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Wednesday, December 22, 2021

WHY WE WRITE: Your First Novel


Okay, so to begin with, I am no expert. I do not have a book published with a major publishing company, I do not have a movie deal, and last month my three books on the market brought me a total of $43 of revenue. However, that brings us to our first point. There are a lot of reasons writers write. I would hold "to get rich" may be on many lists but is likely never the number one reason. We write as therapy. We write to engage the world around us. We write to remember, memorialize, educate, warn, encourage, or just to entertain. We write because we have stories to tell.

Obviously, to write you need a story. Most people who have ever considered writing a book have a story rolling around in their heads. I am in a writer's group and hear these often: Super heroes with unique inventions, journal entries that could be stories, military puzzlers, "what-ifs," smash ups of genres members like, mysteries, romances, and encounters of the paranormal. I love sitting around discussing the ideas. 

For some, the idea is enough inspiration. For others it is not and the book remains in their head. That is why I think one of the first things you must do as a writer is decide WHY YOU WRITE.

“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane.”

- George Orwell, Why I Write 

What is the catalyst that took you from "I might write a book someday..." to "My book will be about...." or "My book will show people..."

I have a dear student who I taught in her undergraduate courses. She lived a difficult life where she was abused throughout her childhood. In adulthood she found similar relationship patterns with similar results. She studied psychology and found a career path helping others. She also wrote a book. Her book seeks to offer hope to others in similar situations. It is her "Why."

I have a young man that worked for me during his college days. He studied journalism and went on to a successful career at several major magazines. In writing a particular article he came across a story from his home state of Tennessee regarding mines, miner conditions, and the impact to the earth. It caught his attention and he decided to not only write a brief article but to make it a book. His "blurb" or elevator pitch work was done in the article. His book will develop those findings. He already has an audience to network and access through his career since the community that reads the magazine are also interested in this topic. His writing must be heavily researched and accurate. His goal is not to become the next famous author, but to impact the world for the better through his work.

A woman I deeply respect writes mystery novels based in STEM / science. She hopes someday to use the income from writing as a primary income source. I think she will. But she also writes about science. She has a PhD and a career in the field her fictional characters play in. The science is her lifelong love and passion. For her, money is part of the equation but not the only part. That said, her world of marketing, cover design, editing, and promotion costs are radically different than my dear student mentioned above. The lady telling her own story takes her books to the audiences she already interacts with. My scientist friend seeks audiences who have never met her or know her at conventions or marketplaces.

“What I found was an ability to enjoy writing again, because I stopped making it about wanting to be the best, or wanting to be better than some past version of myself, or better than other people I admire a lot who write YA fiction.

Instead of seeing it as a pyramid, or something that you're trying to get to the top of; I started seeing it as a huge ball that I'm trying to, like, contribute one layer of paint to. Lots of other people are contributing layers of paint, and through that the ball gets more beautiful and more interesting, and also bigger.

And instead of me needing to be at the top of my game somehow, what I can really do I think in the end, is contribute in a small way to a very big conversation that's very old. And that's what art is for me.”

― John Green

Here are a few questions that might help you discover your "WHY"

- Who do I want to read my book? How important is each circle to me?

- In one sentence, how do I want a reader who closes my book on the last page to feel or think?

- Why do I read books? Is my goal in writing the same? (If not, align your reading habits. Go find authors writing to your same projected audience)


    For years I thought about writing "when I had time." I was in a field where there were opportunities. I saw gaps in the professional literature that I could speak into from my own experience. I had won writing awards in High School and even had a few things published in my college literary magazine. I had friends who wrote books. None of this was enough.

After a divorce I found myself in a new career path with a new living situation and new friends. Through the divorce I realized many I thought were my deep, personal friendships were not. So, as a middle aged man I set out to make new friends. I was at a con (ConNooga) with my son looking at cosplay Star Wars blaster rifles when a booth next door caught my eye. I am an avid reader and there was a cheap collection of stories offered by local authors. The book was titled Crazy Buffet. I handed the man my $5 and picked up the book. Then one of the great moments of my life happened.

"Hey, you know, we all meet twice a month. You are welcome to join."

I went. I was welcomed. I learned (I'm a total nerd and love learning new things) and built friendships as I ate BBQ and apple pie. And there you had it. I started writing because writing for me was what my friend group did.

So then, what would I write? For the next Crazy Buffet collection I wrote a story I had carried with me for years. In my twenties I spent time in Rwanda. It was immediately after the genocide and the stories were still fresh, often with bodies still unburied to see. One such story was a very brief interaction with a bi-racial couple. The man had rescued the woman and her child from a mass grave. He helped her across the border at loss of his own job and security. They eventually married and made a life together in exile. That is all I knew of their story. The rest I developed from my imagination and what I knew from my travels. It was my first published piece. Christmas presents to all my friends!

In my writing group there was always talk about writing a book. I thought I would take the challenge. On their advice to "write what you know" I started looking around my life. At the time one of my kids was having a difficult time with school bullies. I was working in a middle school as a teacher and saw the impact of bullying. The counselor training in me clicked with the school teacher in me. Then came the spark - "What if a new kid on the first day was walked to class by the school bully?" 

I wrote. I was encouraged by my clan. I wrote not to be a bestselling author but to tell a story I believed in and to learn the craft so my second story could be even better. Jam Sessions was born. New kid has anxiety attacks and is bullied. He finds a new group of friends and learns the value of writing (journaling). Wow... sound familiar?

My love of myth led to my next book: twelve Hours on the Block. It came about as I joined another writing group" the Corner Scribblers. They wrote sci-fi, horror, military scifi, steampunk, and as the leader puts it... "great pulp fiction." I had been working on a few characters with no story to put them in as I was reading a book on character development. I had the idea to put them in prison with the Aztec gods of creation (I was teaching the Aztec gods' story at the time in my Middle School classes.). The group have a small indie press: Three Ravens Publishing. They produce flash fiction collections I participated in and during a meeting I told them about my prison story. Three Ravens picked it up. Twelve Hours on the Block came to life. Again, the link for me was my involvement in a friend circle.

My third, Freckles: The Dark Wizard is at heart another anti-bullying book. This one is in the fantasy world, where I do most of my own casual reading. It shows growth in my writing skills and also growth in knowing what I need to contract out. (Thanks Meredith for the great cover art!!!)

Why I write has changed. I still write because it is what my friends do. I also write because I think people respond better to story than textbooks. It is why we love preachers who tell us about Daniel in the Lion den or Noah in the ark rather than the one discussing the list of spiritual gifts or the five greek words used in the text. We love story. We find in them the courage to be better people. As the John Green quote above states, I hope my blotch of paint makes the picture just a bit prettier.

So, why is this so important?

It is important because if you know WHY you are writing you can form a better game plan to SUCEED in writing. 

Remember my student I mentioned earlier? She was not looking for a traditional publishing house. Don't get me wrong, she wouldn't turn down a lucrative contract. However, her "WHY" is to put her story in the hands of those who need it. Self publishing is a great course for her because she will always control her book. She can order inexpensive author copies to give away, she can offer the digital version free of charge, she can post access to it wherever she goes. It is another tool in her tool box for a career in helping.

My science friend, on the other hand, invests a lot in branding and marketing. She seeks representation by agents and teaches writing to promote her label.

Me? I am for the first time this year leading panels at ConNooga. That's right... where I started my writing career. It is a huge moment for me. I have joined my local writer's guild and become part of the board. My area of interest is the membership section. I hope to connect other writers to groups and encourage them to write. I've placed my anti-bullying books on Teachers-Pay-Teachers so entire classrooms can access them for minimal cost ($2 for a class set). I keep writing things that interest me. I write more than I market. When I do market my books I do it in my friend zones or in areas where I think my content is needed (next year I will have a booth at the Tennessee Middle school Librarian Association meeting).

Still reading? Or at least skimmed to the bottom?

Good for you. In this series I hope to talk through some of the basics on writing as I have discovered through my journey. This is not "30 days to 30,000 book sales." This is not "How to be famous," or "How to Write the Next Harry Potter." Those courses are out there and some probably work (SAVE THE CAT!)

This is how to get YOUR story into the hands of others based on your WHY.

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