Do we write for ourselves or for our readers? Do we write what we think will sell, what might get us the most attention, or what we’re compelled to write? All fair questions, particularly given the challenges of marketing a book, specifically an indie book, in an ever-changing industry.
A colleague of mine, quite the brilliant writer, spoke with me recently on the topic, specifically about “fan fiction,” that ubiquitous genre that has unleashed vampires, zombies, paranormal lovers, and whip-yielding CEOs on an eager reading public. In his weariness at the uphill climb of promoting literary fiction (my genre, as well), my friend asked if I thought I could ever write a “genre” book, for no other reason than to tap into the trend and hopefully hit the mother lode. I thought about it. I mean, if you used a pseudonym, if you created an alter ego, why not?
Because I couldn’t do it. Not because I’m above such things, but because the Muse that compels me to write, to sit down at the computer and tap into something ephemeral and demanding and propulsive, has to be sparked by the Idea That Must Be Written. For me, that happens rarely and only with stories I’m moved by, stories I’d want to read myself, stories I feel contribute something of depth and value to the world. They don’t have to be dirges, certainly humor is a big part of my style, but they’ve got to tap into something meaningful. For me. Nothing against vampires—if I had a vampire story that tickled my brain to the point that I had to write it, I would—but I cannot imagine finding the mental, emotional, and creative energy to write a “trend-tap” story in hopes of going viral.
Could you? How do writers find their stories? What does move most authors to do the work, take the steps, dedicate the time to complete a novel?
Fact is, I wasn’t sure I’d ever write a novel… of any kind! It seemed so large and looming, that process, particularly after years of writing screenplays with their 120-page formats and mandate to move the story along with just visuals and dialogue. That was certainly its own challenge and skill set, but it couldn’t approach the depth and breath of an 80K-100K+ word novel! And I never felt I had a story deep enough to compel the novel format… until After The Sucker Punch came to me.
Some of you are familiar with the story: a thirty-six-year-old woman—ex-rocker, lapsed Catholic, defected Scientologist, and fourth in a family of eight complicated people—finds her father’s journals on the night of his funeral and discovers he thought she was a failure. The journal she reads is ten-years-old, there are others that may offer more contemporary, less denigrating, opinions, but the impact of knowing he’d ever dismissed and mischaracterized her struggles, her successes, her relentless quest to achieve her goals, is shattering… a “sucker punch.” As the title suggests, the story follows her journey as she goes from reeling at the information to attempting to make sense of it, getting beyond it rebuild her sense of self, her view of her family and childhood, and certainly her understanding of her father.
It was a story sparked by a real incident: My own father wrote journals and, many years after his death, one was brought to my attention that was particularly focused on me in a somewhat, shall we say, critical way. I had my understandable reaction, but since I’d had a fairly distant relationship with my father throughout my adult life, his retrospective critique, while hurtful, was not, for me, particularly life shattering. It was only when I brought it up in a women’s group I was in at the time that I realized just how provocatively the incident translated to others: The women in the group were collectively horrified; the variety and intensity of their responses was fascinating, most exclaiming that such an indictment from their own fathers, particularly posthumously, would have left them devastated. Suddenly this seemed like a story worthy of novel treatment!
My enthusiasm stirred, I then took the prompt – “how would you feel if you found your father’s journal and he said you were a failure?” – to a number of others, both men and women, and accrued a panoply of replies on all sides of the spectrum. From there, so excited about the depth and variety of what I was hearing, I began to piece my story together, dug deeper to go beyond the “inciting incident” to explore issues that resonated with many of the people I spoke to: love, relationships, religion, careers, how we frame success, how we define ourselves, etc.
At that point I had the arc, created a plot, fleshed out characters informed by my research, and became driven to write that narrative, with those characters, and the very specific ending they all led me to. It was an exciting, exhilarating, creative process…
… and the only way I can write a novel: relentlessly pushed by my Muse to tell that specific story. Literary fiction? Not genre? Won’t necessarily bring in the hordes, go viral, inspire a rabid fan base? So be it. But I guarantee, whoever lines up to purchase my book, whoever clicks a buy button, whoever goes to a bookstore to find it on a shelf, will find a narrative told with passion, imbued with heart, and reflective of people and experiences that have moved me. And will, I hope, move them as well!
How do you find your stories, fellow writers?
Reading Photographs by Tom Amandes
Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.