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VIEW FROM THE TREEHOUSE
Celebrating the creative life and all that feeds it.
A few years ago I was preparing to embark on a new writing project – another suspense novel. I had done some preliminary freewriting and knew who my characters were, the main conflict of the story, the opening scene, and how it would end.
I was about to begin my usual involved process of creating a scene-by-scene outline of the plot (a stage that generally takes me about 2 months) when I got talking to another author friend about how she writes her novels.
This author, a confirmed ‘pantser’ (preferring to fly by the seat of her pants), described how wonderful it was to write a story without having any idea where it was going, what an adventure of discovery it was.
This author listened to what I already knew about my characters and said, ‘If it was me, I’d just jump in and start writing.’
Her suggestion sounded so wonderfully liberating, her process so creative, I decided to try it. Again. Even though I had tried the ‘pantser’ approach before and hadn’t had any success with it.
Perhaps I’d moved on as a writer, I thought. Perhaps it made a difference what kind of story you were writing. If the method was as great as pantsers all say, wasn’t it worth another try at least?
With no disrespect to that author (or any other pantser for that matter), my decision to follow her advice was a mistake. In the end that story took me months longer to write than if I’d taken the time to plot it first, and I floundered and second-guessed myself the entire way through.
In my novel writing journal I recorded my frustrations at the time: ‘I can see now what the problem has been. I have no road map to follow. The biggest upside to doing a detailed outline first? It’s a hell of a lot easier to fix if things go wrong.’
What I learned from this experience is that outlining doesn’t stifle creativity, in my case it frees it. As an outliner I’m not deprived of the thrill of discovery, I simply have it in a different place then pantsers do.
And really, when you think about it, is there all that much difference between my detailed outline and a pantser’s first draft?
Please understand – I am NOT saying that my way is right and pantsing is wrong. I’m simply saying: be true to your process, whatever it is, and never let anyone else talk you out of it.
Ever wondered what your natural novel writing process is? I firmly believe the Plotter vs. Pantser issue comes down to one question – how comfortable are you with not having a plan?
A few years ago my husband traveled to Ireland with a friend. He booked his flight to Dublin and organized a rental car for his arrival. And that was it. He made no hotel reservations and had only a rough route planned for seeing the country.
My husband works a 9 to 5 job where every hour of his day is structured. When he goes on vacation the last thing he wants is more of the same. A fixed itinerary just makes him feels like he’s back at work.
He prefers the freedom to hop in a car, drive until he comes to a place that looks interesting and book his accommodation then. And when he’s decided he’s been in that place long enough, he checks out and drives to the next one that takes his fancy.
I admit this approach has its appeal. However if I’d been embarking on that same trip to Ireland – a place I’d never been – it would’ve made me a little nervous not checking out the accommodation first and making firm reservations ahead of time. What if I got somewhere and there was no place to stay, I would’ve worried. (Mind you, with the amount of Guinness my husband consumed, sleeping in a peat bog probably wouldn’t have bothered him.)
With the accommodation ‘framework’ of my journey in place, I can relax in the knowledge the basics are done and just enjoy myself.
The same applies to writing a novel. For me, facing a day of writing without a plan is too stressful. And when I’m stressed I don’t write my best and can’t enjoy the process as much.
With an outline, even just a loosely-planned route to follow, I’m much more relaxed. It doesn’t mean that route is set in stone and there won’t be surprises along the way.
As with traveling, unexpected things always happen on a novel-writing journey. When they do, I simply alter my outline and proceed on my new course.
We’re coming up to my favorite time of year. Retreat season!
Normally I write at home, alone in my work room. But three times a year I organize retreats on behalf of my critiquing partners and a group of other novelist friends. Eight of us rent a secluded seaside camp and meet there for a week of uninterrupted writing.
Some writing retreats I’ve heard about have a mentor who presents talks and gives feedback on participants’ work, but ours aren’t run that way. At our retreats everyone simply works independently on their current project, taking full advantage of the lack of distractions they might otherwise have at home (housework, phone calls, family demands, TV, etc).
Each of us gets a table in the hall overlooking the ocean and from dawn till dusk (and on into the night for some) all we do is sit and write – with breaks for coffee and walks on the beach as each of us chooses.
At night after dinner, we have an hour of group discussion. Anyone who wants to can read something they’ve written that day or present a problem they’ve encountered with their story for the group to brainstorm.
Why I love retreats
Sitting in that hall with seven other dedicated writers working around me, I feel lifted on a wave of creative energy. There really is something to group synergy. All of us agree we write far more while on retreat than we would in the same amount of time at home. (One of our regular attendees wrote the first draft of her entire novel in just three week-long retreats!)
It isn’t just the lack of distractions I love. It’s being surrounded by people with a common goal and the same passion for writing I feel. As I sit there beside them I have a clear sense that what I’m doing is important, that others value it. Sometimes I lose sight of that fact when slogging away alone at home.
At the moment I’m preparing for our first retreat of the year coming up at the end of March. (Only three weeks to go!)
This one will be a bit special for me as my debut novel, RUN TO ME, is due to be released in the U.S. and U.K. on April 1st – halfway through the retreat. Since I can’t be overseas to launch my book, I’m planning a celebration dinner at the retreat complete with champagne. We might not get much writing done that night!
Because we engage with the world via our senses, writers are often urged to use all the senses when writing description. But for getting a first draft down on paper it could be better to focus on just one.
Each of us has a dominant sense in processing information about our experience. For the majority of people that sense is vision; for the second largest group it’s hearing.
Having been part of the same critiquing group for last 15 years, I’ve had a fabulous opportunity to observe the different ways our members go about writing a first draft. I’ve become convinced each person’s dominant sense plays a big role in their creative process.
For example, when one of our members writes a scene she has to be able to ‘see’ it first. Before she can begin to write, she has to visualize clearly not just the place, but the season, the time of day, the angle and quality of the light, as well as her characters’ actions and appearance.
In total contrast, my first drafts are almost entirely dialogue. Being strongly hearing-dominant, I don’t need to know what my characters are doing, what they look like or even where they are. I just put them together and listen to what they say to each other.
For me this approach is hugely enlightening. The way a person speaks gives me all sorts of clues about who they are – their age, education, nationality, region of upbringing, attitudes, morals, socio-economic background, emotional outlook and much much more.
If you doubt this, think of all the different ways there are to say ‘yes’. From a military person’s crisp ‘affirmative’ to Ned Flanders’ ‘Okally Dokally’. Each version gives a clear insight into character.
I believe that knowing your dominant sense can help you as a writer creating your first drafts. If you’re not having any luck ‘seeing’ your scene, try 'hearing' it instead.
Some of us like to spy on her characters, others like to eaves-drop.
For years I felt I had a clear handle on the differences between mystery, suspense and thriller. While there is certainly some overlapping of elements, in their purest forms these genres are distinct.
The classic mystery is about solving the puzzle. The protagonist is usually trained in some way – a police detective, private eye, forensic expert, medical examiner, profiler, etc – and is the one who ultimately solves the crime.
Even the amateur sleuth possesses qualities that elevate his crime-solving abilities above other characters as well as the reader.
Whatever his training, the protagonist in the mystery is the one in charge, and is usually one step ahead of the reader, showing the way and uncovering clues with his superior knowledge and intuition.
In contrast, the suspense novel is an emotional ride. The protagonist generally has no special training and is not prepared for the dangers they must face. In fact part of their journey in the story is that they must reach deep inside themselves to find strengths they never knew they possessed in order to survive and defeat the bad guys.
In suspense the reader knows things the protagonist doesn’t which helps to generate the suspense. (What gets the reader to the edge of their seat is knowing the killer is hiding in the closet when the hapless protagonist goes to open it.)
Thriller is a term loosely used these days but to my mind a true thriller is suspense on steroids, meaning some element of the plot is beefed up in some way.
Rapid pacing is sometimes enough to earn a novel the label ‘thriller’ but more often it’s the story’s stakes that are heightened.
In a suspense the protagonist and his loved ones are usually the only ones at risk whereas in a thriller the threat is to a wider community – cities, whole countries, possibly the entire world. (Which is why Hunt For Red October, with it’s threat of nuclear war, is a techno thriller and Cape Fear is a suspense.)
International Thriller Writers based in NY, groups mystery, suspense and thriller novels together under the heading ‘thriller’. American bookstores have the same three genres shelved together in their ‘mystery’ section. Australian bookstores group them under the umbrella of ‘crime’. Whereever I go these three genres have always been lumped together.
Yet when I attended the Adelaide Crime Writers Festival a few weeks ago, all the panelists and attendees seemed to be talking about was fiction involving an investigation.
This pretty much leaves ‘suspense’ out in the cold as suspense novels don’t always have an investigation, and if they do it’s not the main focus of the story. So does that mean suspense isn’t classed as crime?
Australian groups like Sisters In Crime seem to hold to this investigation criteria as well. In fact I once heard an Australian agent say, when asked to define the crime genre, ‘There’s a body on the first page and the rest of the story is about finding the killer.’
All of which leads me to wonder whether ‘crime’ has emerged, at least in Australia, as a completely separate genre, containing elements of mystery and suspense but distinct from both.
Something exciting happens for me at the point where I become fully engaged with a story I’m writing.
Up to that moment it’s as though I’m standing outside myself watching what I’m doing. I analyze my process, contemplate whether it’s working or if a different approach might be better. I ask myself questions about the plot, its direction, its characters and how it might end.
But the minute the story comes together in my mind and I become fully engaged in writing it, my focus shifts and everything else drops away. It’s no longer me making stuff up, but a group of real people caught in a drama and I’m right there beside them.
I realize this is one of the greatest pleasures I take from writing, this losing myself in what I’m doing. All the cares of my everyday life just disappear. Total immersion exhilarates yet at the same time gives me peace.
I experienced a similar joy playing the violin. There was no ‘me’ when I performed a Bach Partita from memory, there was only the music.
Maybe that’s what Nat Goldberg meant in Writing Down The Bones when she said, ‘I don’t do writing. Writing does writing.’
Once I reach this point where I’m living more in my story then out of it, I notice that journaling begins to lose its appeal for me.
Much of my everyday personal journaling is about what’s happening in my life and sorting out any issues that arise. But when my aim is to forget myself and my problems, journaling – like analyzing my writing process – feels, and probably is, counter-productive.
A fun alternative I find is to journal as one of my characters. I ‘become’ that person and write out my reactions toward other characters and what’s been going on in the story.
As well as yielding deeper insights into the people I’m writing about, this practice keeps me firmly anchored in my story, with my own real-life problems shut out.
I’m currently plotting a new novel. I write suspense so of course I’m looking to incorporate lots of tension, twists and turns, dangerous scenarios, and heart-pounding action. But that’s not enough. There’s another ingredient, equally as, if not more important, that has to be there before I feel compelled to start writing.
For me desperation is what makes a great story. My characters can’t simply want something, they must want it desperately. And there has to be some major obstacles stopping them getting it. The more desperate my character’s need and the bigger the obstacle standing in their way, the greater the drama. It’s not enough to simply put them in danger.
The most compelling needs of all are emotional. Our desire for love. Our need to protect those we care about. The wish to be forgiven our mistakes. A person fighting to achieve such goals is hard to look away from, especially when the odds are against them.
In Run To Me, my first book, Zack desperately wants a mother’s love; Shyler desperately wants her son to return. Those desires mean as much, if not more, to those characters than their very lives. These are elements over and above the dangerous situation they find themselves in. Without those desires, the danger these characters face means little. Their desperate needs are what make us care.
Characters in desperate situations is what draws writers to tell their stories and readers to read them. So right now that’s what I’m searching for. So far my plot has pace, conflict and a few surprises. But it doesn’t have heart.
The search continues…
A question writers are often asked is 'where do you get your ideas from?' For me ideas come from anything I see or experience that intrigues me enough to ask 'what-if':
What if a woman saved a man's life and then learned he was a serial killer?
What if a woman who'd lost her son had to save a homeless boy from killers?
What-if's are seeds that stories grow from. I get what-if's from many sources - dreams, news stories, interesting facts, people I meet, overheard snippets of conversations, personal experience, even films or books that didn't go the way I wanted them to. All I need is some kind of spark that catches my attention and makes me wonder.
Whenever an idea comes to me, no matter how small or fragmentary, I write it in one of the notebooks I keep. Even partially-formed ideas can sometimes coalesce with others to form useable plots.
(I never trust myself to remember ideas. I know from bitter experience I won't; at least not with the vision and energy I got when they first came to me. Every time I read through my notebooks I find things I completely forgot putting there!)
Sometimes what-if's come with a ready-made story attached to them. More often I have to explore an idea to see what's there. Here's how the process generally works for me:
When I'm ready to start a new novel, I pull out my Ideas notebooks and read through them. As I do this a number of what-if's usually leap out at me. If one of them grabs me and won't let go, my decision is easy - I take that idea and move to the next step of developing it. Often however I can't choose between several ideas and have to go through the process with all of them.
I start by getting a few cheap notebooks - one for each idea I want to develop - and for the next few weeks my writing day consists of the following:
1. Seated in my comfy plotting chair, I open one notebook and freewrite on the idea by hand until I run out of steam.
This is literally stream-of-consciousness writing, I'm just wandering with no direction. I write down anything and everything that comes to me. Why did this idea catch my attention? Who might the story be about? What do they want? Who or what stands in their way?
Before long I start getting flashes of images, conversations or dramatic scenes that the story might contain. Paying no attention to where they'll appear in the story, I record these ideas, which generally give rise to more.
When I've exhausted my thoughts on one plot I take a break, then switch to the next notebook and do the same with that idea.
I work this way because of something I long ago learned about myself - ideas always come to me AS I'm writing. (I think because I'm hyperactive my thoughts are always racing and I have trouble focusing. Forcing myself to write out my thoughts slows them down and gives me a better chance to consider them.)
2. The next day (or next writing session) I read through my freewrites of the session before and underline the parts I like. Starting with these pieces of the plot I freewrite again, adding more bits as they come to me. If I don't like anything from my last day's freewrite I go back to the beginning and freewrite on my original what-if.
After several weeks, these freewriting sessions usually yield the synopsis of a story. For me the synopsis is 'telling' the story - it's a general overview of what will happen and the people involved. Once I have this, I then move on to 'showing' the story by creating my scene-by-scene outline. (See entries: Why I Outline and How I Outline)
The hardest thing about this initial exploration process is convincing myself I'm actually working. Freewriting feels too easy to me. If I'm having fun it can't be work!
I have to keep reminding myself that play is a vital part of the creative process. My instinct is always to try and take control of the story's direction, but in this early development stage that's not what I want.
I have to trust my subconscious (or higher self or wherever creative thought comes from) and let go of the reins. In this formative stage my goal is to simply remain silent and listen to the story seeking to emerge.
I gradually discovered my writing process over the course of writing eleven novels. In earlier posts, I’ve discussed how and why I outline before I begin. But the step after that – transforming my outline into a first draft – I actually do in several stages. A process I think of as ‘writing in layers’.
Some aspects of writing come easier for me than others. Dialogue, for example, is what I find easiest. Description on the other hand takes me longer, as does internal monologue and scene transitions. And brilliant metaphors – don’t hold your breath!
So in creating my first draft, rather than focus on all these elements all at once, I do each one individually. I write the story through several times, each time focusing on a different element, starting with the one I find easiest and adding the harder ones in subsequent layers.
Sometimes I do this a chapter at a time, but usually in larger blocks. So I might write a hundred pages of mostly dialogue and then go back and flesh them out before moving on to the next hundred pages.
Why dialogue first.
We all mentally process and recall information via our senses. When you think about a lover, you might see their face as well as hear their laugh; you might even recall the scent of their perfume and the feel of their skin.
But everyone has a dominant sense in this regard. For the majority of people, that sense is vision, but for the second largest group, it’s hearing. (When you remember a phone number do you see it or hear it in your head?)
I fall into the second category. I don’t know if I was born that way or my training in music pushed me in that direction but this has affected the way I write.
Because I can hear what my characters are saying easier than I can see what they’re doing, my first layer is mainly dialogue (with a bit of action narrative thrown in.) Whenever I get stuck, I just sit back, close my eyes, silence my thoughts, and after a moment, almost without fail, I start hearing my characters speaking.
I think of this initial dialogue layer as my ‘getting-to-know-you’ draft. My outline only tells me so much – the basics about my characters’ backgrounds, conflicts and goals. Hearing what they say to each other – the words they choose, the attitudes they adopt when conveying them – tells me a lot about who they are. I also get a clearer sense of how they interact and challenge each other.
In my second layer of writing a first draft I focus on what my characters are thinking. I guess because thinking is only one step removed from speaking, I find this the next easiest element to add.
This is a fascinating layer to write. It’s amazing how the impact of dialogue can change when you add what the characters are thinking as they speak. If a character says one thing while thinking the opposite, it completely changes the effect for the reader. And if a character thinks something but holds themselves back from actually voicing it, it adds depth and conflict to the scene.
In the final layer of writing my draft, I add the parts I find hardest to write – description of the setting, the action, the people; transitions from one scene to the next; the odd snappy comeback, a compelling metaphor here and there. Because I’m not trying to do everything at once, I can relax and enjoy adding these details.
With this layer done, my draft is complete. But it’s still only my first draft. At this point I find it helpful to set the manuscript aside for a while, or give it to my critiquing partners for their thoughts and comments.
In the meantime, I read a few books on craft to remind myself what I’ll soon be editing for. Then I come back, read my manuscript all the way through, marking the things I want to change or add in the revision stage.
You would think this approach would take much longer. Hard enough writing a novel once, let alone four times! But actually the opposite is true for me. Because I’m not constantly stopping to fuss with the things I’m not as good at, I can get my dialogue layer down really quickly. Then, with the bones of the story on the page, I can have fun playing around with them and fleshing them out.
Every novelist needs to discover their own process. And this probably won’t happen from writing one book. Most of us experiment with different approaches, especially in the beginning. Chances are you’ll have to get a few books under your belt before you know what works best for you.
I keep a notebook of my favorite sentences, phrases from the books I read that I can look back over again and again and hopefully learn from.
What impresses me about some of these sentences is the author’s skill in creating a mood appropriate to the story’s genre.
Like these lines from Dean Koontz’s horror novel, The Darkest Evening of The Year:
Her daughter glided at her side, as firmly attached as a remora to a large fish.
Amy had the feeling that something more than the man himself lived in Brockman’s body, as though he had opened a door to a night visitor that made of his heart a lair.
The hooded eyes looked sleepy, but the reptilian mind behind them might be acrawl with calculation.
Every time a read those words, ‘acrawl with calculation’ I literally get goose bumps. What power words can have!
As you may have guessed, Koontz is one of my favorite authors. Check out the imagery in these lines from his novel The Taking:
The room had the deep-fathom ambience of an oceanic trench forever beyond the reach of the sun but dimly revealed by radiant anemones and luminous jellyfish.
The nape of her neck prickled as though a ghost lover had pressed his ectoplasmic lips to her skin.
As effectively as a leech taking blood, fear suckled on Molly’s hope.
As much as I love a brilliant metaphor, often it’s just the sheer magic of the words that captivates me. Like these lines from The Orphans of Race Point by Patry Francis
On the street that was as much a part of him as the face he saw reflected in the store windows, he felt his sense of isolation burrowing deeper.
It was a broken, hallucinatory night of sleep. In the wind, the shack that stood on stilts shook like a houseboat tossed on mercurial seas.
What impresses me most however is that these authors conjure their special magic using only the simplest words. Words every writer worth his ink has at their disposal.
Halfway through the year (already!) and I need to remind myself of some things, so a fresh crop of pin-ups has appeared on the board above my writing desk:
Stop worrying about things you have no control over and focus on the ones you do: writing every day, pushing yourself to find better, more original ideas, conducting yourself in a professional manner, believing all that you want is possible.
Take complete control of your thoughts. Know exactly what you want and allow yourself to imagine nothing else. The instant doubt starts to whisper in your ear – silence it! It’s your head, you don’t have to listen.
Don’t expect to be excited by your plot until you’ve filled it with characters you love.
And just for fun…
Some of the world’s greatest feats were accomplished by people too dumb to know that what they were trying to do was impossible. Doug Carson
Only a mediocre writer is always at his best. Somerset Maugham
The chances of a project reaching fruition is inversely proportionate to the amount of time you spend talking about it.
And lastly...on a yellowed scrap of paper, covered over by more recent pin-ups, I found this one dated December 1990:
Feeling discouraged or depressed about failures is a luxury you can’t afford. If you aren’t succeeding in what you set out to do, you just aren’t working hard enough. It’s not a question of intelligence or talent. If you think you’re working hard now, then do more. If you really want something, it’s worth the effort. And if you have to work twice as hard as someone else to accomplish the same thing then so be it. Fairness has nothing to do with it!!
I’m reading an interesting book at the moment called BOUNCE by Matthew Syed about master athletes. I’m not a sports person by any stretch but I like reading books about people achieving their goals.
The chapter in BOUNCE I found most interesting from a writer’s point of view was the one on choking. Choking starts with an athlete’s intense desire to succeed. (Choking never happens when you’re playing a casual game in your back yard; it’s always at the most important event of the season, possibly of your entire career.)
The athlete is usually stunned when they choke. After all those hours of analysis and practice, how could things go so horribly wrong? Syed explains:
In striving to master an advanced motor skill (a tennis serve or golf swing, for example), athletes break the movement down into parts (what their wrist is doing, what their shoulders are doing, how they’re standing, etc), focus on each part individually, then slowly put them all together into one fluid movement.
During this process the skill is gradually transformed in the brain from ‘explicit’ to ‘implicit’ memory. In other words it goes from being something you have to think about to an action that is automatic.
The difference between these two types of memory becomes apparent when one person tries teach another how to drive a manual car. For anyone who’s learned the skill the movements are automatic. But in order to explain them to someone else you have to break things down again. Essentially you have to set aside your learned (implicit) memory of the skill and experience being a beginner again.
So what happens when an athlete chokes? It all comes down to that intense desire to succeed, the pressure the person puts on themselves. The more important a match or game is to the player, the greater their tendency to want to be in complete control. But in seeking to control their every movement, the athlete disengages from his implicit memory and returns to the clumsy realm of the beginner.
In reading this, it seemed to me that the equivalent for a writer is writer’s block. And it’s brought about by the exact same thing. When a project becomes too important, when the goal of publication grows too big in our minds, we tend to focus on the craft, the rules of writing, rather than the story we want to tell.
In our intense desire to write ‘well’ we set aside whatever mastery we may have already acquired and once again become self-conscious beginners. Our voices ‘choked’.
At least this has been my own experience. And the reason I try to write my first draft fast, and save the editing until it’s done. A difficult challenge for any control freak!
When I first joined a writing group, one of their favorite exercises was freewriting to a given topic. (Or timed writing, as Natalie Goldberg calls it in Writing Down The Bones.) Someone would say, ‘write about a childhood fear’ or ‘a recurring dream’ or whatever, then hit the timer for 10 minutes and off we’d all go. Everyone, that is, except me.
While everyone else was writing madly, I’d sit there with a dumb look on my face, struggling to think of a single thing to write about. By the time I finally did think of something, the ten minutes was nearly up. Yet the minute I walked out the door, dozens of ideas popped into my head!
To remedy this, I began slipping in a preliminary step of brainstorming a list of suitable topics before I began. Somehow this took the pressure off, as well as giving me a choice of memories to write about. But I’d always remember more and usually better topics after the writing session was over.
In the end I started saving my lists. Whenever I thought or heard of a freewriting topic I’d write it on a page in a notebook and add my thoughts and memories as they came to me. (For a list devotee this is sheer heaven. Imagine an entire A4 notebook filled with nothing but pages of lists!)
I found this exercise extremely interesting. It struck me that one person’s list of their loves, hates, fears, regrets, dreams, etc is totally different from anyone else’s. These traits and memories are what define us and make us who we are – the sum of all our experience. And because they provide such tremendous insight, I found inventing lists for my fictional characters a great way to get to know them.
Since I first started keeping lists, my original A4 notebook has grown to two, soon to be three. Keeping lists of my memories, traits and experiences means I always have something to write about. If ever I want to do timed writing practice, I just open my notebook to one of the pages and choose a topic.
Here are just some of the headings for the lists in my books:
Loves, Hates, Fears, Regrets, Successes, Failures, Strengths, Weaknesses, Quirks, Superstitions, Interests, Hobbies, Goals,
Treasured Possessions Risks I’ve Taken
Recurring Dreams Nightmares
Obsessions Unforgettable Places
Unforgettable Sights Coincidences
Childhood Toys Dumb Things I Did As A Kid
Childhood Fears Childhood Dreams
Childhood Illnesses Labels I’ve Had
People Who Visited Our House When I Was Young
Expressions My Family Used
Things I Value In Myself and Others
Things I Believe Prejudices I Have
Things I Collect Psychic Experiences
Times I Acted Heroically ‘Me’ Things
Haunting Experiences Firsts
When I first started writing fifteen years ago someone offered me the usual advice: write what you enjoy reading. I thought that was pretty obvious – who would write a book they wouldn’t want to read? So I didn’t give it very much thought.
Fast forward ten years (and 8 unpublished novels) later, and I again heard that phrase put a bit differently – write the book you would love to be reading. Maybe it was the pile of rejections I had by then collected, but the statement pulled me up this time and I sat down and gave it some serious thought.
I imagined myself walking into a book store and seeing my most recent creation there on the shelf beside the books of my favorite authors, and I asked myself, which one would I buy? I’m not talking voice or style here, just the story itself. Which would I enjoy reading most – the one I had written, or the one some total stranger had written?
The answer stunned me. I wasn’t sure.
The fact I even hesitated blew me away. I’m a writer. When I put a story together I’m in control of every aspect of it – the setting, the characters, what happens to them, how it all ends. With that much power, how could I fail to create a story I loved more than any other?
The answer that came to me seemed a bit crazy: maybe I didn’t know what I loved. I could obviously recognize it when I saw it in someone else’s work, but maybe I needed to clarify those elements before I could incorporate them into my own.
With this as my goal, I sat down and wrote out lists of ‘my favorites’ – novels, films, protagonists, villains, settings, dramatic situations, most moving scenes, etc. Anything and everything related to storytelling.
When I finished, I went through my lists and defined what I loved about each item. Then I looked for recurring elements, clues that might lead me to even deeper levels of personal meaning. In some cases I had to look closely. (Aliens and The Client might not seem to have much in common but I assure you, for me, they do.)
What I ended up with in doing this exercise was a trove of treasures. These at last were my loves defined. These were the elements of theme, character, plot and setting that had deep personal meaning for me.
Looking back at my earlier novels, I could see I’d incorporated some of these elements into every one. But never had I combined them all into one story.
So that’s what I did. I took all my favorite elements – my favorite character types, my favorite theme, my favorite setting, etc – put them together and said, ‘Right, this is what I have to work with. Create a story using these elements.’
The result was Run To Me. And from the moment it began to take shape in my mind it was my favorite of any story I’d ever written.
The moral for me? Only by clearly defining what moves me can I communicate it to others.