Sunday, December 29, 2013

Fear & Ugliness in the World of Words -- how to choose what story to write next

I’m thirty years old and I've probably written well over a million words of finished material and probably ten times that of complete shit. I like to think that I am still young and in many ways I am, but my shoulder aches from the past ten years of holding a pen and it takes a couple of extra hours to bounce back from a hangover. These, along with many other deteriorating things are just small remainders that our bodies will one day fail us completely. I think about this, and I think about how it’s going to affect my writing, because whether I like it or not, death will have an effect on my career.
So I get to thinking, in my very limited mathematical mind, that any which way I cut it, I probably only have fifty stories left in me. Now, I don’t mean ideas for stories or even completed short stories, but long form prose. Novels or screenplays that have been dragged through the ten drafts that it takes to make the bloody things readable.
50 may sound like a lot, but for the prolific writer it’s depressingly small. The question I am now faced with is, which stories are good enough to make it into my top 50.
I have three requirements before embarking on a new story:
Is it the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning? Is it what I’m thinking about when I’m pretending to listen to somebody talk? Is it the kind of story that I can live with for at least six months and more than likely years on end?

Whenever I look at a story I always think, ‘can I make it play?’ No matter how much I may love a story, if I don’t have the skill set, insight or interest level high enough, I can’t make it play.
I adore the writing of Bret Easton Ellis, Charles Bukowski and Richard Yates but that doesn’t necessarily mean that their breed of writing is something that I can, or should even try to achieve for many reasons.

If a story passes the first two requirements, the final question to be asked is, is this a story worth telling? What about the world have I learnt that I am now telling others about? Without that personal insight, belief or viewpoint about the world, simply put, what’s the point?

Writing is hard. So if you’re going to tell a story, make it one that matters.
Having 50 stories left to write means that I have to think very carefully about the stories I choose to tell. That I have to give it a lot of care and thought and not be too hasty and rush into a foolish decision and waste one of my precious stories. If I did that, I may find myself on my deathbed thinking about what masterpiece was I capable of that I never gave myself the chance to write? Then at other times I think, fuck it. Life’s short, write what you want.



  1. Hi Luke
    Great post! Something to consider as we drag ourselves into 2014. I have only one problem. I'm 30 years older than you are. So how many stories should I be worrying about writing???

  2. That was a terrific piece, Luke, and one perfectly timed for my purposes as I shall immediate appropriate it for use in the college course I begin teaching Thursday. However, based upon your analysis, I best stick to short stories.

  3. Luke, you ask yourself all the right questions, but wherever one falls on the broad age spectrum of this blog, there is only one answer: concisely expressed in your last sentence. I always think of that as the story that compels me to tell it. And one more codicil: write every book as if it were your last.

  4. Great little 'study' on the act of writing, Luke! I agree with AmA, the last two sentences of your piece are the most important, and the last sentence of her comment is spot-on. Which leaves me with only one other thought to contribute: if it's that important to you, why aren't you doing it NOW?