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How Do You Want Your Novel to Change the World?

By Alice Popkorn
By Alice Popkorn

The very last question Don Maass [1] asked us at the end of the Writer Unboxed UnConference earlier this month, was:

How do you want your novel to change the world?

“The purpose of writing a novel is not to get published. Every person has a story and purpose, a powerful message,” Don said, then asked us to write the question at the top of an index card. Then, to answer the question…and keep the card near where we write, to look at often.

More about that later.

First, let me ask you a question. Do you think that writing fiction is a worthwhile—a really important—endeavor? Even if you don’t get published—ever? Even if no one else ever reads a word you write?

As a child I was told I would be a scientist, a doctor to be specific. It wasn’t that simple, though. My parents told me that if I didn’t “do something with my life that helped people,” specifically helped people in a very direct way, I had wasted my life. Not my abilities. Or talent. My life. This was a given. Not a question to be discussed. A given.

And a recipe for failure.

Perhaps needless to say, when I went to college, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I finished three years of pre-med, then switched to journalism, and that’s when I realized: I wanted to write. To be a writer. It was the only thing that made me feel good. It was the only thing that made any sense to me.

But how the hell was it saving anyone or anything?

Fast Forward a Few Years

I finished my journalism degree and started working as a business and technical writer for a large corporation. It paid the bills, but then a funny thing happened. I started writing stories to pass the day. I’d send stories to my friend Carolyn, in the next cubicle over. A story about a man who worked in a box factory, a story about woman who had a Baby X, a story about a woman who finds a workmate dead in his cubicle. Murdered.

I didn’t enjoy corporate America very much. (But Carolyn loved my stories.)

Then I became a mom, and I found the other thing I love. My children. And being Mom. Then, another funny thing happened. I started writing more fiction—stories for my children—stories with my children—about a boy who solves a mystery, a girl who wants to be a princess so she can be saved by a prince, but then she enters an evil fairy tale and realizes she really wants to save herself.

I quit corporate America and became a freelance writer and dabbled in fiction, too.

As my children grew up, I started submitting short stories and articles, but even when I occasionally had (mostly nonfiction) published, I heard that voice in the back of my head.

What you’re doing is not important. Whose life are you saving?

Fast Forward a Few More Years

When I started to write a novel, surpassed one hundred pages, I was startled. I had never been able to write more than ten pages in college. That’s all I had to say. I was elated when I finished writing a middle grade novel, then another. I wrote two-thirds of an adult novel. I started submitting my MG novels, and I got great feedback and encouragement but some big rejections, too. I stopped.

Who do you think you are? You aren’t a novelist. Anyhow, how’s it saving anyone?

I stopped writing fiction. For a long time. Seven years. I wrote freelance articles, technical articles and papers. But I kept going back, looking at my fiction starts, looking at my novel. It was always in the back of my mind. When my kids left for college, I started to blog to kick start my fiction, I finished the two-thirds novel. Then something important happened.

I started writing for Writer Unboxed.

I felt like I was almost real. Almost a novelist. (Or at least an Author in Progress [2].) But I still didn’t feel like it was a worthy profession. Who was I saving? I started submitting my first adult novel—it didn’t go well.

Back to the Index Card

When Don asked us to write the answer to the question,

How do you want your novel to change the world?

My immediate first thought was: nothing. Followed closely by: How on earth could anything I write change the world? But then I thought about it some more. My current WIP is about a woman who feels all the feelings of other people. Back to the index card. I started tentatively, not sure what to write, but here’s what I ended up writing:

(To) bring understanding that although everyone is different, has different feelings and wants and needs, every one of them (the feelings) and every person is valid and can be/accept self as is. Everyone is loved, accepted, and appreciated for their differences. Everyone can BE. Not BE SOMETHING. And that is enough. For one another we are accepting and kind. We can be like that for ourselves, too.

Not the Happy Ending (You Might Expect)

I’d like to report to you that I got (or expect to get) “the call.” That’s how these stories are supposed to end, right? In the movie version, I came home from the conference, finished the novel, and it did change the world, and now it’s going to be a best seller. Magic like that, right?

But that’s not the point of this post—or of my writing. And maybe it’s not the point of yours, either. As Don said, our purpose is not to get published but to change the world.

Here’s what I’ve realized. I’m the princess in that story I wrote all those years ago. I’m not waiting for anyone—an agent, a publisher, or even permission—to save me. I’m saving myself.

And that’s the real answer to Don’s question. How is my novel changing the world? It’s giving me the acceptance to be whatever or whoever I am. It’s allowing me to feel the way I feel, to be whatever I want to be. Or just be.

And maybe, just maybe, if writing this novel gives me that self-acceptance and saves me, then maybe, just maybe, it might save somebody else, too.

What’s your novel’s story and purpose? How do you want your novel to change the world? Is it clear to you? Or is something holding you back?

About Julia Munroe Martin [3]

Julia Munroe Martin [4] (@jmunroemartin [5]) is a writer and blogger who lives in an old house in southern coastal Maine. Julia's other passion is photography, and if she's not writing at the dining room table or a local coffeeshop, you'll likely find her on the beach or dock taking photos. Julia writes The Empty Nest Can Be Murder mystery series as J. M. Maison.