According to polls, more than 80 percent of Americans say they would like to be an author. In 2013, Forbes reported there were “somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books published every year in the US alone” and they estimate more than half were self published.
That was in the early days of the self publishing boom and those numbers have only gone up since. It’s clear, there is no shortage of stories in the world and, as the saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun.
This is some heavy information for any author to digest. The weight of it hit me a few years ago during the pandemic. I had a part-time job at one of the largest libraries in Kansas City. We were closed to the public but still in operation thanks to a drive-thru window. Outside the line never stopped as people looked to books for comfort and information. Inside was quiet and dark… a lovely, book lined mausoleum.
NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN
During one of my breaks I prowled the dark and deserted shelves, relishing the solitude. The shelves stretched into the shadows. So many books, I thought. Who am I to add even one more? It was humbling to see thousands of authors lined up on the shelves, the majority of them highly successful. Why did my stories belong among them?
It’s enough to make an author put down the pen. The realization wasn’t enough to make me quit but it did prompt some solid pondering. Lucky for me, I was pre-armed with some keen insight from my friend and mentor Bryan Thao Worra. Early in my fiction career Bryan had looked over my work. He had one question: where was the me in my stories?
At the time, I was writing classic horror with gothic themes. My work didn’t stand out and I didn’t know why. I’d bump up the horror and graphic elements… but they were still well edited yawns. Bryan pointed out that I was part Asian and I love tech science. Why didn’t I ever use that in my work? The stories I’d written so far could have been written by anyone. Where were the stories that could only be written by me?
YOU MAKE YOUR STORY UNIQUE
To date, that was the best advice I ever got as a writer. My stories were all what I thought readers wanted because I’d read these types of stories hundreds of times. That should have been my clue not to write them. We’ve all read those stories hundreds of times. Why kill another tree for old news?
I’d done a good job keeping my personal quirks out of my work and had created perfectly bland stories. My fiction was just rehashed regurgitations of what I had read before—literary Frankensteins.
Around that time I had an opportunity to submit a story. It was a perfect opportunity to try what Bryan suggested. I had to rush after another deadline, but I managed to come up with an odd tale about being a blended race, generational envy, and the cost of authenticity. Turns out, Bryan’s advice was spot on. “Vanilla Rice” was my first professional fiction sale, my breakout story and has been printed three times since.
Every book it appeared in has won or been nominated for high level awards including the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson and the Alberta Book Publishing Award for Best Speculative Fiction of the Year. Since the success of that story I look at every story I write through my own perspective… and I’ve published every story since. Even the rewrites of my old, bland regurgitations have found love when I added the authentic me.
This is what kept me writing that day when I stood alone in a dark library and realized how many excellent stories already existed in the world. Yes, there are “somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books published every year in the US alone” but there is only one me—and this is great news for all of us. Anyone can write a story. Anyone can write a pretty good story and many, many authors do. What they can’t write is your good story. Only you have the qualifications to write that.
REAL WORLD EXAMPLES
Here are two examples of how adding my personal quirks made better stories:
Case Study 1: I was asked to write a Christmas story for children. I’m not a fan of the frenetic hustle of Christmas so I imagined what my happy holiday would look like. I would be alone on a mountain with no electricity. In fact, a year of that sounded nice—and there would be spiders because I like them better than Christmas. The Christmas Spiders, a revamp of an old Eastern European folktale, is now my secret, best selling Christmas book.
Case Study 2: I took an older story I had about a male janitor with a chance for revenge and rewrote it adding in my personal experiences. I was once a janitor so I changed the protagonist to a middle aged woman suffering from an insufferable, sexist boss… just like my real life boss at that time. The entire story changed and became much better. It’s now called “Just Us League” and it’s published in Giving the Devil His Due. Anyone can tell the story of a male janitor with a chance for revenge. Only I could tell “Just Us League.”
YOUR TAKEAWAY TASK
Make a list of things you love and then take a look at your body of work. Can you see where you can add in your personal authenticity to create a story only you can tell? Don’t just relate details of your life unless you’re writing a memoir. Just lend personal elements of yourself to your worlds and characters. What parts of your personal experience could add depth to your work?
Here’s your assignment. Take any common trope and add one of your hobbies. A vampire that loves knitting? A werewolf that rescues dogs? A zombie who enjoys cooking? I would read any of these. The real, authentic you makes everything better. Feel free to share in the comments.