How do you choose what to write?

A narrow tunnel of old stones leading to a bright light

Photo via Visualhunt.

I always find it bewildering when someone asks a novelist “How do you decide what stories to write?” or “Where do you get your ideas?” Can they really be expecting a straightforward answer, as if we run a finger across the spines of books on the library shelves of our minds, stopping to pull a tome from the shelf and declare, “Ah, yes, this will do. This is the story I’ll write about today”?

That’s not how it works.

It’s more like those fantasy stories where a teenager is inexplicably and without warning suddenly sucked from their world and thrust into another one, where they’re called The Chosen One. They have abilities and powers they don’t understand and have never experienced before, and yet are forced by strangers to shoulder an incredible amount of responsibility by saving the kingdom—or worse, the whole world.

They stumble through as best as they can, giving it their all to do what seems right (and maybe just to survive), when all at once it’s over and they’re spat back out of the new world and into their old one. They’ve felt things, seen things, experienced things no one around them could ever believe let alone understand, and yet are expected to carry on as if none of it ever happened.

Writing is a lot like that for me. An idea pops into my head out of nowhere and consumes my thoughts, spiraling forward in plot but preventing me from experiencing my actual reality. Overwhelmed, I spill it all out onto paper, trying to satisfy the foreign world’s demand for a conclusion. When the end is reached and it has no more use of me, I’m left back here on earth, with kids to pick up from school, laundry to wash, and supper to make… my hands trembling and my mind reeling all the while.

As Stephen King in his book On Writing quoted Alfred Bester saying:

“The book is the boss.”

To think we story writers are in control of the birth of a story shows how little the inquirer understands the process. We raise the story until fully grown with the skills we’ve learned in the craft, and then release it into the world. But we don’t choose this baby over that baby before giving birth; it’s just born.

When you write, do you find yourself swept away by your story, too? I think readers can get a taste of what I’m talking about. Book hangover, where you finish the book but now your real life feels weird and you can’t stop thinking about the story you just finished, is a real thing. It’s also the closest thing to what I experience as a storyteller. How do YOU answer the question, “Where do your ideas come from?” or “How do you choose what to write?”