Like many writers, when I begin a story I have a pretty clear sense of where I’d like it to end. Though it might take unexpected twists and turns along the way, its general direction is shaped by my vision of where it’s headed. This process reminds me of a seed, which even while sealed inside an envelope on a shelf in Home Depot contains a complete blueprint of what it will ultimately blossom into.
Developing this vision, nurturing it and balancing a commitment to it with the inevitable wanderings that both test and enrich it is a twenty-four-seven task. A state of mind that needs to be maintained.
Yet this effort produces only half of what I think a writer’s vision needs to be. The other half — the bigger-picture half — involves the direction of our overall contribution as writers: what niche we’d like our voice to fill, what conversations we’d like it to be part of and what we’d like the ensemble of our stories to convey. And while this might sound overly ambitious or grandiose, in today’s environment where the jobs of writing and self-marketing go hand-in-hand, it’s pragmatic. Knowing what conversations we’d like to plug into means knowing who our base audience is – which ideally is the same or similar for present and future books. This creates a natural synergy between our writing and how we put our books and selves out into the world.
Remember Judy Blume? Of course you do! Snippets from Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret and Forever are probably mixed up with memories of your own adventures in growing up. That’s because they spoke directly to all of us as her then-pre-teen audience about matters very close to our hearts – expressed all the more poignantly because they were also close to hers. Clearly, Blume didn’t just have just a story or two in mind, or a simple urge to spend days tweaking words and characters and figuring out how to parlay this into a publishing deal. She had a strong interest in a particular set of conflicts and issues relevant to a particular group. With a degree in education, she clearly cared (and still cares) about the people in it, too.
While I have no idea what Judy Blume was thinking at various stages in her career, its general shape — including the founding of a non-profit called The Kids Fund — suggests that at some level, a cohesive vision was involved.
Though few of us are destined to be another Judy, her example can help writers in these confusing times. It’s easy to be seduced by the desire to simply write a story that’s been on your mind and land an agent then a publishing deal, or by the imperative of coming up with the next quirky idea that nobody’s written about yet and has movie-rights potential. It’s also easy to get swept up in publishers’ and agents’ near-frenzied need to churn out whatever booksellers might potentially buy. But more often than not, the result of thinking story-to-story, deal-to-deal, seems to be debut novels that get some good buzz followed by second books that miss the mark and third books that don’t make it into print at all.
Of course — like with visions for books’ endings — visions for our overall direction as writers don’t just materialize overnight. It’s taken me ten years and much trial and error to realize that my own vision stems from a fascination about the Jewish community in France and a nearly obsessional desire to share what I know about it with readers here in the States. My novel Veronica’s Nap is set within this community’s North African Sephardic branch. But rather than get this character group out of my system, writing about it only made me want to explore it even more.
With that in mind, I decided to begin my marketing efforts by approaching the local Jewish community: synagogues, women’s organizations, Jewish libraries and their reviewers. As the momentum kicked in, a fully developed idea for another book with a French-Sephardic twist took shape. So did a concept for a third book that would appeal to a similar crowd. For the first time ever, beyond knowing that I wanted to write I knew WHY and what else it meant to me. And I was able to picture what, exactly, I might be doing as a writer, a blogger and a speaker (no matter how small the scale) two, five, even fifteen years down the line. This picture is helping everything from drafting to promotion come together more spontaneously and harmoniously than before. Like a single seed beginning to take root and sprout.
Sure, we all know that heading in a particular direction doesn’t mean we’ll get there — just like when we try to steer our plots and characters toward our specific goals for “The End.” And there are always surprises along the way. But having as clear a sense for where we’d like to go as writers as we do for how we want the stories we craft to conclude will help ensure that eventually, we do end up…somewhere.
That’s my vision. What’s yours?