This week I wrote a non-fiction essay about something I felt really strongly about. The topic isn’t important; what’s important is that I wrote the essay because I had to, because I needed to do something with all the frustration, rage, fear, grief, and other things I was feeling.
I posted it on social media, and within 30 minutes, responses started to flood in. “Powerful message,” “Wow,” “Amazing,” “Tremendous” “Powerful, raw, and true,” “Beautiful words.” It was shared over and over and over again. People posted comments and emailed me and sent me private messages. Few things I’ve written have evoked such an outpouring of response from others in such a brief time.
I’m telling you this not because I think I’m so wonderful, but because what we all need to strive to do with our fiction is exactly that—write with passion about something we care passionately about. And sometimes we get so caught up in worrying about plot and character and timelines and historical details that we forget the most important questions we should be asking ourselves: Why am I writing this story? Why does it matter to me?
I spent the first 45 years of my life wishing I could write a novel, but I never had an idea that felt interesting enough to me to write about. Then, at age 44, my husband and I decided to sell our house and move across country to pursue a better job opportunity. That house was the first house we ever owned, the house we brought our babies home to, the house we painted and hammered and plastered to make it a home we loved. For me, leaving that house felt like leaving behind one of my limbs.
We moved. And, I found that I did have an idea I could write about—a story about a woman who loves her house so much that when she has to sell it she decides to burn it down so no one else can ever have it. Crazy? Sure. Passionate? Yes. I poured all that love and longing and loss I felt about giving up my own house into my story.
My novel was imperfect, as all first novels are. But when I finished it and sent it out cold to agents, I had ten agents ask to see the entire thing, and five of them ask to represent me. It sold in a pre-empt to Hyperion.
That story had an emotional truth, something I’ve learned to dig for in every book I write. And when I get stuck, as I have been repeatedly on my fourth novel, I find out that the problem isn’t my plot or my lack of an outline or a need to “raise the stakes” or weak characters. The problem is that the emotional dilemma at the heart of the novel either is weak, lacking altogether, or something that I simply don’t feel strongly about, even if other people do.
Don’t write a novel that you believe will matter to your readers. Write a novel that matters to you.
Here are the questions I had to wrestle with in order to get through every novel:
- Am I being totally honest? The main characters in my novels are very emotionally intense. One loves her house so much she wants to burn it down; another loves her kids so much she moves them to an island off the grid to protect them. Are they a little crazy? Yes. And I knew other people would think they were crazy. But they are also an honest representation of some of my own most intense feelings. Would I ever burn down a house? No. That’s why it’s fiction. And that’s why writing fiction is both therapeutic and fun.
- Why does this matter to me? I coach kids on their college admission essays every fall. And every time someone brings me a first draft, I read it through carefully and then make a list of the values I believe are important to them, based on their essay. Values like honesty or perseverance or kindness—whatever it is that shines through. Some value hard work; some value independent thinking; some value community service. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that those are the values that matter to them. What values come across in your fiction? Are they things that matter to you? If not, why aren’t you writing about those values?
- What does my writing feel like? When you write with passion, you choose strong words, tight sentences, unique word combinations, vivid images and metaphors. You use the tools that make words sing and shout and slap you across the face. Look at Sojourner Truth’s three-minute speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” to get an idea of how word choice and sentence rhythm and construction and imagery can be as powerful as a fist to the gut.
Does passion fuel your writing? How do you make sure it does?
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