Discovering Our Writerly DNA

phot by kyz via Flickr
photo by kyz via Flickr

I’m often asked why I write books for kids and teens instead of grown up books, and my answer is always this: I write for kids and teens because the books we read when we’re young begin to shape and define not only our reading tastes, but our very selves. Rarely do the books we read as adults become a part of our emotional DNA in quite the same way.

As many writers quickly learn, once we become a writer it can be much more difficult to simply read for pleasure. I am too aware of the craft, too attuned to what makes a book ‘work’, too well-acquainted with my own internal editor, to fully lose myself in a book. So when that does happen, it is a big, big deal; something to be celebrated but also—because I’m a writer—studied.

When I deeply love a book as an adult it’s usually because it has managed to rock my world in such a way that I know  it has permanently changed how I look at and approach the craft of writing itself.

It occurred to me that these books become a part of my writerly DNA just as surely as the books of my youth became a part of my emotional DNA. Much like the books of my childhood, these stories open me up to the world of possibilities—not just in stories, but in craft. They show me what amazing things can be done within the scope of story. They give me a moment of true astonishment where I often think, “Oh, we’re allowed to do that?” and my writing world tilts on its axis.

As writers, it can be hugely eye opening to sit down and really look at which books have formed our writerly DNA.

Our reading passion serves as a mirror, reflecting back to us our writing passions. Which might seem obvious, but it’s not necessarily. That’s not to say we don’t all have many different types of books in us, we most emphatically CAN, but the more conscious we are of our own essential writerly DNA, the more successfully we can execute those books, and across a wider spectrum of genres.

For me, some of those books were:

THE CRYSTAL CAVE by Mary Stewart
These stories set during Roman Britain featured Merlin as an historical character and were my first exposure to the concept of historical fantasy. They were about one of the most mythical of characters—Merlin!—but told as history, and I can absolutely pinpoint these books as the moment I fell in love with historical fantasy, which I have spent the majority of my career writing.

OUTLANDER by Diana Gabaldon
I had never even given the genre of time travel a second glance. It seemed too implausible. But that was before I met Jaime and Claire and became utterly sucked into their world. The world was rich and complex and detailed and completely altered how I viewed what was possible in storytelling.

Another book that had a similar affect was Emma Bull’s WAR FOR THE OAKS. It was the first book I read where the world of fairy spilled over into the real world, and I was both utterly transported, and made aware of an entirely new range of possibilities.

Also on my list were three romances: DREAM A LITTLE DREAM, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips and WELCOME TO TEMPTATION by Jennifer Crusie, and THE PROPOSITION by Judith Ivory. To be honest, I could not for the life of me figure out what these books had in common with the others on my list until, after much pondering, I realized that each of these stories took the protagonist to the mat emotionally. Each had an extremely powerful sense of emotional catharsis and utter transformation, which I came to learn was a critical element for me as a reader—and something I wished to strive for in my own writing.

And yes, also on that list is HARRY POTTER by J.K. Rowling, but not because it was a phenomenal success. No, what I learned from Harry Potter was that no matter how many times a subject had been written about (I mean seriously, just how many wizard books had already been written when HP first came out??) a writer could still find a way to put her own unique stamp on the subject. It gave me the courage to not shrink from tackling subjects that had been done before, because they hadn’t been done in the way I would do them. It was a great big affirmation of the potential for a truly unique take on a familiar subject.

TURTLE MOON by Alice Hoffman was the first magical realism book I read and I was enthralled with this idea that we could use setting in such a powerful way. That we could let the subtext of what we were trying to say about the world be such a major focus of the story itself.

THE CURSE OF CHALION and PALADIN OF SOULS by Lois McMaster Bujold gave me permission to invent my own religion in my books, something I’d shied away from for a long time. But her books showed me how spiritual and religious themes and could infuse a book, and yet not come off as preachy or pedantic or allegorical.

 

It can be a hugely eye opening and fruitful exercise to sit down and come up with a list of these kind of books—the ones that rocked our world—and examine them. Look for the commonality. Sometimes it can be genre-related, but often times it is nothing anywhere near as obvious. It can be a sense of place, or adventure, certain themes. A mystery to be solved, or dealing with the Mysteries.

Other possible connections might include: a restrained hand with emotion so that it runs just under the surface as a thick undercurrent rather than overtly; catharsis; laughter; exploring the dark underbelly of the human experience; or perhaps its opposite—illuminating the enduring good to be found in the world; present or detached or unreliable narrators; a world full of possibility; a world where hope has completely disappeared.

As you look at your list, ask why do these books move you so very deeply? How do they shift your perception of the world, yourself?

But as writers, we can also take it further than that. If we are floundering in stories that aren’t shining, we can compare them to those that truly move us. If our own work isn’t incorporating the elements we adore in the books we read, why not? If that is what sets our reading hearts to fluttering, why aren’t we working in those same arenas as writers?

Sometimes there is a good reason. Sometimes we sense that we don’t know enough yet to tackle a project. Or we are still acquiring basic craft skills.

But often, we are afraid that we can’t do it justice, or no one will buy it, or it’s too corny or hokey or out there or will expose just how weird our own tastes are.

This is especially true if we’ve floundered a bit, trying out different genres, formats, and themes. A fair amount of exploration is essential, not just for developing writers but for established writers as well, as it is that sense of exploration and creative play that will keep our work new and fresh.

But sometimes market considerations will seep in or open override our quieter inner creative voice or instincts, telling us that YA is the hottest market right now, or dystopian, or that sexy New Adult is where all the biggest deals are happening.

It can also be simply too big a leap of faith for pre-published writers to spend months or years working on something that feels too new or different or out there. Especially when that desire to be published is burning inside them.

But whatever the reason is—it’s wrong. We should absolutely be striving to bring those same elements into our own work. What better place to acquire the writing chops than in the writing of a book we love on all levels? The thing is, once you have identified your writerly DNA, you can knowingly take those elements with you to whatever genre or format you care to experiment in–which will make that new, fresh experiment still uniquely YOURS because it is culled from—and therefore connects with—your creative/writerly DNA.

So sometime this week, give yourself an hour and list your ten favorite books, either comfort reads that you come back to again and again or books that blew your mind with their brilliance or however you want to define favorite. Then look at those titles, study them, and try to see if you can find what specific elements make them your favorite.

If you’re having trouble identifying commonality or threads, it can also be helpful to go back and make a list of your favorite childhood books. Sometimes our preferences can be more blatant there. For me it was all Laura Ingalls Wilder, Frances Hodgeson Burnett, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R.Tolkien. Not a single contemporary, realistic fiction book on there. Which made me go, duh, of course, I write historical fantasy—the map to the writer I became is broadly hinted at right there in my list of childhood favorites.

As a reader, falling in love with a book is one of my most favorite feelings in the world. But as a writer, moments like that, books like that, acquire an almost holy place on my bookshelves.

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About Robin LaFevers

Robin LaFevers is the author of fourteen books for young readers, including the Theodosia and Nathaniel Fludd series. Her most recent book, GRAVE MERCY, is a young adult romance about assassin nuns in medieval France. A lifelong introvert, she currently lives on a blissfully quiet hill in Southern California.

Comments

  1. says

    Interesting post, although I was surprised at your answer to “Why do you write books for kids/teens?” — that your answer came from your head instead of your heart. I thought I’d read, “Because that’s what I’m passionate about.” As I always tell readers that I don’t know why I write thrillers, only that that’s the genre I’m drawn to. In some ways, I find in inexplicable.

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    • says

      Ha Dina! The only reason it sounds like an intellectual answer is because I have spent the last ten years trying to understand the underlying reasons for my passion for writing for kids. And of course, even then it’s not the entire answer–because I think part of the reason we’re drawn to certain types of books is they align most closely with our own internal scars and wounds.

      But when I’m asked specifically why I write kids books instead of adult books, this answer makes sense to even the most judgmental adults. :-)

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  2. CG Blake says

    You are right on the mark. We are what we read. For me Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird were the two books that spoke to me about the possibilities in fiction as a youth. As a young adult I read Phillip Roth, John Updike and Saul Bellow. Later I gravitated toward Anne Tyler and Alice McDermott so it is only natural that I like to write family sagas. Thanks for a thoughtful and insightful post.

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  3. says

    Robin, your post hit a note with me today. I often read a mix during one time period, the classics with contemporary novels: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins and Seduction by MJ Rose, or I’ll read philosophy and poetry, science and spirituality books. And my novels are the same kind of mix. But here’s something weird. I read one of May Sarton’s journals (House by the Sea or Journal of a Solitude) once every year over and over. What does it mean when you desire to keep rereading the same book? Weird DNA for sure. Great post. Thanks for the insightfullness.

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    • says

      Wow, clearly something in that those books speak to you really, really deeply, Paula. Have you identified what it is? (Not that you need to tell me–I’m just wondering if YOU know.)

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  4. says

    Interesting analysis. I never thought about it this way before. Because I don’t write books for children, I didn’t see the books I read as a child being an influence on my writing. I see now that they most certainly are an influence. My favs as a child were a mystery series as well as one of the most famous romances, Wuthering Heights. Sure enough, my novel is a mystery and a romance. Recently, a friend of mine, who is serious & successful internet marketer, reminded me that I AM my audience. When trying to decide who your market it, you find it is YOU. I was grateful for her reminder. Thanks for bringing it home again in another thoughtful post.

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  5. Denise Willson says

    Thank you, Robin, I adored this post. Not only is it well written, but you hit a soft spot. I learn something from everything I read, but the stories that really speak to me hold a special place in my heart, and are read over and over. Understanding the “why” is the key to finding what moves me, and how I can move others with the same feeling.

    Kudos to a great post.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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  6. says

    Fantastic post! I really connect with books that have a strong character who changes and has a great arc – someone who the reader can really connect with. It’s hard to do, though, so it’s rare in a book. I try to write novels like that, ones that I would really love to read. I think that’s why it’s a valuable exercise to look at the books you love and try your hand at emulating what you love about them.

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  7. says

    Robin-

    Does the time at which we read certain novels leave us more open to their influence?

    As a young agent in New York–single, time on my hands, a new electric typewriter on my desk–I was ready to learn what made fiction work. I still have within arms reach of me right at this moment several of the novels that opened me to the possibilities of fiction:

    Bread Upon the Waters – Irwin Shaw
    The Queen’s Gambit – Walter Tevis
    Fevre Dream – George R.R. Martin

    George’s early work I read first in manuscript. (I was whipping out readers’ reports to keep spaghetti on the table.) Martin set a vampire tale in the Mississippi River steamboat era, showing me how cross-genre is done. (See also Diana Gabaldon or Robin’s own Grave Mercy.)

    Walter Tevis made chess thrillingly dramatic without ever explaining the rules of how rooks may move. Plus it was a suspense novel. About a street girl/chess grand master. Only The Eight by Katherine Neville has matched, for me, this mastery with gamesmanship.

    Irwin Shaw told a moral fable set in (then) contemporary New York, in which acts of kindness slowly turn evil. It’s a masterwork of utter control. Shaw played games with my expectations, a dimension of the art I now (many years later) understand and teach using the term The Fourth Level.

    I still today love novels that combine disparate elements, thrill me, teach me something new, have a challenging point and don’t unfold the way I expect them to.

    I learn from every novel I read. I miss the feeling of getting lost in a story. I know too much about how tightrope artists keep their act up on the high wire.

    But that’s okay. Luckily, I love learning.

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    • says

      I love this peek into your reading love, Don! (Although now my own reading pile has just grown substantially.)

      Not surprisingly, those reader passions also come through pretty clearly in your books on writing. :-)

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  8. says

    As a kid, Beverly Cleary kept me entertained with her humor. I was drawn to funny books with illustration, like Dr. Doolittle, The Borrowers, Ben and me, etc. When I got older and the illustrations disappeared, I stopped reading. Now, as a middle grade writer, I’m illustrating my wip novel and accessing my emotional DNA, which includes a touch of Mad magazine.

    My writerly DNA loves Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos.

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    • says

      Ah, I could have guessed writer of middle grade from that list, MaryZ! (And laughing at the whiff of Mad Magazine–haven’t thought of that magazine in YEARS.)

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  9. says

    Yeah, I missed out on the childhood reading saga. I was a T.V. kid unfortunately. I don’t really consider myself a writer yet. I’m more of a story teller trying to become a writer. Okay, I’m really not a story teller yet either, more of a character creator developing the skill of telling stories while trying to spell the word grammar.

    (I’m here to learn, and I am learning, thanks to many of you.)

    My favorite book growing up was the Six Million Dollar Man. It was an easy read. I still run around the house in slow motion.

    I walked-in-love with novels as an adult, or after I turned 35. At this moment in time I’m a Die-Hard Durzo Blint and Viridiana Savori fan. I have dedicated myself to dissecting The Night Angel Trilogy. (I’ll be sixty two when I’m finished). I read it when I’m at home and listen to it when I’m at work. Every time I venture through it I uncover another layer of goodies. It’s like eating a Punch Ball cake, om num num.

    David Baldacci, Lisa Gardner, Jodi Picoult, Ilona Andrews, and Brent Weeks are secret mentors. They were my secret mentors.

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    • says

      Wow, that’s a pretty fascinating list of favorites, Brian! There is definitely that thread of suspense weaving through all of them, but with SUCH varied executions!

      And I love it when I book works its way into my soul the way it sounds the Night Angel trilogy has for you. Best of luck absorbing that to its fullest!

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    • says

      Brian-

      As agent for Brent Weeks, I’d love at some point to hear what you’ve learned from your dissection of The Night Angel Trilogy!

      Best,
      Don

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  10. says

    Thank you for this thought provoking article, Robin.
    My writerly DNA?
    I’m dyslexic. Learning to read was a challenge. Black Beauty led to The Hiding Place led to Of Mice and Men. Reading John Steinbeck’s stories made me want to share my own. Like him, I wanted to write ‘real’ stories about ‘real’ people. I wanted to give voice to people who had not been heard. This desire still drives my writing.

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  11. says

    As a shy teen, I spent the majority of my time reading. There were so many great books out there to choose from, and to be immediately transported to another world – how fun was that?

    I loved everything from Little House on the Prairie to The Wizard of Oz series. Later, when I saw the actual movies they just didn’t give me the same joy. To this day I enjoy reading daily although my tastes have changed to science fiction.

    I remember trying to write my first short fiction story as a child. Unfortunately I submitted it to be critiqued to someone who instead of nurturing my creativity left red pen marks all over my story. However, I can happily say this did not stop me. I just didn’t submit my stories to her anymore!

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  12. says

    UGH. I want to track down that well-meaning critiquer and pry that red pen from her hand. I am SO HAPPY that didn’t stop you, Floriana. That shows you have the right degree of stubbornness and passion for this writing gig.

    And our childhood lists definitely share some favorites!

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  13. Dana McNeely says

    You picked several of my favorites – The Crystal Cave, Turtle Moon, Outlander, and introduced others I’ll want to try. I also loved The Last Child by John Hart, for its surprising plot twists and strong, quirky boy-protagonist, The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton for its unusual writing device merging time and dream, and Dandelion Summer by Lisa Wingate because who doesn’t love an ex-rocket scientist old curmudgeon and a street-wise teenager on a road trip?

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  14. says

    I have actually done this–searching for the threads of favorite books that went into the weave of my work. The first one came at age eight, when my parents took me to Fort Mackinac, on Mackinac Island in Northern Lake Huron. I loved the aura of the place, thinking about the 300 years of history that took place there. In the book store at the fort, there was a middle-grade story called The Young Voyageur, written and illustrated by local historian Dirk Gringhuis. It was the story of a British orphan boy taken as a laborer on a French voyageur crew, who ended up living and working in the fort during Pontiac’s Rebellion. I was captivated! This showed me the possibilities for being transported into history in story.

    From there, The Lord of the Rings rocked my world with world-building. More epic historical lessons from The Frontiersman, by Allan Eckert. How to build a perfect forbidden and exotic love affair from The Far Pavilions, by M.M. Kaye, among others. But I always read nonfiction historicals throughout, and my favorite author in that arena has to be Barbara Tuchman. She can make history read like a novel, which I so admire. And I suppose she’s part of the reason I want to write novels that read like (exciting) history.

    Great post, and fun comments, Robin! Thank you!

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  15. says

    Loved this post, Robin. Interestingly, I’ve taken a step back from my work this past week and asked myself something you mentioned. What’s missing? Why doesn’t this FEEL the way I want it to? The answer? Fearless writing.

    If I look back at some of my favorites I can see that it’s the depth of emotional honesty that really draws me in. Plots (but sadly not always the titles) of some books I read 20 years ago still haunt me.

    I’m going to take your advice and dig some of those books out, compare them and see what happens. But most importantly, I’m going to go back to my own work and learn to write without censure – THEN edit where needed. ;)

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  16. says

    Thank you for such a fun and helpful article. As a nurse I honestly don’t remember any “writerly” DNA in the chain, but it could be there.
    I agree with you that we develop our love of reading as a young child. For me, reading was an escape. I loved meeting all those people, and seeing so many places. I learned to be a detective with Nancy Drew, and a nurse with Sue Barton. (I did take formal training when I was older to become a Real Nurse.)

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