So, I've got the work-in-progress - let's call it Three - which will absorb me for at least another nine months of revising and editing and contracts and editors and stuff. And Four, which I've told my agent I want to write next (up to and including a half-page pitch and a highly provisional title). Then there's the one which I thought was a short story till I took it for a walk in the park: now it's a novel. So is it Five? Or is it so compelling - so much sparklier and meatier - that it should be Four? And there's the short story which a writer friend gave the once-over before I put it in a competition, and said in passing, 'The mark of a great short story (for me) is that its ten or so pages open up an entire novel in the reader’s mind.' So of course I started thinking round the edges of the story, which is one I've known for ages: could this be Five? And the people in Spain who said 'Would you set a novel here?' and I said, 'I don't think so,' but on the way home found myself thinking, 'Well...'. And I daren't start flipping back through notebooks, because then there'll be more.
I've thought before about writerly adultery, but that's not what I'm thinking about here: I'm not about to cuckold the WIP. But how do you choose what to take seriously next? What will you be living and breathing even when you're nowhere near a notebook or a screen? What - without your trying - will make you suddenly see newspaper cuttings, and comments and pictures and fleeting ideas, as you go about the rest of life? Where, for your serious project, do you go next?
You could ask your talent. What will give you most opportunity, not merely to play to your strengths, but to use the nature of your soil to grow the best plants? Good gardeners (and I know this only by repute, being someone who can kill a spider plant) exploit the pH of their garden rather than trying to fight it. They regret that they can't honestly grow rhododendrons, but the azaleas are glorious.
You could ask your writing friends - your trusted readers. What worked for them in your writing? But a novel is ''written' by the reader, decoding black marks on the page by an agreed system of signification, as much, perhaps, as it is by the writer. What worked - what resonated, what moved, what bored - is as much about them as it is about you. As writers, our only supremacy is that we get to make the marks in the first place, and without us the readers would have nothing to 'write', so to ask what they want to find - you could argue - won't tell you what you ought to put on the page in order for them to find it.
You could ask The Ropeseller. But anyone who's been around on this blog for a while won't need me to unpick why that may well not be a good place to go for advice.
And don't forget that ideas aren't mutually exclusive. One of the recurring metaphors for writing I find myself using is the stewpot on the back of the fire. Into it goes everything that might be tasty and interesting and add to the overall flavour of the dish. Given that, as fiction writers, our basic mode is 'What if?', why not chuck in various things from different cupboards, and see what happens? If you have to fish them out again in the end, so what? Like a bouquet garni in the cassoulet, you don't want your readers to choke on it, but it will have left a faint perfume which makes all the difference. (Don't believe me? I'd have sworn I'd removed every last whiff of an old plot in The Mathematics of Love, and my editor would agree, but every now and then I meet a blood-hound reader who can still scent it.) So if you're agonising between two ideas, why not throw them in together, and see what happens?
To some extent then, I think, these things select themselves. What do you find yourself thinking about most often? Forget the market (unless something you read about suddenly gets your creative mind whirring), or what you've heard agents are looking for, or what would be easiest to research, or what your partner thinks you should write next. As my sister said once, 'The thing you should be doing is the thing you keep finding yourself doing.' She's a singer, and she also said, 'The only person you can sound like, better than anyone else, is yourself.' There's Buddhist saying, 'When the pupil is ready, the teacher appears'. What this means to me is that, in the context of writing, you may have to accept that you're not entirely in control of what's right for you, but that in recompense, if you let go of the outcome, the right thing will happen.
It's not easy, in our Western way, trained to goals, control, progress and development, to accept that we'll have to choose, not between better and worse, but between two roads that diverge in a yellow wood, without anything as clear as an idea of which is less travelled. Nor is it easy to accept that we might write just as good books if we'd taken the other road, but that we'll never know. Just as, as a writer with sleeves rolled up and first draft in hand, you learn to accept what swims up from your unconscious without necessarily knowing why it should be given its place, maybe we need to let go of the idea that the next book must be the 'right' book, and accept that it will only be the book which seemed right at the time.
In other news:
The booking for the Festival of Writing, 9th-11th April 2010 in York, has opened, and I'm teaching various sessions there. It's organised by Writer's Workshop and is stuffed full of good things: workshops on everything from point-of-view to foreign rights, one-to-one with agents, publishers and book doctors, a gala dinner, and mini-courses on the Friday. It's focused on book length projects and writers who are looking for publication but, as the poet Sheenagh Pugh said, it's none the worse for that!