People write stories for all kinds of reasons. Some do it to pass on experiences in their own life and family. Some do it to impart life lessons to help a new generation. Some do it out of love for the stories that shaped their own childhoods. Some simply write stories because they feel filled up with stories and want to pour them out on the page. All of these things create a push to write. And all have strengths and weaknesses. The strongest writer will produce stories from a mixture of more than one of these motivations, along with an understanding off all of them. So let’s look at each of these and the way they can affect your writing.
Pass It On.
Most of us have heard the adage, “write what you know,” and if you connect with that idea, then what could fit it more than to tell your own life stories? Writing from life can bring all the feelings and power that come from authenticity. But it carries some dangers as well. I’ve read a great many unpublished short stories that were basically retellings of a memory from childhood and the authors were having trouble finding a publisher interested in them. The problems in these pieces were nearly always the same: a lack of plot (usually chronology is the only structure apparent), a lack of specific detail (since the events come from memory and are “real” the author relies on specifically remembered detail and is usually unwilling to add sensory details that might not be “right”), stiff and often sparse dialogue (again, memory can only do so much, so the author is usually tentative with dialogue which ends up feeling unreal and unengaging). As a result, the final piece can feel stiff and slight.
So does that mean stories from life never work? Definitely not. Many writers borrow incidents from life, but the key is to use it as a template, not a straight-jacket. In other words, try for “inspired by” rather than trying to make what you write into nonfiction. Look at the experience critically or tell it to a friend, and ask, “what about that is interesting even if it weren’t about me or someone I love?” Once you find that, you can use it as the seed from which to grow something unique, fully fleshed out, and not bound by your internal rules of “but that’s not how it happened.” The reality is that family stories tend to only be interesting to the families to which they belong. But there is often something within those stories that is engaging and compelling and can be used to grow something totally new and fantastic. Thus, you turn “write what you know” into “write inspired by or informed by what you know.”
Let Me Help You.
Many of us have reached an age where we cringe as we see young people making the same mistakes that we made, or worse. We want to help. We want to support and uphold. And that desire is not without merit. Many writers do so with a strong desire to write books that have value to the reader beyond simple entertainment (though, personally, I never scoff at simple entertainment). But there is a danger in writing with too much of that motivation pushing us, because it can come across as an agenda. It can come across as preaching. It can, in fact, lessen our chance of doing the very thing we want to do most. So why is that?
The simple fact is that many of us are fiercely independent. Anyone who has ever been told, “NO!” by a toddler is aware that fierce independence is part of our lives from a very young age. We don’t like being told what to do. We don’t respond well when we’re given the answer. We most embrace those ideas and conclusions that feel like they’re ours, not someone else’s. Thus, often the best help comes when we explore an interesting question, rather than when we offer direct advice. As Sarah PennyPacker, author of Clementine, explained on her website: “Good books raise and explore questions and respect readers enough to let them find the answers…. Answers turn people away. A story that preaches is an answer to a question not asked.”
My Favorite Things Are Books.
Books we’ve loved often create a burning desire to do the same, to write something as delightful and engaging and meaningful and fun as the books we most loved as kids. And those books we first encountered when we were young become double wrapped in our love because we not only love the book for itself, we love it for how we felt when we encountered it all those years ago. And so, it can be hard to love new books that we meet as adults as much as those books we remember from our childhoods. Books we meet as adults can be wonderful, but we’re not meeting them with that same wide-eyed, inexperienced joy that young readers may have. And because of that, many of us tend to think books just aren’t as good as they used to be. And if we hang onto that feeling, we’ll try to write Anne of Green Gables or Phantom Tollbooth or Harry Potter, or whatever book from the past that meant so much to us. We try to bring today’s children back into the past, where everything was better. This kind of feeling produces people who lament that there just aren’t any good books being published today.
There is nothing wrong with loving the books of our childhood. I loved Nancy Drew, for instance, and I remember how much I became absorbed in every book and how important Nancy became to me. But I can also read the books as an adult, and adult me knows that the series was cranked out by a pool of writers. I can look at what they did well and what they didn’t. Not only that, I can look at the things I loved most about the book (the puzzle, the warm family dynamic, the support of friends, Nancy’s independence) and I can see that those things are just as valid today. I can see what would still work, and I don’t have to reproduce the sometimes stilted language and odd plotting. I can learn from the books without trying to reproduce them and force today’s reader into yesterday’s book.
It’s important to read widely of books today. Yesterday’s books, even when they are as brilliant and timeless as Charlotte’s Web or Where the Wild Things Are, aren’t enough of a reading diet if you want to be a writer today. There’s no publishing time machine (with the possible exception of self-publishing) that will let you write for kids who don’t exist anymore.
If you want to be read today, it helps to read today’s books, and respect today’s reader. And more than that, reading today’s books will let you in on a secret. Books coming out today really aren’t so different from books when we were kids. Some of them are fantastic. Some of them are profoundly not fantastic. And if you keep reading, you’ll meet both, but you’ll also get a more realistic view of what exists today. And that will help you find your place in today’s publishing.
Love of Story.
I primarily write stories because I love to tell stories. I’ve been telling myself stories since I was a kid. I’ve been telling them to others. All my life stories are a little bit real and a little bit imaginary, because I’m always looking for a chance to make it a better story. I write to entertain. But that love of story and entertainment comes with its own danger: shallowness.
My writing is more prone to making you laugh than making you think, but the best books do both. My writing is more prone to taking you on an exciting adventure than giving you a new way to look at challenge or family or loyalty or duty, but the best books take you on an exciting adventure that lingers because of the depth. For me, digging deeper is the challenge, and it’s a challenge I face in every book.
Digging deeper means connecting with the writing in a deeply emotional level. It means letting my story affect me, because only then does it stand a chance of having a lasting effect on my reader. And I’ll be honest, I tend to shy away from that. I like a light life. Now, I don’t think every book needs to be War and Peace. There is a place for lighter fare, but every story needs substance and meaning. So for me, I have to be willing to uncover some old wounds now and then to tap into true feeling so that I can bring forth something valid and strong. It isn’t easy, but it is needed.
So what energizes your writing? Know that, and you’re on your way to better knowing your strengths and your weaknesses.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.