It’s actually terrifying to finish writing a book. Everyone is all, “Yay, congratulations!”, as they should be, but, at least for me, this period is also full of anxiety. Why? Because I suddenly feel unemployed. And like I have no idea what I want to do when I grow up. Of course, this is when I’m finally getting paid for the work of the past year and a half, so financially things are cool (at least for the moment). But I’ve been a working journalist since I was 18 (seriously, I was a stringer for the Joliet Herald-News the summer after graduating from high school), so it’s foreign, and scary, for me to be without an ongoing job or major project.
My current problem in the book-idea department is an embarrassment of riches. I cannot stop coming up with ideas, and I cannot seem to eliminate enough of them. So I thought I’d write today for the people who maybe want to write books but don’t know where to begin. If you have any tips for getting rid of ideas, please let me know. (This is a serious problem: A person can’t start a book until she focuses on one idea.) I’ll also be working on this with my students in my forthcoming writing group (sign up here now!).
Here, some starting points for brainstorming book ideas:
1. Look at your own life. When it comes to article ideas, almost anything can be fodder. (Hmm, I love iced tea. I’ll write about the best places to get iced tea in New York! Done!) When it comes to book ideas, you need to think bigger. What’s the most important thing that ever happened to you in your life? We all have at least one huge turning point in our lives, if not a few. For me, it was canceling my wedding. Anyone who has read my stuff over time knows I’ve gotten lots of milage out of this, essay-wise. It could also eventually turn into a fictional work or even a non-fictional work about the changing nature of marriage. Word of warning: Wait a while after the incident until you have some perspective. The pieces I wrote at least a year afterwards got much better than the messy confusion of works I wrote about it during and just after. This shouldn’t be a therapeutic diary; it should be a reckoning.
2. Look at your friends and family. Are they going through something with larger societal implications (struggling with post-traumatic stress after coming home from war, having difficulties, with in-vitro fertilization, etc.). Maybe there’s something even more than an article to be done. Start with that, and see if there’s more to be said.
3. Look at your areas of expertise, and then look at history. When it comes to writing books about television, for example, it’s always best to look at the past. It’s too early to write a book about Girls; it’s a good time to write a book about The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And the cooling-off period is even longer here than it is for your personal life. I’d say a decade, minimum. This way, the participants might be ready to talk, and their place in history has started to gel.
4. Look for big, longterm stories. There are stories that can and should be observed and told from the present. A great story is a great story. If you see the chance to, say, follow a fascinating person or process for months or a year, do it. My friend Mickey Rapkin has found a real niche with this: His book Pitch Perfect (yes, now a major motion picture!) followed a few college a cappella groups to their big national competition; his book Theater Geek followed kids at a high-pressure performing arts camp for a summer.
5. Read! See what books work best, and what you can do that’s similar — but, of course, totally different. There’s no shame in taking a Mary Roach or Malcolm Gladwell approach, for instance, to a topic those two never have or would. Reading is always the best inspiration there is.