Writing Advice Sucks #3: ‘Analysis paralysis’, Shiny Thing Syndrome, and the Nicholas Cage Rule.


Do you ever go on Netflix looking for something to watch, and despite hundreds of choices right in front you, you can’t decide on something?

So you click through the menus until you end up re-watching an episode of The Office you’ve already seen a dozen times?

This is “analysis paralysis.”

It’s something I struggle with constantly as a Netflix customer and as a writer.

When it comes to Netflix, my wife and I have a rule: If we spend more than 15 minutes without making a choice, we have to watch the first Nic Cage movie we see. That usually helps to settle things.

Which is a difficult rule to apply to the writing end…

Jump back to early last year. My agent peaced out. I was suddenly un-repped. I had finished The Woman from Prague and was gearing up to write Potter’s Field—the final book in the Ash McKenna series.

So I was thinking about the long game. What I should do next. And I had no clue.

I have a half-dozen ideas baking at any given time. For each one, I have a Google Doc. That’s the repository for notes and research and stray thoughts.

I knew I needed to pick something and make that my next project.

And I picked wrong.

I narrowed it down to two: Not Yet Lost, a horror novel with a very ambitious meta narrative (which proved to be too ambitious), and a project I’d been kicking around since 2013: The Warehouse.

I wrote 70,000 words of Not Yet Lost before I realized it was not the book I should be writing. It was a fun idea and it was a huge challenge and I think I was more in love with the idea of making it work than with the story itself. I may go back to it one day, but that book and I, we were on different paths.

The Warehouse, meanwhile, was a book I’d been laying down notes on for the past five years. And it was timely. It’s about the American economy, and how corporations are treating workers like disposable products to package disposable items, and it seemed like if I waited too much longer, the winds might shift.

Worse, someone else might get to the story before I did. Which happens!

A few years ago I had an idea that I pitched to my then-agent, which she loved: A book about a bunch of “final girls.” The gist was to take a bunch of women who had survived horror movie scenarios, team them up, and pit them against a new challenge. The thing that made them “final girls”—their intelligence, their physical ability, their luck—would now be pushed even further.

I had a rough idea of the characters and the setting (abandoned resort in the Catskills) and then BOOM:

Final Girls by Riley Sager was announced!

Again, it happens. There are only so many ideas, especially when you get into the realm of big hooks.

But, I realized Not Yet Lost wasn’t working, and the book I needed to write was The Warehouse. It was calling to me, on so many levels. So I put down the former and picked up the latter.

I put together a working outline, then wrote the first 16,000 words. That first chunk comprised the first section, introducing the three characters and their voices, and establishing what they wanted. I polished it until it to a shine.

That landed me a new agent. And having an agent gave me the drive I needed to finish. Seriously, after we agreed to work with each other, I got to work the next day. I finally felt like I wasn’t floating. I wrote and finished the rest of the book—all 125,000 words—and submitted it to my agent three months later.

And it worked out pretty well from there.

Anyway, this is all to say: It’s really very easy for writers to fall victim to Shiny Thing Syndrome—for your attention to hop from one project to the next, based on how you feel on a given day.

The Warehouse had been calling to me for five years; Not Yet Lost popped in my head and a few weeks later I was writing it. Not that a sudden infatuation can’t be successful, but sometimes the answer you need is staring you in the face.

And sometimes you need to find a good reason to buckle down. I was in a nice position where I had a new agent and since he was taking a chance on me—agreeing to rep me off a partial and a pitch—I wanted to get my work done and give him something to sell.

The big picture here is that the only thing that matters is the work. Ideas are great. But you can’t always sell an idea (unless it’s a comic book pitch… or a non-fiction pitch… or you’re Stephen King, who could scribble a premise on a napkin and even if it was illegible someone would snatch it up).

This goes hand-in-hand with that piece of advice about how you need to finish your first draft, because once it’s done,  you can shape it into the book it needs to be. You’ll never get to step two if you don’t get past step one.

Still, it’s good to be organized. To make sure you’re ready when the book you have to write comes knocking.

Last column, I talked about the value of forgetting shit. But sometimes you need to remember stuff, especially if you’re talking about a space of years between idea and finished product.

If you’re the kind of writer whose brain is constantly hopping between projects, consider setting up some kind of note system. Like I said, I use Google Docs. Every new project gets a doc. Easy enough to access and search, and you can also use the app on your phone, for when you’re out and about.

Or carry a notebook. Or use Dropbox. Or develop a complicated system in which you always have a carrier pigeon at hand. Doesn’t matter. As long as it works for you.

And you can dump anything in there. Links, pictures, stray thoughts. Just give yourself a little context. There’s been a few times where I’ve put down a few words, thinking it would serve as a reminder, and then two years later I’m looking at it like what the fuck was I thinking?

Still, more important than coming up with a system to keep your brain tamed is picking projects and finishing them.

Someone just asked me about what he should send to an agent: a book he’s finished, a different version of that book, or a work-in-progress… and I told him you should only ever really query with something that’s done. Or at least, as done as you can get it.

(Landing my agent with the first 16K of The Warehouse is the exception rather than the rule—I’d already published some books, he’d asked to meet with me when he heard I wasn’t repped anymore, and he asked me what I was working on… first-time authors are not afforded these luxuries).

Point is: you have to choose. You have to pick a project, and see it through to the end. You have to trust yourself that all those other ideas will be there for you when the time comes.

Five unfinished manuscripts are worthless, but one finished book can be worth a lot. As my boss is keen on saying: “They’re books, not fish. They’ll keep.”

Unless you find yourself in a Final Girls situation, and even then it doesn’t matter because there are still plenty of ideas out there! I’m currently hard at work on my seven-part series about a boy wizard…

Until then, don’t forget you can pre-order Potter’s Field (it’s almost out!) and if you’re in the NYC area on July 17, I’d love to see you at the launch party at The Mysterious Bookshop, where my pal Alex Segura will put the screws to me but also there might be cupcakes.

And you can sign up for my newsletter here—I’m currently on the road, catching up on some reading, and I’ll be sending out some cool book recommendations when I get back…

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