No matter if it’s your first novel or your fifth, deciding which WIP idea to tackle next is a big decision.
Between prep work, the first draft, editing, and getting feedback from your beta readers, you’re going to be spending a lot of time in the world of your story, so it’s a good idea to choose something that will hold your interest even through the rough patches.
I’ve got a To-Be-Written List a mile long, with concepts ranging from fully-developed ideas to those that are more vague, consisting of maybe one character and a fragment of a scene or conflict. When I’m ready to start on a new project, deciding what to work on is a process all its own.
In this post, I’m sharing some of the factors that contribute to that decision. While each can play a role, they do so in varying degrees depending on the situation.
As a quick note, these are my current factors as an unpublished author and are subject to change. Writers who have signed a contract with a publisher might have different considerations at play and expectations of them.
This is often the primary and final consideration when it comes to narrowing down my choices.
Every project has its hills and valleys. There will be days where snappy dialogue and vivid scene descriptions come easily, but there will also be times where you find yourself in a slump. It’s all part of the writing process.
Choosing the story idea that excites me the most makes it easier to not only start the project but keep going when it gets tough.
This feeling can be evoked by anything. A character you feel a connection to. Something you want to research and learn more about. A theme you want to explore. The desire to revisit a setting you’re previously written about.
A WIP that you’re not excited about will definitely feel like it’s dragging.
When I’ve narrowed it down to two ideas, the excitement towards both is the thing that helps me make my final pick.
Trust your gut and choose the one that calls you. What story do you most want to tell?
The Story So Far
Depending on your writing style, there is a chance you’re going into a new project with some sense of direction. This might be a fully-fledged outline with a chapter-by-chapter breakdown and detailed character profiles covering everything from their family tree to what their typical dinner consists of, but it can also be as simple as a single sentence.
I describe myself as a Plantser, meaning that although I typically have some form of a plan, there’s a lot that I Pants my way through and make up on the fly.
I’ll usually have a basic understanding of my story’s direction and be certain of its ending, a strong sense of who my characters are, and the conflict at its core. But beyond that, I’ll figure it out as I go.
Despite this, some entries on my To-Be-Written list are more developed than others.
When I’m choosing between ideas, I’ll take everything I know about each into account. How strong are my characters’ voices, and am I able to envision their appearance clearly? Is the conflict strong enough or does it need more work? How many scenes do I have planned out, even if I don’t know where they’re going?
You don’t need to have every single detail laid out, but having at least a game plan can make the writing process easier to navigate. Being aware of how much I know about each WIP idea on the table is definitely something I take into consideration.
Of course, how much I may know about the story is not the only thing to consider when choosing my next project. There’s also the nonfiction side of things.
Research is a significant part of writing regardless of genre. We all know the jokes about the FBI kicking down our doors and storming in because of our, shall we say, interesting search history. Writers have a habit of falling down the strangest rabbit holes and ending up in peculiar corners of the internet. It’s all for the sake of realism.
Writing historical fiction means research is vital and endless part of my process.
This will vary between genres, but there is often an amount of research that carries over from one project to the next. These days, most of my research is getting into the specifics for individual projects. This can include things like looking into the average day in a protagonist's job or getting a feel for the setting if I'm basing it off a real location.
Not knowing absolutely everything about a potential new WIP isn't a deal-breaker, but I do consider how much time it will take to dig up the information I'll need; I expect this to play a larger role should I ever be writing under contract and have deadlines encroaching.
The internet has made it easier to find a lot of what I need, but I just as often rely on books. Depending on the topic, finding reliable sources isn't as simple. Usually, the more specific, the harder it is to track down. There's also shipping costs and availability to be considered, such as when something is not available as an eBook.
Many of the nonfiction texts in my collection have been a "right place at the right time" scenario, books I've stumbled upon by chance.
If it's starting to look like the things I'll need for a WIP are more scarce than anticipated or eluding me, I'll consider shifting gears towards a different project while remaining on the hunt.
Again, elusive isn't necessarily the determining factor, but it can impact which project I'll work on next.
What Happens Next?
This is among the most popular factors, especially for writers who are working on a series.
If you're two books into a trilogy, it's likely that your next project will be the third installment. At this point, readers are invested and will want to see what your characters will face next, so shifting gears entirely may not be considered the best move.
That said, it's worth noting that some authors will take a step off the expected path and write a companion novel rather than the next installment. Companion novels might follow a different character than the original protagonist during the events of the main storyline and additional give insight from their perspective, serve as a prologue, or help bridge the gap between two books; basically, they're stories that are adjacent to the series.
But what if you're writing what I call a "connected universe" or an anthology-like series?
This is what many of my current and planned WIPs fall into, and they're commonly seen throughout the romance genre. Each book is a standalone, but they might share characters and settings, and the events in one may affect the course of the next. Book A might follow one couple, while Book B follows the sister of Book A's protagonist for her story.
If your possible next WIP is a continuation of a previous on, it might make sense to work on the next installment rather than dive into a completely new story with a different cast.
Remember, this isn't always the case. Some planned standalones are expanded into series, while some stories intended to be a series are shortened into single, contained works.
Hot Topics (And Why Not)
It's good to be mindful of the trends. From finding comp titles for your own book, writing your blurb, and getting a sense of what category your work might fit into on platforms like Amazon and Goodreads, knowing what's popular can help you as a writer.
Sometimes, you may want to use what's popular as a way to decide what story you should write next.
I tend to advise against this.
The only thing that is constant is change. Publishing is always evolving, and it's a process that often takes longer than many assume. If you start writing a novel today, it's likely that years are going to lapse before it sees the light of day as a printed book. In that time, the hot topics may look vastly different.
Trends ebb and flow.
Vampires used to be all the rage with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, and many others. Then came the YA Dystopian Era helmed by The Hunger Games and Divergent. Nowadays, neither of these are as popular as they were back in the day (though vampires seem to be making a comeback).
If you're writing something just because it's what's "in" at the moment, your readers will probably be able to tell. They'll get the sense you're not passionate about the genre or feel like you're trying to cram an idea into a mold.
Simply put, they'll know your heart isn't in it.
If what you want to write happens to coincide with a trend, go for it. But if you're letting the trends guide your pen or be the sole reason you start a new WIP, it might be wise to reconsider.
As with a lot of things in the writing world, the WIP you take on next can be based on instinct. But sometimes, it takes a little more than intuition to decide where you want to go.
Starting a new writing project can be as exciting as it can be intimidating, especially when you have more than one idea to choose from. When faced with multiple routes, weighing your options can help narrow down your options and put you on the path that's right for you.