do I want more? If I’ll fail either way, which do I want more?
Now, of course, success and failure aren’t objective measurements. There’s a saying that I love that states you’re either winning or learning, and I think that can be a really helpful way of looking at it. So if success and failure don’t resonate for you, try asking the questions in a slightly different way.
If you’re going to equally enjoy writing both projects, which one would you rather write?
If you’re going to feel shitty and stressed writing both projects, which one would you rather write?
These questions aren’t meant to be a downer. It’s just how reality works. Sometimes we feel amazing, and sometimes we feel like ass. It’s helpful to remind yourself that, because we so often trick ourselves into believing that a certain decision will take away the ass half of life.
You can use these questions for any life decision, too. Let’s say you’re currently working a full-time Day Job while doing the author thing nights, weekends, early mornings, and whenever you have a vacation from the Day Job. (AKA me just a few months ago).
You might be tempted to think that quitting your job to write full-time would take away the stressful parts of your life. But nope! The parts that are hard will be different, but life doesn’t turn into perfect bliss…ever. You will still have things you stress about.
Which is why it’s helpful to ask yourself the two questions. If I can be happy with a Day Job and happy writing full-time, which would I prefer? AND if I’m going to feel stressed with a Day Job and stressed writing full-time, which would I prefer?
For me, the stress that comes from creating the life I want is way easier to manage than stress that comes from living the life I thought was my only choice.
The moments of joy are much sweeter, too, but the balance is still 50/50.
So to wrap up this short and sweet episode, I want to invite you to walk your story ideas–and your ideas about what’s possible for your life–through these two questions.
If I’ll be happy/successful either way, what do I want? If I’ll be stressed/fail either way, what do I want?
Even if you don’t ultimately choose to go after your heart’s deepest desire, it’s incredibly powerful to KNOW what that desire is.
Until next time, happy writing!