Monday, March 16, 2009

Why I Write What I Write

I’ve talked before about why I write – that is, why I put pen to paper. But I’ve never talked about why I write the kinds of stories I write.

Why does one gravitate toward fantasy? Science fiction? Chick-lit? Christian? Who knows. It’s just what we want to write about, right? That’s what I thought, until recently.

The novel I just finished was the hardest thing I’ve written to date. It’s not a novel I gravitate toward when I’m skimming shelves, it’s not about anything I’ve experienced personally, and the style is way out of my comfort zone. But, now that it’s done, it’s also the best thing I’ve ever written. And I’m convinced that’s because it was so far out of my comfort zone. It forced me to stretch myself into the unknown, which meant I flopped on my face more than once. And, with each flop, I learned not to make that mistake again.

The project I’ve just started working on is turning out to be similar. Again, it’s not a novel I gravitate toward. It’s not about anything I’ve experienced personally. And the style and subject are way out of my comfort zone. Does that mean I shouldn’t write it? Nope. I’m still going to. And I’m going to flop on my face along the way. And that’s okay.

Agent Elana Roth wrote a great post about the craft of writing, which she compared to making pottery. It is brilliant and everyone should go read it. :) It illustrates exactly what I’ve been experiencing for the past few years.

I’ve been working on selling my first novel for quite some time now. It came really close last year, right down to the wire, but the house ultimately said no, and now it’s back in my hands. If you’d asked me a year ago how I’d feel about this, I’d have said “devastated!” But, I’m okay. In fact, I won’t be heartbroken if it never gets published. Not because I don’t think it’s publishable – I think it is, and that it would do fairly well – but because I know I can do better.

Everything about that book was well within my comfort zone, yet it didn’t produce my best work. I didn’t have to do anything in order to write it, except for writing it. Clearly, that doesn’t work for me. I need to be able to stretch and grow, and I can’t do that if I’m always working on projects within my comfort zone. This may not work for everyone, but it’s working so far for me, and I expect it to keep working. So much that when I eventually have an agent and editor, I want them both to feel free to look me in the eye and say "you can do better," and then send me off to do just that.

A year ago, I wrote about writing what you know, and what it meant for me as a writer. It still means the same for me now, but I would add to it: Start out by writing what you know, then move on to writing what you don’t know. Otherwise, how are you going to grow?

So, why do you write what you write?


Marcia said...

I write about issues dear to my heart, I think. Usually friendship and a sense of home are at the core of my work. But I don't want to keep writing the same book in a different guise, so I keep looking for how to push the boundaries.

Bish Denham said...

I write whatever comes up strongest. I have so many ideas they get pushy. The pushiest idea wins! This means my writing is eclectic.

Tabitha said...

Marcia - a woman after my own heart (big surprise). :) I'm worried about all my stories sounding the same, so lately I've been exploring how to push the Voice boundaries.

Bish - those pushy ideas are a blessing and curse, aren't they? My writing is eclectic, too, and it worries me because most agents are not all over the place. And yet, I gotta write what I gotta write. :)

Elana Johnson said...

Great post. This is totally true. I'm writing in present tense right now, something I'm not entirely comfortable doing. It really does make you think and grow and write better.

Keri Mikulski said...

Love this post. :)

I write because I'm passionate about something - whether it's sports or something else, it's close to my heart. I write because characters start to talk to me and I can't stop them unless I type. I write because it's therapeutic and puts me in a zone that I haven't felt since sports. I write because I love too. :)

Jacqui said...

I write the story that won't let me not write it. But I also write what I write because I can't find the books I want to read sometimes. So I write them.

Tabitha said...

Elana - wow, I have great respect for anyone who can tackle present tense. I have a very young WIP that's coming out in present tense, but I've set it aside because I'm not ready to tackle it yet. It's difficult on so many levels. Good luck with yours, and I'm guessing you'll be a different writer when you're finished. :)

Keri - passion is essential, isn't it? Otherwise, why should we bother to write it? :) And I hear ya with the zone. It's awesome, isn't it? :)

Jacqui - that's AWESOME that you look at what's out there, say to yourself "this hasn't been done before so I'm going to do it." That takes mega guts. High fives to you. :)

Unknown said...

When I write, I picture my audience as being someone like me when I was young. The kind of person who wants adventure, action--and a deeper meaning. That's my goal.

Elizabeth Bradley said...

I too have come close, but no cigar with several novels. Why do I write what I write. Various reasons. I guess I have something to say. Whether or not I will find readers remains to be seen. Good blog subject.

Liana Brooks said...

I write what holds my interest. I probably could write in other genres, but I'm not excited or passionate about them to spend time building the world and engaging the character.

There's also an element of "pushing fiction", I have to keep my characters in a world that will work with the plot, which means I probably won't write straight commercial fiction ever.

Anonymous said...

I write the stories that won't shut up until I write them.

I consciously try new things in writing exercises--sometimes those new things migrate over to the work that I send to my agent for marketing. Sometimes not.

Tabitha said...

Beth - an excellent target. :) I picture my audience as someone like me as a teen: irritated when people talked down to me. :)

Elizabeth - fingers crossed for you the next time you're work gets close! :)

Just_Me - interest and passion are absolutely necessary. Otherwise, the story wouldn't be remotely interesting. :)

Jenn - those stories are both a blessing and curse, aren't they? I love that they're so insistent, but sometimes I wish they'd just shut up for a minute. :) And that's awesome that you consciously try new things in exercises. That's the perfect venue...and I kind of wish my brain would push me to try new things there instead of in an entire novel. :)

C.R. Evers said...

great post! I always like to think "write what you're passionate about" So it doesn't matter if it's something you know, or something you want to explore, if you have a passion, it can take you to great heights!


Mary Witzl said...

How did I miss this post?

I've been writing -- and revising -- an MG/YA ms for longer than I want to say, and although I've been brokenhearted to have it sent back with reservations, I now am so grateful that no one accepted it was it was five years ago, when it was pathetically flawed and nowhere near as good as I intend to get it.

I've just finished reading a book published by a respectable (U.K.) press. Frankly, it was an AWFUL book, over written, didactic, filled with telling vs showing -- and yet it got some rave reviews. I keep thinking: 'That could have been my book. I could have let my book go out like that.' And like you, I'd almost rather not get published than having something flawed go out the way it was.

Laura Pauling said...

Right now, I'm writing what I love to read, finally. It was like a light bulb moment when I figured out what I love and why. Will I stay here? I hope not. Because you're right. I won't grow if I do.