How do you choose what to write?

A narrow tunnel of old stones leading to a bright light

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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?”

How I learned to love research

Aisles of books at a library

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I used to think I didn’t like research. It was, to say the least, frustrating to have to interrupt the scene I was writing to figure out the difference between two kinds of swords, or how long it would take a horse-drawn wagon to go 60 miles (including any necessary breaks), or what the hook holding the pot over the fireplace was called.

It’s a pot crane, by the way.

One of the things I loved about fantasy vs contemporary fiction was that I could make it all up and no one would say, “I’ve been to that city, and what you wrote isn’t accurate.” But as I began to take my writing more seriously, it became evident that no matter WHAT genre you write in, not everything can be made up—you still have to do at least some research.

I would mumble and grumble my way through it, eager to get back to my story.

But then I converted from pantsing to planning my stories, and all that changed. Who knew that it wasn’t RESEARCH that I disliked, but rather the interruption of my workflow that I didn’t like? Seems pretty obvious now, but it was eye-opening for me.

Now I do almost all of my research ahead of time. Here’s my current process: Before I begin writing my novel, I write a pitch for my story, and then a synopsis. The synopsis always reveals the research I still need to do, after which the results will sometimes alter the synopsis. After I have a completed and polished synopsis (a summary of my novel from the beginning to end), THEN I write the novel.

This has dramatically cut back on the times I’ve had to stop writing to figure something out, so I don’t get as irritated. I also end up with better stories with less effort, because it’s easier to rewrite a summary paragraph than to rewrite three full chapters. Final bonus: I write faster when I don’t have to keep interrupting myself.

And now that I research at the beginning, when excitement is running high and I can stop and start more easily, I’m finding that research is fun! I love to learn, and reading or watching videos about topics that educate me and expand my story’s world is so interesting.

Do you enjoy research? In school I had always disliked homework but enjoyed in-class lectures, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that I enjoy watching YouTube videos of an expert discussing something I want to learn. I’d love to hear any tips for how you manage your research or story writing!

Dear new mother

A tired mother comforting a crying child

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Dear new mother:

You are tired. I understand.

I understand it well enough to know that “tired” is an understatement. I understand the sudden rage that bubbles up in you, which you struggle to keep quiet under your plastic smile when someone returns your “How are you?” with, “Tired.” I empathize with your seething thoughts of “You don’t even know what tired is!”

But there is something you need to remember: You are not alone.

All the mothers that have gone before you… yeah, yeah, yeah. I see you tuning me out. But listen up, that’s not what I was going to say. So, pay attention.

When it’s the darkest hour of the night and you have a baby too sleepy to nurse but too awake to sleep, so you can’t sleep either and you’re ready to tear your hair out—

God is with you there.

When your husband moans about wanting just one morning to sleep in past 7 am, even though you’re the one who has to get up multiple times a night every night, and then is woken up for the day at 5 am by the children—

God is with you there.

When your two year old is sobbing about ridiculous injustices after a too short of a nap and the baby is crying from exhaustion but refuses to nap anywhere other than in your arms—

God is with you there.

When you’re at your wits’ end and you simply can’t handle another minute of caregiving, but you have to pinch-hit for your spouse who’s in an even worse state than you are—

God is with you there.

When your child is whack-a-mole-ing out of their bed in the evening, even though you’re exhausted and just want them to Go. To. BED!—

God is with you there.

When no amount of “we don’t scream or hit when we have a problem, we talk about it,” and “even if they’re mean first, we don’t be mean back,” will stop your child from repeatedly turning into a rage monster—

God is with you there.

When your child just won’t DO WHAT THEY’RE TOLD and after the umpteenth time you lose it—

God is with you there.

When the nursing is so painful, or the screaming is endless, or when your eldest’s “helping” really isn’t helping, or you’ve been spat up on and pooped on AGAIN—

God is with you there.

When you find yourself crying and begging, “Please God, please,” but don’t know exactly what you’re asking for—

God is with you there.

When you are done—just done—there, too, God is with you.

“He who planted the ear, does he not hear?
He who formed the eye, does he not see?
If the Lord had not been my help,
my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence.
When I thought, ‘My foot slips,’
your steadfast love, O Lord, held me up.
When the cares of my heart are many,
your consolations cheer my soul.”

(Psalm 94:9, 17–19; ESV)

So, take comfort. Have hope. Be at peace, sister. I understand.

Better yet, God understands, and he is willing and able to sustain you.


A fellow mother

If you’re a mother, can you relate? What were some of the feelings and situations you struggled with at first? If you’re not a mother, what scripture have you found comforting during hard times?

Pitch me your novel

Illustration of Cinderella running away from the ball

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I was recently challenged to write a pitch for my current work in progress. At first I was told “only thirty words or fewer.” Yikes! That was hard and took me all day to nail it down. Then I was told to write a hundred-word pitch for the same novel. I thought it’d be easier without such a tight limit, but it was even harder for me. There was enough room to bring in more details, but not all of the details. Deciding which subplot to leave out was more difficult than leaving them all out altogether.

After another day’s work I think I managed to pull it off. It ended up being really helpful in pinning down the heart of my story. All of the hazy parts still mulling around in my head are suddenly starting to take shape. I think I might challenge myself to write these at the beginning of every new story.

Here’s what I ended up with. What do you think? Would you read this novel? After reading the hundred-word pitch, do you think I left something vital out of the thirty-word pitch?


YA fantasy (fairy tale retelling) / romance

Thirty-word pitch

The kingdom is in political gridlock after all the royals are assassinated. Who should inherit? Cinderella escapes abuse and ignites social reform in spite of no prince or magic.

Hundred-word pitch

For fifteen years, the kingdom’s been in political gridlock as nobles squabble over who should inherit the empty throne. The lower class’ needs are forgotten in the fuss, which Estella’s stepfamily uses to their advantage. Estella grows up knowing both privilege and suffering. Determined to improve the lives of those she loves, she acquires a job at the palace where she meets Henry, son of the Royal Steward. With his political reach and her heart for the people, they could change the nation. But if their connection is discovered, it could cost Henry the throne—or worse, Estella her life.

I’m passing the challenge on to you! Tell me what you’re working on in a pitch. You can write either the thirty-word or the hundred-word pitch (or both like me!). Your choice. I can’t wait to see what you’ve got!