Want to kill your chances of a writing career? Write inauthentically. Write generic dreck that anyone in the literate world could duplicate. Draw from a shallow pool teeming with small ideas. You may think that really memorable stories are pulled from the air, the same air you breathe, but they aren’t. They come from the very core of a writer’s being. Do yours?
So what’s the difference between writing stories and putting in writing the stories you were born to tell?
And remember, you are not trying to compete with Tolstoi or Tom Clancy. Your greatest competition comes from you – yesterday, ten years ago, or a minute ago. You are the bar you must surpass. Every day.
Here’s a way to find out what you already have inside you. Don’t worry about all the stories you ever want to write. Scrap everything you’ve already written. Just think about The One, right now. Every new story must begin this way, as The One. Genre is no exception.
1. What has been your private war?
We can’t all be Dostoevsky or Hemingway and bring a stint in Siberia or a couple of wars into our writing. That’s just not realistic. But we’ve all done battle. We’ve all experienced lifetime sentences – and sometimes even these are not our own; they’ve occurred within the sphere of our lives and altered us deeply, and we have paid and paid, and fought our way free of it just the same.
Writers are strugglers. With ideas, with their own and societal limitations and norms, with the past, the present, the future. Heartbreak, normalcy, alcoholism, failure, mediocrity, illness, death, crippling poverty (or, yes, crippling comforts).
The battle of the artist has always been to understand the relationship between darkness and light in all their literary iterations: hope and despair, war and peace, good and evil, life and death. Try to think about one single book you’ve ever loved that doesn’t touch on that dichotomy somehow.
What are your private struggles telling you? How can you shift these struggles onto a different track? How can you exploit the range of emotions and perceptions and psychological states from the personal and transfer them to the general? Stephen King might never have fought a demonic presence in the real-life Overlook Hotel where he stayed, but the key emotional and psychological features from which The Shining developed came from something very real in his experience with alcoholism and personal demons. Which leads to:
2. What is your driving emotion?
This is a two-parter: the general and the specific. This is your raw being, something desperately pathological about you. Fear (of?), anger (toward?), guilt or shame (about?), disgust (for?), contempt (over?), happiness (with?), sadness (over?). It’s not what you think of yourself or what you present to others – or what others think about you; this is what defines you at your core. Being able to see this about yourself, especially in relation to its role in writing, takes maturity and life experience . Your relationships and decisions and world-view are largely ruled by this core emotion. It might have already become an underlying component of your writing, but it also could be the one thing you keep running from. Figure this out, unpack it down to its bare bones, then let it inform the authenticity in your stories. Give your characters (or your fictional society) the general driving emotion, then change up the focus of that emotion. What’s truest to you will be truest to your readers.
Think about how many ways your writing can go wrong if your driving emotion is anger and you’re trying to write over-the-top light-hearted YA romance. It’s going to pour through your story on a subconscious level through the words you choose, the tone, and even how your sentences are constructed. But if you understand what’s inside you, you can rewrite a character in that same story whose actions and reactions are based in anger (you’re an angry environmentalist, but your protagonist is an angry combat vet). Because core human emotions produce universally recognizable outcomes, you can give your character your anger with his or her own justifiable backstory. Research the effects and outcomes of your driving emotion so you know how it can influence someone’s life. Research how that same driving emotion affects those who come in contact with the person actually living it. What does a wife’s anger over childhood abuse do to a husband and children? Friends? When you can see how it ripples into narrative development you’ll be able to level your sights on the right genre, the right audience, and the right tone. By doing so you will not only deepen characterization but also put something authentic and unique into what might have been a very run-of-the-mill storyline.
3. What fascinates you?
Easy peasy, right? We all have passions. We all have that one or five interests that make us wonder if we’ve dipped our toes into the shallows of a diagnosable disorder. But this is not a disordered pursuit that may or may not involve adult diapers and pressure sores you could store your change in (presumably for the giant Dr. Pepper and Doritos).
No, this is an ordering of some kind. It’s a pursuit of something greater. It’s speaking to you now, even if it didn’t five years ago and may fade in six months, and it’s part of a personal or universal weft and woof that you may or may not be aware is forming into a narrative tapestry. It’s a place where you lose yourself to find yourself, and ultimately gain some spark of understanding about the larger world or human nature. It’s a place where knitting is not just needles and yarn (A Tale of Two Cities), and where the news is not just talking heads (The Year of Living Dangerously). It’s a bug in your ear, a scratch you need to itch.
Are you obsessed with the idea of the English Moors? Old manor houses? Meh, you and about a bazillion other Downton Abbey fans. Mysterious writers? Biography? Okay, now we’re getting away from something common. Twins? Dead twins? Hot cocoa? Red-heads? Ooh, moving away from the generic, yes, but now we’re moving toward the unique, the individual. But so what? Ah. Add fear of alienation as the driving emotion. Then you just got authentic all up in your business and wrote The Thirteenth Tale (Diane Setterfield) and not some derivative DA or Bronte fanfic.
So what is it that draws you in? Really, why must you know, immerse, master, subject yourself to any particular interests? What is this giving you that nothing else can? What’s on the other side of the veil?
Because it isn’t just the thing itself that’s writable. It’s they why of it.
4. What is the relationship between the answers to #1, #2, and #3?
The war between darkness and light in our own lives defines our driving emotions. Driving emotion is tied to where our focus is trained, which is linked to to our need to cope with the war between darkness and light. It’s the writer’s job to figure out how it’s all connected to the way a story is born.
5. How do the stories you most love reading relate to your driving emotion?
We all prefer stories that speak to our core selves in some way. When you understand your own driving emotions you’ll recognize the power of their psycho-emotional authenticity in the stories you read, and thus their ability to draw readers when those same core emotions are poured into what you write.
It’s not about waiting around for some magical story to fall into your lap. It’s already somewhere inside you, waiting to be molded and shaped into something that will be closer to magic than anything you could ever stumble upon.
Read the next post in this series: 5 More Important Questions That Will Help You Find The Story You Were Born To Write
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