During the initial conversation I have with a new author, I typically ask what she or he is writing next. I always want to know what’s coming down the line. In general, there are three responses:
- They’re pulling something from a bottom drawer or off a dusty shelf, something they wrote years ago that they plan to revisit.
- They’re already a good way into either conceptualizing or writing their next book.
- They’re like, “What the heck, Ellie? I’m still knee-deep in the manuscript I’m paying you to edit!”
Each of these is a normal response, but whether you’ve found yourself excited by a new concept as soon as or even before the first draft of your current manuscript is complete, or whether you are solely focusing on finishing your immediate project, what I’ve observed in this industry in general is that authors are creating content in increasingly shortened time frames. Whether this is out of necessity—an increasingly competitive marketplace and the ability of readers to access words as instantly as authors write them—or inspiration, to be successful authors must always be on the lookout for their next story.
Even for prolific writers (Neil Gaiman, R. L. Stine, and Stephen King come to mind), this is easier said than done. Sure, there’s timing, craft, discipline, clarity, attention to detail, and structure, but being a storyteller also means figuring out what story to tell next, out of all the possible options. Over the years, I’ve found that really crafty writers are somehow, in some way, always “writing,” and by writing, I mean creating, be it serious benchmark research, reshaping archetypal character stuff, or playing a never-ending round of the what-if game.
I’ve also noticed successful writers have uncanny, almost superhuman abilities to tap into and make the most of everyday life. But by this I don’t mean to say that if you aren’t already doing this, if it doesn’t come naturally to you, you can’t become successful. Like Malcolm Gladwell observed in Outliers, some of success is instinct and talent, but most of it is practice. Summing up this ongoing, intel-gathering mission comes down to three strategies for finding your next book idea.
1. Paying Attention
Writers are watchers. They study, snoop, and spy. They scrutinize. They eavesdrop. They make the most of bird’s eye views, be it an open stretch of beach or street or nearly empty coffee shop. Beyond an ability to magnify a given situation to their own devices, they first take the time to notice things. They take note of people, what they’re doing and where they’re going. They make keen observations of life’s whys and how.
2. Making Connections
Writers redraw conclusions. Take The Hunger Games. Late one night, Suzanne Collins made the most of channel surfing. She happened upon a reality television show where young people were competing for a million dollars and then, by chance, flipped to news footage from the War in Iraq. She remembers, “… these two things began to fuse together in a very unsettling way, and that … was the moment where I really got the idea for Katniss’s story.”
In an interview with The Atlantic, Jane Smiley notes that writing “is an exercise in freedom.” She also offers that “…you don’t want to limit the possibilities of exploration.” She didn’t actually offer this in a literal sense, but to me, writers make the best explorers. In other words, if you’re thinking about writing a book set on the Isle of Skye, go explore it. In terms of setting (and this obviously strengthens dialogue and plot devices), writers who offer a taut sense of place give readers something they might not otherwise have: the entire world—or at least an extraordinary nook or footpath of it. Think about it. I have an idea of what Nigeria is like because Ben Okri took me there in The Famished Road. And while I live in Charleston, South Carolina, if I didn’t, in countless books, Pat Conroy has given me a lay of the land.
Although probably every author dreams at some point of writing something totally new, keep in mind that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel either. While novelty always has cache, it’s also good to think in terms of genre and look for gaps in the markets. I, for one, have been in search of a really good medical thriller for years. Think Robin Cook or Michael Crichton (the latter whose death really left a void). I can’t remember the last medical thriller that really knocked me off my feet or kept me home on a Saturday night.
As you observe, listen, and explore your next book, keep a notebook handy. Keeping a "book ideas" journal will serve you well, and, as an exercise, as you would with a diary, write in the present tense using precise language that engages and conveys all of your senses—because you don’t want to forget what you might write next.