Why

It’s a common response to the big “why” question. I hear it all the time. I’ve used it myself once or twice.

“I write because I have to.”

But unless someone is pressing your fingers to the keyboard, it’s simply untrue. Even for those of you who are facing a looming deadline. You don’t have to meet that deadline. Really, you don’t. Yeah, you’ll ruin your editor’s day, and you could theoretically lose your publishing deal, but no one is forcing you to give up binge-watching “Jennifer Jones” in order to finish chapter sixteen – the one where that thing happens you haven’t yet thought of that makes the whole novel work.

No one is forcing you to write. Not your muse. Not your mother. Not your editor. Not your existential angst. Not some insuppressible gut-level compulsion. (You should see a therapist about that. Or a gastroenterologist.)

Writing is always a choice.*

Then why write? Don’t answer that. It was a rhetorical question. For you, I mean. It’s not rhetorical for me, because I’m going to give you the correct answer. Two, actually.

Here’s the first. The writer-focused answer:

To find out what happens.

Some of you will get this right away. (You can stop reading now.) Others will mumble, “Oh, I already know what happens.” Hmm…really? Maybe you’re one of those oh-so-organized plotters and you have bullet points describing every little thing that happens from page one to The End. Cool. I’m happy for you. But that doesn’t change my answer.

You didn’t know all that plotstuff when the idea for your book fell into your head, did you? No, you didn’t. Plotting is at its core an exercise in “finding out what happens.”

See? Told you.

But that isn’t the only reason “to find out what happens” is the right answer. You also write to find out what happens to you, to your life as a writer, hell, to your life in general. Will this novel make sense? Will it be “the one”? Will it find an audience? Will you grow as a writer? Will you become besties with Stephen King? Will you change the world? Will you give up writing altogether?

There are a million discoveries waiting for you as you write…and some of them are actually about the story.

I said there were two correct answers to the “why write?” question. Here’s the other one. The “reader-focused” answer:

To help me go places. By “me” I mean specifically me (I’m selfish that way), but also metaphorically all of the “me’s” – the readers.

A well-told story can take readers to places they might not otherwise be able to go. I don’t just mean physical locations – though I can’t imagine any other way I’ll get to Mars. I’m mostly talking about emotional places. Heartbreak. Hope. Love. Despair. Wonder. Loneliness. Belonging. Joy. Those places.

Some of us [raises hand] struggle to feel things in the real world. Maybe that’s because we’ve suffered more than our fair share of feelings and numbness is the only safe place left [hand still raised]. We still want to feel – after all, that’s what makes us human – but the cost in the real world is too high. That’s where you come in. Your story gives people like me a safe place to feel. The emotions we experience when reading fiction are just like those we experience in real life, but much more affordable.

You could look at it this way: when you write, you are providing a much-needed service for the feeling-impaired.

The bottom line is ultimately quite simple: You don’t have to write. But you probably should. 

 

*I put an asterisk at the end of that sentence so you would look down here for an exception to the rule. Because you are the exception, right? Well, I don’t have an exception for you. Sorry. You’ll have to work that out on your own.

Chasing, Maybe

When I first started writing, I attempted to emulate my favorite authors (though Arthur C. Clarke and Ernest Hemingway would have struggled to find even the slightest resemblance). This is the way it goes for many writers. We begin our journey to uniqueness by trying to be someone else. Isn’t it the same way with musicians? [Cue “Smoke on the Water.”] It’s only after hundreds of thousands of words, most of which we prefer to forget, that we finally begin to find our one-of-a-kind writing voice.*

And then what do we do? We use that compellingly unique voice to tell the stories we think will sell.

Not right away. First there’s a season when we write the stories of our heart without consideration of marketability. These are the stories that poke at us from the inside. Stories that defy traditional categorization. Plots that take unpopular twists. Characters who don’t act the way they do in other people’s books.

For many writers, that season doesn’t last. Stories that poke writers from the inside are often a tough sell, especially through traditional circles (but also in the new world of Self-Publish Whatever You Want).

I didn’t really mean it, Marketing. Have I told you how nice you look today? Love the bow tie. You’re wearing it ironically, right?

Selling books is an honorable and good goal. We find validation in readership and readership mostly comes from selling books. (Or giving them away. But that’s the subject of another blog post.) I know we say “I don’t care if I become rich and famous, I’m happy if even one person likes my novel.” But we don’t mean it as much as we’d like to. And it’s because we don’t mean it as much as we’d like to that our writing often takes a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) detour. We start to ask different “Maybe” questions than we once did.

Maybe if I make the vampires more sparkly.

Maybe if I add a love triangle.

Maybe if I sprinkle in a few zombies.

Maybe if I make the antagonist more Republican.

Don’t miss the point here. Maybe isn’t a bad word. Quite the contrary. Writers are made out of Maybes. But when the market (or our best understanding of it) begins to dictate what kind of Maybes we should ponder in the writing process, we risk losing what makes our writing voice unique. Note that I said “we risk losing.” It’s not a given that a writer in search of sales will lose his voice in that pursuit. But the temptation to “write books that can sell” can chip away at what makes that writer uniquely wonderful.

So is it some kind of compromise then? Finding the happy medium between who we are and what we know will sell? If your primary goal is to sell books, then yes, the writing process will sometimes feel like compromise. You’ll choose genres that you might not have chosen to write before. You’ll revise your story so it grabs readers from page one, rather than letting it simmer for a few chapters as in your original plan. You’ll add subplots to spice up the romance or kick up the action.

Is that such a bad thing?

No. It’s your story and you can do whatever you want with it. And a good editor will help you maintain your voice even as you work toward your primary goal of selling books.

So it’s all good, then, right?

Yep. It’s all good. That is, until you feel a story poking at you from the inside that doesn’t fit the current brand-development plan.

I know what you’re thinking. You can write both kinds of books. The ones that have a good chance of selling, and the ones that poke at you from the inside. (I’m aware they might actually be one and the same. If they are? Why are you reading this? Surely not so you can gloat. You’re far too content with your writing life to gloat.)

Go ahead and divide yourself into two authors – the one who cranks out romance novels for a ready audience and the one who writes about the lost legacy of forgotten presidents. (Or whatever.) Then let me know where you found all those extra hours in a day, because you’re going to need them to support two careers.

If you have that kind of time, go for it. Seriously. You’ll have the best of both worlds. But if you don’t? Well, I’d counsel my authors to write the sellable books. And then I’d do my damnedest to make sure each one is amazing and notable for its uniquely compelling author’s voice.

But as you may already know about me, I don’t often take my own advice. I have a hard time writing shitty first drafts (you might disagree, of course) and I don’t write every day and I have poor posture and suffer from questionable eating habits. (Breakfast – it’s the most important meal of the day. That’s why I save it for late afternoon, when I’m actually hungry.)

I had a brief season when I tried to write marketable books. Those unfinished masterpieces have since been relegated to the “Nope” folder on my computer.

Instead, I have decided to only write those books that poke at me from the inside.

There’s the novelette (really? who reads those?) about a bomb that lands on a boy’s desk, and the way his life is changed by that singular event. And the speculative YA novel that has no factions, no love triangles, and no chapters-long training scenes. And the story about a 10-year-old girl named Raspberry who moves with her dying father to live on a hill overlooking a haunted forest.

When people ask me what genre my books are, I don’t know what to tell them.

They’re…um…about longing and loss and hope and brokenness and grace and sometimes monsters. They’re…Stephenesque?

Not very compelling cover copy.

Do I want my books to sell? Of course. And to that end, I’m self-publishing some and pursuing an agent for others. But I’m not chasing royalties. I’m not chasing validation. I’m simply chasing the stories. So far, it’s been quite an entertaining journey. And you’ll never guess what I’m finding along the way…

Myself.

 

*Not sure if you’ve found yours yet? Here’s a test. Go back to the last thing you’ve written after leaving it alone for a couple of weeks. If you find yourself wondering what brilliant novelist is secretly making your words sound better, you’re quite probably there. Or at least at the beginning of “there.” Your voice will change over time as you do. And if you aren’t impressed by your words? Well, that doesn’t mean you can’t write. Nor does it mean you can’t sell books. Readers are a fickle bunch. And I’m sure you’ll agree that they don’t care a tenth as much about writing voice as you or I do. Except the ones that are also writers. (I think I just created another black hole there. Sorry, Siberia.)

Exercising the Why

Let’s say you’re in a coffee shop. I think we can all agree that’s a reasonable assumption.

A four-year-old girl walks up to you. She’s a precocious curly-headed moppet with curious blue eyes and a surprisingly accurate sixth sense about strangers. She knows you’re the non-dangerous type, despite the army of wrinkle-lines marching across your face while you sort through a particularly tricky plot point.

“What are you doing?” she asks. Because that’s what a precocious curly-headed moppet with curious blue eyes does. She asks questions. She hasn’t learned filters yet. Thank God. Because you need her to ask these questions.

“Writing,” you answer.

“What are you writing?”

“A novel.” She squishes her face because she doesn’t know that word, so you try again. “I’m writing a story.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m a writer.”

“Why?”

You open your mouth, but no words come out. This is the kind of question you need a minute or ten to think about before you can answer properly. Tell you what, I’ll stop time while you consider a few options. (This is my fiction. I can stop time if I want to.)

The first answer that comes to mind is, “Because I can’t not write.” Aside from confusing a four-year-old with a double negative (she’ll become an expert on double negatives in due time…right around middle school), it’s also a damn lie. (Don’t worry, she can’t hear us while time is stopped.) You can indeed not write. That is, unless your laptop has been rigged by an evil genius such that if you stop typing 55 words a minute, it will explode. (Note to self: Write spec script for Speed 3: Caps Lock; call Keanu and Sandra.) But even then you still don’t have to write. It’s a choice. (BTW, if you do blow up, I’ll read a lovely poem at your funeral that celebrates all your artistic choices, especially the last one.)

Then there’s the ol’ standby, “Because I love words.” Yeah. That might work. But is that it, really? Isn’t the search for the right word among the most frustrating activities known to man and/or woman? Then there’s the impossible task of figuring out where to put those words. I don’t write because I love words (though I do love them) I write in spite of words. But that’s just me. If this is your final answer, I’ll restart time now and you don’t have to read any further. (But you will. Because you love words. Here, have a few more.)

You briefly consider “Because I want to be rich and famous someday,” but no four-year-old is going to care about anything that might or might not happen “someday.” She doesn’t understand the concept of time. If you were to tell her, “We’re going to DisneyWorld next summer,” she’d wake up every morning between now and then (at five thirty) and pester you with “Is it today? Are we going to see Mickey today?” until you’re tempted to answer, “Mickey Mouse is dead. Goofy shot him. DisneyWorld had to close because there’s blood everywhere.” You don’t really write to become rich and famous someday. I mean, that would be a nice bonus and a well-earned reward. But if “getting rich” is your primary motivation for being a writer, you’ve chosen the wrong field. Try Lottery Ticket Buyer.

Okay, what about…sorry. I have the attention span of a four-year-old so I’m going to restart time. And just to keep things interesting, our four-year-old moppet will keep repeating “Why?” until she gets an answer she likes. 

“Why?”

“Why?”

“Why?”

“Why?”

Quick, say this: “Because I like making things?”

Our fictional moppet tilts her head (as fictional moppets do), says, “Okay,”  turns like a music box ballerina, then skips away to sidle up next to a woman collecting a salted caramel macchiato from the bar.

“Mommy, that wrinkly person in the corner likes making things,” she says. “Just like me.”

Just like her. Yup.

Now go back to making things.