For both writers, and teachers of writers, on the subject of “what do we write about and why”…
I have a wonderful coaching client, who has recently finished her first novel (a fantastic and emotionally moving story, beautifully told, about a middle school girl recovering from grief). We were talking about what she would write next, and she said, “Well, I have this thing I wrote that’s really different.”
I said, “Send me the first 30 pages.”
The pages were really, really different. Very funny, very well-written, kind of oddball, a mystery, and in a niche I won’t go into for reasons of client privilege. They were not at all like the novel she’d just finished.
My first concern was that as a debut author, readers may expect more of the same from her. My second concern was whether there was a market for this story, as it is so out of the box.
Writing To Please the Crowd
We had a conversation, this client and I, and I gave her my concerns, and asked her to think about them for a few days. And then think about any ideas she might also have that were more in line with her first book, because I knew from experience that it is hard to swerve away from one genre into another.
I’ve swerved, more than once, some times more successfully than others. My first three novels were historical YA. When I swerved into middle grade fantasy, I lost my then agent who wanted more of the same.
When I wrote my first picture book, it was hard to sell because I was known as a novelist.
When I wrote my most recent novel, Carry Me Home, it sold right away, but hasn’t found its audience because it’s contemporary and about a tough topic, and I’m known best for spooky fantasy.
I’m sure my current agent would also like more of the same, more successful middle grade fantasy books. I’m sure my readers would like more of them, too. But I’ve tried to write to please the crowd, and that doesn’t work at all.
“It Brings Me Joy”
When we write to please someone other than ourselves we write from an inauthentic place. I’ve written here before about being authentic, and I really believe that this is the key to writing great books. It’s not about the concept, or the genre, or even the smooth execution. It’s about the emotional well from which we draw ideas that are truly meaningful to us. Maybe this is what is actually meant by “write what you know”, except it’s not about what you know but what you feel.
My client gave it a few days and said she couldn’t come up with anything else she’d rather write about. She wants to work on this odd story “because it gives me joy.”
That was enough for me to say to her, “Then I’m all in.”
Write From a Place of Joy
Success in writing doesn’t always come in the form of numbers – books sold, books acquired – but in the form of what brings you joy. I still truly believe in Carry Me Home and am deeply proud of it, and have to trust that it will one day find its audience. That book, written with pure intent on a tough topic, brings me joy because I said what was in my heart.
I think that when we write, or when we teach or coach writing, we need to honor our own or the writer’s intentions and emotions and encourage ourselves and them to write from a place of joy.
So, I encourage you writers – and you teachers of writing – to ask yourselves or your students, “What brings you joy?”
I’d love to hear your answers to that question.
Janet, this is such a great post and a great question. Writing fantasy books brings me joy. There shouldn’t be a “but,” but here it is: I set writing them aside to take on paying work (book editing; devotional writing; etc.). So, I can relate to your reservations about your client’s book. But also I admire the joy your client feels in writing her book.
Yes, it’s a hard one when we have to work to put bread on the table and that work doesn’t spark joy. I really hope you’ll continue to write fantasy – stealing moments from wherever you can. Sending hugs.