Free Guide: How to Choose Your Next Book (or Screenplay)

…When You Have Way Too Many Ideas to Choose From

As someone who used to struggle to come up with a single idea but then became overwhelmed and paralyzed by the sheer number of story ideas I came up with, I’ve had to find a way to navigate through the realm of choosing writing projects. Each one of my ideas seemed equally important and valuable, and I couldn’t stand the idea of trying to “just pick one and write it,” lest I make the wrong choice, betray one of them for another, or worst of all, let any one of them go.

I had to come up with a process to help me make decisions.

Luckily, as a coach and entrepreneur since 2002, I’ve had my fair share of decision making challenges and support in making those decisions over time. And thankfully, the processes I’ve learned translate brilliantly into choosing writing projects.

(And by “writing projects” I generally mean long form books or screenplays. :) )

In 2015 I wrote a three-part series of blog posts about these methods, called “Choosing Your Next Writing Project.” Writers all over used it to choose their next book or screenplay from among their many, many ideas and found great relief in knowing what to move ahead with next.

Rather than feeling stuck in the paralysis of not being able to choose or having to “give up” any of their ideas, these writers felt empowered to choose and run with that choice.

I’ve now put together a “reprint” of my original blog posts, edited, updated, and assembled in one place for your ease of reading, along with a step-by-step workbook that will walk you through the process I describe for choosing your next book, or screenplay, which you can download below. (If you prefer, you can read the posts in the original series online here, here, and here.)

Here’s what you’ll want to know about it:

  • This process assumes that you have some number of possible book or screenplay ideas that you’re trying to choose between. If you’re instead in the place of needing to come up with ideas, this particular process won’t be helpful to you yet, though you may want to read it to see if it sparks ideas for you start with. I expect to create a book brainstorming guidebook at some point down the line, so stay tuned if that’s something you need help with. (In the meantime, you might like this post.)
  • This process is also specifically designed for choosing among long form writing projects (novels, feature scripts, books, etc.). This is because long form projects tend to trigger a different kind of stuckness than short form projects do (usually because they require less commitment, though there are certainly plenty of ways we can get stuck with short projects too).
  • You can read all the posts online without getting the download but you might prefer to have the new guidebook I’ve put together since I’ve updated the content and also included a workbook version (both in a PDF you can print out and write on by hand and in an RTF format you can import into Word or Scrivener and work on digitally). 

If you’re wondering how this works, check out this comment from Naomi Dunford of ittybiz.com, who used the process to choose her next novel project:

naomi dunford“OK, I have more project drama than anybody else on earth. I really don’t think I’m exaggerating here. You see, I always wanted to be a writer. The dream was always so big, so real, so important. But sometimes with dreams that visceral, the detail gets lost in the shuffle. In this case, the detail was ‘for God’s sake, woman, you know you’re going to have to pick something and start, right?’

That one critical element always felled me.

There was nothing I couldn’t use as an excuse to avoid picking a project and getting started. Resistance! Procrastination! Yeah-buts! Fear of failure! Fear of success! I’ve got the whole gamut. It’s driven my parents crazy, my kids crazy, and two husbands crazy, too.

But! I went through your exercises and I’m happy to say… I have selected my project, and I feel SO confident about moving forward.

To anybody reading this, if this can work for me, it can work for ANYBODY. I am the Resistance queen of the world, and it even got ME going. That’s saying something. Highly recommended.”

Want it for yourself?

Download The Guidebook Here

The Guidebook includes an overview of the process in a PDF format, along with a workbook in a PDF and RTF format. You can import the RTF into Word or Scrivener and work with it there.

Click the image below to subscribe to my mailing list and download the Guidebook now.

How to use your inner wisdom to choose your next writing project

So let’s return to our topic of choosing your next writing project.

In my first post in this series, I wrote about where and how writers tend to get stuck choosing writing projects.

In my second post in the series, I wrote about using “decision criteria” to make choices about your next writing project. I should clarify here perhaps, that I’m specifically talking about long form writing projects (a novel, a feature script, a book, etc.). This is because long form projects tend to trigger a different kind of stuckness than short form projects which require less commitment (though there are certainly plenty of ways we can get stuck with short projects too).

In this third post, let’s talk about some additional approaches I like to use when it comes to putting projects in order of “best fit” to “least best fit for now” and also about some intuitive approaches to choosing a project.

Let’s start with project ordering.

** Check out the newly updated version of this series available
for download here (or scroll to the end of this post) **

Putting your projects in “order”

I help my clients get through project choosing paralysis by helping them think about which project comes first. This is important because many writers who are overwhelmed with choices and concepts and ideas feel attached to all of them and petrified by the idea of “giving up” any of them.

It feels like letting someone you love die, or choosing to marry one suitor and rejecting the other.

But this is more like having serial, monogamous relationships. It’s about choosing which project you’ll work on now, all the while holding in mind which one will come next, and then next again. 

And yes, this works when you’re working on a series, but it also works even if you’re working with stand-alone, single-title projects.

The core idea here is to develop a project queue — a list of your projects in an order that you’ll work through. (And yes, of course it can and will change over time, it’s just to help you choose the first one NOW, and to have a sense of what comes next, to calm down the part of your brain that freaks out about missing out on something.)

To put them in order, you can use a number of a different methods, including using decision criteria like those I described last time (like those being the operative phrase; it’s important to come up with criteria that work for you, your brand, your writing career, your lifestyle, etc.).

You can also use intuitive decision making methods instead of or in conjunction to the decision criteria that help bring forth your own best inner wisdom about what comes next.

For me now, a lot of this happens semi-consciously, because I’m constantly sorting and sifting through my projects in the back of my brain, but it’s worth discussing in detail if you’re struggling with a choice.

Using intuitive decision-making methods

  1. My head says / My heart says. One of my favorite ways of helping my clients choose projects is to hold their collection of ideas in mind and then verbally fill in the blanks of these two statements, in turn, SAYING OUT LOUD THE FIRST THING THAT COMES TO MIND.

    For the first statement, “My head says,” keep your eyes open and complete the sentence out loud: “When it comes to choosing my next writing project, my head says … ”

    For the second step, “My heart says,” take a deep breath, let your head drop to your chest, put your hand over your heart, close your eyes and complete this sentence, also out loud, “When it comes to choosing my next writing project, my heart says …” Just notice what comes and notice how it feels. Sometimes they’ll match. Sometimes they won’t. But your heart will have the true knowledge, if you allow it to speak.

    Note that this exercise works best when you have someone to listen and hold the space for you, like a coach, mentor, or trusted friend. Deeper truths tend to emerge in the presence of a caring witness. (Thanks to Sonia for this one.)

  2. Follow your fear. Another one of my favorite methods comes from Steven Pressfield. In a video interview I saw of him, he said, “Figure out what scares you the most and do that first.” The wisdom here is that our fear can be an incredible guide to exactly the next best place we need to go to grow as writers. We would not be experiencing the resistance and fear unless there was something very important lurking in that direction. So you check in with your project list to see which one scares you. Consider heading in that direction first.

    I can still remember facing what I thought was my biggest fear, working on a non-fiction project, when a friend of mine said to me, “I don’t think that’s the one that scares you the most, I think it’s the fiction project.” And of course when I looked deeper, she was right. So I turned to writing my first script instead, about a painful issue that was so terrifying to me I had gone numb to it. (And that is one of the stultifying effects of fear by the way — it can make you believe you don’t care or feel nothing when in fact you feel “too much”, so again, having a witness can be an important part of this process.)

  3. Light / heavy. With an unordered or ordered list of possible projects, without overthinking, zip down your list and make note of which projects feel light and which feel heavy. The “lighter” projects are usually good bets and you can move them to the top. Keep in mind that in relationship to method #2, “light” doesn’t necessarily mean not scary, nor does “heavy” necessarily mean it is scary. Try using these two methods separately and see what happens. Oftentimes there’s a useful overlap that is quite clarifying, and although they may seem counter to each other on a logical level, remember that we’re using intuitive methods here. :) (Thanks to Isabel for teaching me this one.)
  4. Project into the future. Have a little chat here with your future self, about which is the next best project for you. Remember that s/he is already living it, so s/he’ll have the perfect 20-20 hindsight to best advise you. Close your eyes, imagine meeting your future self in a cozy spot, and just ask, “What’s my next, best project?” The answer may surprise and delight you — and may knock all the other projects well down the totem pole! (This happened to me just a few nights ago.)
  5. Pay attention to what catches your eye. As you hold your list of projects in mind and move through your day and your life, notice what shows up, whether through other people’s words, what you read or watch, or things you see in your day-to-day world. Sometimes a little nudge of clarity is all we need, and when we pay attention to the confluence of information and ideas and experiences we have, something will crystalize into a “Yes!” for a particular project above the others.
  6. Do something repetitive. One of the best ways to access your own inner wisdom and intuition is to do something repetitive. So ask yourself, “I wonder what my next project will be?” or “What’s the next best project for me?” and then go for a walk, take a shower, scrub the floor, work out, or do something else that’s physical and repetitive and just let your brain give you the answer whenever it’s ready. Part of this is about trusting the process, giving it time, and knowing that the next project will be clear in its own right and perfect time.
  7. Notice which project bubbles up to the top. My favorite way of choosing a project is to just let them all circulate around in the back of my brain and see which project(s) start attracting new ideas and clarity and bubble up to the surface. Certain projects just seem to have the energy and drive to rise above the others. I’ll usually have a favorite or two, a sense of which seem like the best candidates, and then wait to see what happens, and usually one emerges, just in time for the next writing rodeo.

Can you imagine using any of these tools to help you choose your next project? 

Now that we’ve come to the end of this series, do you have any lingering questions or specific challenges about how to choose your next project? Ask me a question in the comments section on the blog and I’ll be happy to try to help!

And if you’re catching up, start here:

Thanks so much for reading!

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Download the Newly Updated Guidebook Version Here

There’s an updated version of this post and the two others in the series, assembled into a How to Choose Your Next Book (Or Screenplay) Guidebook with an overview of the process in a PDF format, along with a workbook in a PDF and RTF format. You can import the RTF into Word or Scrivener and work with it there.

Click the image below to download the Guidebook now.

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Choose a writing project with decision criteria

Today I’m continuing a series I started last week about choosing writing projects. This is the first post of the series where I’m delving into HOW to choose a project. In the last post I wrote about the issues and challenges that tend to come up for writers around choosing a project and what underlies them (spoiler alert, it’s often some kind of perfectionism!) so that we can start to shift how we’re thinking about it.

** Check out the newly updated version of this series available
for download here (or scroll to the end of this post) **

More on mindset first

But first, a bit more on mindset before we explore “decision criteria”:

I remember when I started the ProSeries at ScreenwritingU in 2011. I was concerned about picking the “right” project to work on. And I remember that our instructor (Hal) seemed to be relatively unconcerned about my choice, which at the time I found somewhat disconcerting. Hindsight being 20-20, however, I can see now WHY he was unconcerned. He knew that — especially for someone like me, a then newbie screenwriter — it didn’t actually matter that much what I chose. It would be a learning script, and if I continued screenwriting, which is of course an assumption of the program, it would be one of dozens of scripts I would write.

It’s hard to hold that in mind when we’re choosing projects, especially because of the things we talked about last time (“It’s so much work!”  “What if I choose the wrong one?!” etc.), but if we take an eagle’s eye view of our writing careers we can see that yes, this next project will be just one of many projects we work on in our lifetimes. Will it be a best seller or a runaway hit? Maybe, maybe not. But you can see that if you try to choose on that basis alone, you might get somewhat paralyzed.

Enter criteria

Hence the concept of criteria.

When you use criteria to select a project, you systematically narrow your field of ideas using a list of criteria that you choose in advance to help you make the decision.

Everyone has to choose their own criteria, there’s no point in me telling you what they “should” be. I can, however, share with you some of the criteria I use and think about (and why) so that it might spark your thoughts about your own.

(Side note: I’ll write about OTHER methods to choose projects in the rest of this blog series, including some intuitive methods. So if this particular method doesn’t resonate for you, not to fret, there’s more to come.)

Okay, so on to project selection using criteria.

Start with where you are right now

The first step is to think about where you are in your writing career and what you are hoping to accomplish. 

For instance, are you trying to:

  1. Establish yourself as a writer?
  2. Figure out your brand?
  3. Choose your first project?
  4. Build an audience?
  5. Break into Hollywood?
  6. Something else?

I think you can see that each of these intentions have different outcomes, and so a project to fulfill them would ideally be picked with a specific intention in mind. And since the project you might choose to build an audience may be very different than the one you might choose if you are working on figuring out your brand, you’ll use different criteria depending on what you are hoping to accomplish in order to narrow the field.

Have a list of projects

Also, assuming you’re a writer with a ton of ideas you’re trying to pick from, you’ll want to have a list of projects that you can refer to as you make your decision. (If you’re a writer who is struggling to come up with an idea — any idea! — that’s a different issue that we’ll have to tackle another day.)

Choose your writing project criteria

Here are some ideas I’ve used for writing project decision criteria (and I like to frame mine as questions). Although I’ve listed quite a few possible criteria, I ask my clients to come up no more than three to five criteria to when we make their project choice. More than that and they just get overwhelmed.

I’ve listed more than three to five here to give you some ideas of various criteria I’ve used at different times to get you thinking about possibilities for yourself.

  • Would I be thrilled to write this project? First off, I want to think about my attachment to the project. As long as I’m committing to a long form project, I want to ENJOY myself. This is my life after all, and it’s too short to waste doing things I don’t feel excited about. (You can also use the question from The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, “Does this spark joy?” as an alternate here.) This is about thinking about your level of passion, curiosity, interest, and attachment to a particular idea.
  • Does this project have a high level of clarity for me? Even though I love most of my project ideas, certain projects have more clarity for me. I know what they are about. I know why I want to write them. I know who the characters are. I know what the basic story is. If I don’t know those things, perhaps I still have a good sense of the concept and feel that it will be relatively “easy” to develop, as opposed to something that has a lot of blank spots in it and feels hard and/or overwhelming.
  • Is this project marketable and/or high concept? Going in, I want to have a sense that the project will have legs in the marketplace. This can mean a number of things, for instance, that there’s a trend or market interest in a specific genre, or that there’s kind of a built-in audience with a high level of demand for a specific kind of project. Personally, I’m not that thrilled about chasing market trends because I know that they can change and/or that I might not catch the wave at the right time (I’ve read that what’s on the marketplace book-wise right now was bought 18 months ago). However, I do like to know that there’s a potential audience for what I’m writing, like time travel (my favorite!). I also like to know that I have a high concept if at all possible — a project that people instantly “get” and want to know more about.
  • Does this project fit within my brand? Although there’s a lot of resistance to branding, it’s particularly helpful in the screenwriting world. This is because it helps potential buyers of your work recognize you in the field of writers. Without a brand, you’re just one of many in a sea of thousands and thousands of writers. With a brand, people start saying things like, “Oh, yeah, I know a sci-fi writer, you should talk to Jenna Avery.” So it behooves me to stick with projects that support and enhance my brand.
  • What’s the potential budget for the project? If I’m picking a screenplay to work on (as opposed to a novel), I’ll look at the potential budget for the project. I do this because I want to flesh out the slate of work I have available. Right now, I have two spec scripts that are on the high end for budget, so for my next spec script, I’ll want to choose something in the low- or mid-range. Other writers might choose to always write high or low budget. Remember, I’m not suggesting that everyone should do what I’m doing here, but I’m rather sharing the things I think about with the hopes that they spark ideas for you.
  • Does it lend itself to adaptation? As a sci-fi screenwriter, I’m looking at writing novels and novellas that lend themselves to the screen, in that they are cinematic stories, structured like screenplays, and lend themselves to future adaptation for the screen. I’m exploring this option because oftentimes it’s easier to pitch a screenplay in Hollywood (especially a big budget script) that already has a loyal audience in book form.
  • Does this project challenge me as a writer and will it help me grow my writing skill set? I like to choose projects that help me grow. For instance, writing low budget sci-fi brings a whole new set of challenges (it has to be more character- than plot-driven). I had a fabulous time writing a low budget script on assignment over the summer simply because it pushed my edges as a writer and expanded my writing repertoire significantly. 
  • Will this project be easy to write? and/or Will this project be fun to write? On the other hand, sometimes when I’m on the more tired side, perhaps because I just pushed myself to write a complex, dark, or heavier project, it’s nice to pick the next one to be on the “easier” or lighter side (notice I said easier, not easy) to create a sense of balance for myself. 

Notice that most if not all of the questions have fairly simple Yes/No answers, they either are or are not true. And again, I wouldn’t use all of these, I’d pick three to five to use, depending on what I was hoping to next accomplish in my writing career.

From here, I’d narrow my field of questions, then go over my list of potential projects, and see which of them meet the criteria. Then I’d sort them into an order and see which of them, if any, naturally rise to the top and/or fit the most criteria. 

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Over the next post or two, I’ll write about putting projects in order of “best fit” to “least best fit for now” and a few more intuitive approaches to project decision-making. In the meantime, let me know what you think about using criteria to choose your project. Can you see any questions or criteria emerging for you that might help you choose what’s next for you?

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Download the Newly Updated Guidebook Version Here

There’s an updated version of this post and the two others in the series, assembled into a How to Choose Your Next Book (Or Screenplay) Guidebook with an overview of the process in a PDF format, along with a workbook in a PDF and RTF format. You can import the RTF into Word or Scrivener and work with it there.

Click the image below to download the Guidebook now.

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Where Writers Get Stuck Choosing Writing Projects

An issue a lot of writers get stuck on is choosing.  Choosing what to write, what to focus on, which project to start with. I’ve seen writers longing to write but feeling paralyzed about making a choice. They come up with endless numbers of ideas but reject one after the other upon closer examination, or commit but then quickly run away screaming, or commit but then self-sabotage by hopping between projects or ditching it altogether and starting something new. This is the first in a series of posts about choosing writing projects and different ways of approaching it, and we’re starting with how it happens and why it’s a problem. As with most things with writing, I don’t think there’s one right way to do it, but it’s worth talking about because for a certain brand of writer, it’s a huge issue. (Other writers don’t seem struggle with this at all, but face other challenges!)

** Check out the newly updated version of this series available
for download here (or scroll to the end of this post) **

Where we get stuck choosing writing projects

Let’s talk about where writers get stuck choosing writing projects.

  1. Being afraid of choosing the “wrong” project. This is sort of the blanket, one-size fits all category for writing selection paralysis. It usually ties into a fear of one of the other issues following, like worrying that we’ll get into a project only to find that it loses its gleam and then we’ll wish we’d chosen a different one, or being afraid of wasting time and energy on something that doesn’t have legs, or being afraid the best selling project will be the one we DON’T choose. The idea here, is that there is somehow a “right” answer or a “right” project to choose. I take comfort from a notion I came across once that we must learn to trust that ALL our projects share a convergence of theme, thought, or concept (they come from us after all!) and that whichever project we choose at any given time will become the “right” vehicle for us at that point in our writing careers.
  2. The potential disappointment of giving up on another project or projects. Usually writers with this “I don’t know which one to choose” issue have tons of ideas and interests and project concepts and they are terrified to let any of them go.What I’ve found most useful so far for dealing with this concern is the idea of a “project queue”, that is, having a running list of projects in an approximate order that you’ll work on them. Sure, they might jockey for position a bit and one might miraculously appear that knocks the others down a peg or six but it reshapes the terror that we must choose ONE project to work on into choosing the project we will work on FIRST.
  3. Being afraid of investing a ton of time and effort into a project only to have a (or yet another) project that doesn’t go anywhere. This is a big one, especially for those of us who have been around the block a few times with writing projects. We know what rewrite hell looks like, up close and personal-like, and it’s no fun. So we hesitate about diving in the way we might have been willing to do earlier in our writing careers.Thankfully, I’ve noticed for myself that as my writing skills grow, my ability to write cleaner drafts (closer to what I intended for them to become) is increasing. I’m also noticing that I have less fear about how long something will take, now that I’ve learned how to outline better, break things down into smaller chunks, track my work, and just plain old write faster. So there’s that. And yeah, it’s a ton of work, there’s no getting around it. For me, this falls into the category being willing to invest in myself and my writing. As far as something possibly not going anywhere, well, I’m starting to think that’s the price of admission to a writing career. There are no guarantees — this is art after all. We can rewrite, we can do our best to consider marketability, and we can elevate our projects as much as we can. And sometimes? Sometimes it’s just a learning project. 
  4. Worrying that a project will not be marketable or good enough. Speaking of marketability, I also see writers getting paralyzed by whether or not there is a market for their idea or if they will be able to write it well enough. The marketability piece seems easier to me to address with some research and study of what’s selling in your genre or form.As far as being “good enough” goes though, the only way out is through (that means actually writing and then writing more). I console myself on this front with Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule for mastering a craft. I also think we have to find a balance of pursuing what appears to be marketable (I’m not one for chasing trends, but rather understanding what makes a book or a script work for an audience) and following our own curiosity (Thank you Elizabeth Gilbert!) and interests and ideas into the places they are calling us.

What underlies these issues is fear, of course, which is pretty much the only problem that gets in the way when it comes to writing. And a big clue here is the word paralysis. Underlying paralysis we will often find its close cousin, perfectionism. And perfectionism is, of course, driven by fear.

The perfectionist’s safety net

What happens when we don’t choose a writing project to focus on is that we hop from project to project, always starting something new and never finishing anything. Or we try to juggle multiple projects at once, working a little bit on this one, a little bit on that one. The result is the same with either approach — no finished project, no feelings of completion and accomplishment. Also? The world doesn’t get to see what you’re creating. And there’s the safety net — if we don’t finish, we don’t have to share, and we don’t have to face possible rejection, ridicule, or failure. Not finishing (and sometimes not even starting) is a perfectionist’s safety net. That’s the “upside” of not choosing. 

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In my next post in this series, I’ll share some ideas about HOW to choose projects

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Download the Newly Updated Guidebook Version Here

There’s an updated version of this post and the two others in the series, assembled into a How to Choose Your Next Book (Or Screenplay) Guidebook with an overview of the process in a PDF format, along with a workbook in a PDF and RTF format. You can import the RTF into Word or Scrivener and work with it there.

Click the image below to download the Guidebook now.

Turquoise-Car-Button

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