Start with the books and movies you like best. Make lists of titles. Then graph those books and movies like a spreadsheet, using these headings: Genre; type of character; predominant emotion; what made you want to read/see it; type of ending; would you reread/see it again?
The headings ought to be put across a page top and use the margin of the page for the title. What you can put in the little box where title and column heading cross are comments. You’ll come away with a better understanding of your tastes, which you might not have thought about as you entered into a life of writing.
You may have no intention of writing romance novels, even though you do read them to escape the cares of the day, but you may find, as I did, that the character you watch for isn’t the flustered heroine or the bemused hero, but the smaller characterizations that are comedically drawn in the best of regencies. The friendly lunatics in mysteries. The family pets. Sadly, some are there for only a moment, but they lighten my mood, the way other people enjoy a good joke or a bit of poetry. And I find it’s what I write toward: finding these gems of the character in my own work.
Then consider: what words would you use to recommend a given title to a friend; and what are your favorite parts/scenes? These two may turn out to be essay questions but don’t hesitate to write a page or two on your likes and dislikes. It will hold the very information you’re looking for: what you would most enjoy writing.
Perhaps you don’t read for characters at all, perhaps you’re drawn to a setting. You like imagining political situations and the sitting-on-a-razor’s-edge personalities that wheel and deal (Junie B. Jones, all grown up); rural farms and the population that lives on them (any number of feet per denizen); or exciting careers in the big city, the striving exec is just the platter your fantasy arrives on; or there’s a country you’d like to visit, but for now you’re satisfied by reading The Enchanted April, Under the Tuscan Sun, and then watching 42 Carats again for glimpses of the intended side-trip. These are the bits of self-knowledge you’re looking for right now.
Think about the titles that show up in the emotion column. Do they represent various genres, or are they leaning hard in one affecting direction?
You’re probably drawn to happy endings, or at least the ones where the world is saved from destruction for another week or so. Since so much pressure is put on writers to deliver upbeat finish lines in some genres (and most of your titles will probably feature them), notice particularly what part of the ending you like best. The tying together of story threads, or that it finally answers a simmering question, or the hero gets his man (something like that). You like the warm and fuzzy moment, or a last laugh.
Finally, more than the ending, what makes you pick up a book in the first place? If it’s the title, a cover, okay, but then what makes you stick with it? Did you read the first page and decide you liked the voice, the way it begins (dialogue, description, etc), or was it the amount of white space on the page? There arises a common experience: always a roller coaster ride, or it’s the underdog story, or you love a parade of offbeat characters— something defining shows up in these lists. But you may not know what it is until you do the next list.
This is the next list:
Go through your own work—I assume you have a lot of unfinished work, and finished but unsold work, and story ideas scribbled on napkins and copied off the scribbled-on magazine margins. If not, I can loan you reams of mine to play with.
Go through it, as in, reread everything. As you read, note (on paper, of course—note, not notice) what kind of recurring events or philosophies keep showing up. Is there a particular character frequenting more than one piece of your work? Is there a tone or an accent or a manner of speaking that you recognize in most of your work, or that particularly appeals to you, but perhaps doesn’t show up as often as you’d like?
What is the same and what is different, that might be the easiest list to start with. But you will eventually parse it out to a list of questions answered: How much of your work is done in first person, how much in third?
How many books are done in one setting, how many in another? A family home is a setting. You’ll write ‘family home’ the way you’d write ‘the mall,’ ‘the movie theater,’ ‘the museum.’
Do you always have a ‘having tea’ scene (if so, we’ll probably have to do something about that), an overheard conversation, or some other more telling scene, the likes of which has already occurred in your own life a time or two?
Do you always use a lot of dialogue to advance the story, perhaps neglecting setting or descriptions of behavior?
Release your grip on the paper and go for a walk (Yes! Get out of that chair), giving this some thought: where do you get your ideas? Are they inspired by an observation, a situation, a line of dialogue or commentary, a sudden event (as opposed to a situation that develops), an image, perhaps you fish around for a cute title and write from that, or a subject you feel has been overlooked in the market (if you find it, they will come) and you have a story idea that works with it.
The first project will occupy a writing day, the second could take a week or more. It’s okay. You need to know yourself as a reader before you can make seriously educated guesses about yourself as a writer. And I guarantee, you are in some way writing what you would like to read.
Once you have a sense of what you like to read, and what you might most like writing (which is hopefully what you’ve been trying to write, mostly), you’ve probably also experienced that effervescent burgeoning feeling of the story idea on its way. If you’re lucky, you have several of these ideas a day, and you’ve already learned to sift through them, finding the serious gold in the pan. I love that line Meg Ryan has in You’ve Got Mail: “Whatever else it is, it ought to be personal.” This information-gathering is all about finding what draws you closer, what feels personal to you. This is the gold.
Audrey Couloumbis is the Newbery Honor-winning author of Getting Near to Baby. She sometimes writes sad stories with a happy ending, and she's published by St.Martin's Press, G.P. Putnam, and Random House. Look for her books at your favorite bookstore.
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