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What should I write?
So many ideas, so little time.
“Can You Relate?” is an occasional advice column in which I answer your questions about writing, motivation, inspiration, audience-building, work-life balance, snack recommendations, and the zen of creating art. 💫
How do you decide what to write each day if you have competing ideas? I’m struggling to find time in general to write with little kids, but when I have the time I’m frozen by either the lack of ideas or the overwhelm of ideas. Do I pursue a novel idea first and just crank away at it daily, or should I pursue smaller ideas that may or may not go anywhere? Or maybe a mix?
I’m currently taking a summer vacation from writing (more on that soon), but I’ve been in this exact position before and I’m sure I’ll be in it again.
First, a confession: I do not have children. I applaud those who’ve taken on that role, and I love hanging out with your kids, but for many reasons I have chosen to be an auntie to all and a mother to none.
That said, I understand the struggle of finding time to devote to your craft, and the frustration of feeling frozen when that time arrives. Part of it is the shock of finally getting what you want. You spend the hardest parts of the day—washing an endless sink of dishes, feeding a fussy baby, joining yet another Zoom meeting to discuss deliverables and ROIs—dreaming of the moment when you can sit in front of a blank page, beholden to no one but your own imagination. It’s a lot of pressure to put on a single moment, so it’s no wonder you freeze!
In your question, you ask if you should crank away at a novel, pursue shorter things, or write a mix of both. A few weeks ago, I wrote about starting a new project with nothing more than a mood. “What is the story you need right now?” I asked. “What kind of mood are you in?”
That moment you’re sitting frozen in front of a blank page? That’s when mood matters most, and you can figure out yours with a few simple questions. What do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, and what do they write? When you have fifteen minutes to yourself, are you in the mood to pick up a novel and read half a chapter, or do you feel more satisfied by a 500-word piece of flash? I have no research to back this up, but my suspicion is that we most enjoy writing what we most enjoy reading. Anecdotal evidence (IE, the fact that I cannot stop reading or writing novels) supports this theory.
When you’re limited by time it might feel like you’re destined to stay small, no matter what mood you’re in. But that’s not the case! First of all, short stories are extremely difficult to write. Personally, I find them much harder than novels. Each one requires building a new world, developing a new cast of characters, making decisions about themes and form and point-of-view. A novel, on the other hand, takes a long time to write, but you only need to make those initial decisions once. As someone who does not have all the time in the world, this feels far more manageable.
No matter what you’re writing, here are a few other strategies that can help you make the most of your time:
I love a plan almost as much as I love a routine. For my last book, I found that writing an outline was really helpful. (I like the Save the Cat method as a starting point.) This allowed me to think through plot and character more efficiently, and kept my writing sessions (mostly) on track.
Once you start actually writing, head over to Pacemaker, an incredible tool I learned about from Kara Cutruzzula, which will help you figure out how much you need to write each day to actually finish a project. For my last book, the tool told me that if I wanted to finish my 80,000 word draft within six months, I would have to write 422 words a day. 422! And if that seems like too many words, then shoot for 100. It’ll take you a little longer, but you’ll finish eventually. That’s better than not finishing at all.
If you love short stories but hate making decisions more than once, try writing a linked collection. Back when I wrote short stories, I set them all in the same town and focused on similar themes and ideas. The end result was a narrative that felt bigger than its parts, and allowed me to settle into each story more quickly.
Lower your expectations. No matter how much you prepare, or how often you write, or how many ideas you have, the writing will still be wonderful some days, and terrible others. There’s no way to tell what kind of day you’ll have until you start, and then it’s too late to turn back. Keep going, and eventually the good days will outweigh the bad.
I used to panic in the middle of a project, right at the point where I’d put in a substantial amount of time and realized I’d never get it back. What if this is a terrible idea and it just took me this long to realize it? What if I write this whole book and never sell it?
As it turns out, I didn’t sell the book, more than once. But I don’t feel like I wasted my time. Instead, I had the incredible privilege of finishing what I set out to do. Of all the places a creative project might lead you, that’s one of the best.
Food trucks are pretty hit or miss in my opinion. That’s why I’m happy to report that this tofu bowl from Bahn Sai, a local truck that specializes in Asian street food and was conveniently parked next to the bar where I was enjoying a cold sangria in 106 degree weather, was a hit. Even my husband, who does not enjoy food at all, couldn’t stop talking about how good it was. If you see Bahn Sai parked anywhere in Wilmington, place your order immediately.
According to my biweekly publishing schedule, I should have sent a newsletter last Sunday. I did not, mostly because it was hard to think about anything writing-related after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe. v. Wade and took a precious and necessary right away from 33 million child-bearing people.
This is a newsletter about writing stories, making art, and honoring your creative process. But none of those things are possible without the power to first write the story of your own life. So instead of sharing fun links and relatable reads, I’m making a humble request: set up a recurring donation to an organization that is fighting on behalf of reproductive rights. I chose the Carolina Abortion Fund, which helps folks in North and South Carolina, but there are so many places that could use your support. This fact alone is a comfort during a time when comfort is in short supply. 💛
Thank you to Phoenix B. and Kate P. for funding the coffee that keeps my creative juices flowing.
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(At the end of 2022, I plan to donate 20% of anything I earn from this newsletter. Thanks for your support
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