Planning My Next Book

The time has come. I’m up to date with all my other projects, and so I’ve begun to turn my attention to the age old question of “What should I write next?” This will be my eighteenth book, if I finish it. (I’ve started five others that I never finished, though it’s been around four years since I did that. I’ve gotten better at finishing books the more practice I’ve gotten with it. I think it has to do with being able to identify a subject that I can make a good run at. The books that fell apart on me before just didn’t have enough substance to maintain an entire novel.)

In this case, I’ve got a good feeling about it. I’m excited to write the book, and really interested to see what will come of it. The topic? A middle grade steampunk western. I’m thinking something in the vein of Silverado, but with gearwork demons, Mormon kung fu missionaries, and an apprentice gearsmith on a quest to find her grandfather.

I’d actually initially planned this as an adult book, but after conferring with my illustrious agent, I discovered steampunk and adults just aren’t doing that well, from a market perspective. On the middle grade side however, it’s smoother sailing. Rather than turning me off from the idea, it intrigued me even more. What could I do with that same concept, but with a tighter, middle grade audience?

People always ask authors where they get their ideas. They come to me every now and then as cool what-ifs. I write them down. This book is actually going to be a sequel of sorts to the short story I wrote at the beginning of the year. (AN INCIDENT AT OAK CREEK, which will actually be coming to a short story anthology near you sometime in the future.) The short story is much more serious, and definitely aimed at an adult audience, just by subject matter and how I dealt with the material.

Once I have a kernel of a story idea, I start to flesh it out, thinking about what sort of conflicts would be interesting with that as the central conceit. Steampunk western, middle grade audience. Who might the characters be? I think through the various things I’ve read and watched to get a taste for what’s been done before. Westerns come in a few different flavors. Lone gunman comes to save a family or redeem himself. Scrappy group of ruffians save a town. Band of outlaws running from the law. That kind of thing.

I tumble through each of those ideas, one at a time, comparing it with the sort of book that’s itching the back of my mind, seeing which ones feel the most promising. Some concepts just appeal to me more, the same way I like chocolate ice cream more than vanilla. Next, I turn to setting details. Where might this happen? Desert? Mountains? Remote? City? I do a bit of research into the time period to get a sense of what’s possible and what’s not. Even in a book with gearwork demons, it’s important to have some concrete sense of reality. (More important, actually.)

I watch movies in the genre I’m approaching. It helps give me more ideas and get excited for the project. I start to write down plot points and highlights. Cool scenes I’d like to write. Then I begin to piece together those scenes in a rough outline that could make sense. That in turn calls for more details and more research as questions arise.

Once I’ve got all that done, I’ll write up a short summary of the book. Maybe two or three pages, keeping in mind overall length. (For this book, I’m going to shoot for 40,000-50,000 words, for example.) I’ll send that summary to my agent and have him pick it apart. Often there are ideas that seemed good in theory that he can identify as glaring problems long before I start actually writing. Better to avoid those early on. Once we’ve kicked the general concept back and forth and have it at a place we’re both happy with, I begin to write.

At that point, it’s all about word speed. I do 1,000 words a day, and so if the book ends up at 50,000 words, it’ll take me around two months to finish. During that process, I inevitably find things in the plot I didn’t like. Things that need to change. (Though I hope I’m doing better at avoiding throwing in random new things just because they seem cool. That usually takes me in places that just get too convoluted and unworkable.) Honestly, that first draft is one of my favorite parts of writing. It’s what I look forward to the most. I feel most fulfilled each day as I find out what happens next. As I get to the know the characters better. Revising is important and great, but my biggest love is original composition.

So I’m really excited to be approaching that point again. Wish me luck!


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