Category Archives: BUILDING STORY

WHO WANTS TO BE READ FOREVER? pt 3

Writing with significance creates writers of significance. Just as important as why you write is why you want to write any particular story at any particular time.

The reason seems straightforward—a magazine is having open submissions and you want to to be published in it so you can add it to your bio. Maybe the pay is decent or you simply want the exposure. Those are good reasons, but there are some even better ones.

The act of creativity is transformative for both the creator and the recipient. When we write, we are pulling our thoughts to the page to share. Anyone who reads our work, for better or worse, is changed somehow. As Carl Jung famously said, “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” We are at our best when the transformations we inspire are positive.

POSITIVE CHANGE IS NOT LIMITED BY GENRE

Positive change does not mean warm and fuzzy. Change is messy and painful because it’s growth. Horror writers might feel they can’t have a positive impact because the genre revolves around terrible topics. This is confusing “warm and fuzzy” with positive. 

A recent study shared from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) determined that fans of horror, particularly the morbidly curious, exhibited much higher resilience during the pandemic. In their own words: “We also found that morbid curiosity, a personality trait that has been previously associated with interest in horror (Scrivner, in press), was associated with greater positive resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic.” (full study here) What’s positive about horror? It shows how to face fear and defeat it and this is vital information even if it’s not pleasant. Warm and fuzzy things get eaten. Positive change empowers.

Romance is another genre that gets overlooked as a vehicle for meaningful change. I’m guilty of discounting the power of romance. It was an elderly woman in the beginning of the 2020 pandemic lockdown that changed my perspective. She came into the library to return a huge stack of pulpy romance novels. I’m sure I looked smug, given the dismissive thoughts going through my mind. “I’m sure I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t have these books to keep me occupied,” she told me. “I’d probably do myself in.” Well played, small elderly woman. She shocked and horrified a horror writer.

According to Digital History, “Hollywood played a valuable psychological role during the Great Depression. It provided reassurance to a demoralized nation. Even at the deepest depths of the Depression, 60 to 80 million Americans attended movies each week.” (Digital History) If keeping hope and morale alive weren’t enough, the romance genre is well known for addressing social issues such as race and class disparity from the beginning. 

To me it’s good news that we don’t have to choose between writing what we feel called to and writing work that calls others. Genre fiction especially holds the power to empower simply because it’s universally accepted and enjoyed by a mass audience. 

CHANGE THE STORY, CHANGE THE WORLD

I like how Terry Pratchett puts it in A Hat Full of Sky… “The sun coming up every day is a story. Everything’s got a story in it. Change the story, change the world.” I think every writer seeks to produce their best.

We invest in editing, proofreaders, cover designers, formatters… whatever it takes to show off our finest work. But what if that work had a chance to open minds, expand viewpoints and expose devolved idealism? Folding this power into your story brings it to the next level and can make it timeless.

Not every story has to change the world, but the ones that do last generations. Make your work matter and remain relevant. If you could say something to change the world, what would that be? Now add that message into your work. Think back to the stories that have stayed with you. More than likely they changed you somehow and that’s what they stick. We entertain, but we can also teach, open minds and inspire. Our readers will return the love by remembering us long after that final page turns. Writing to change the world can help your stories have a permanent place in it.

YOUR TAKEAWAY TASK

Think of all the things you wish you could change. Injustices, ignorance, poverty, racism, animal cruelty… these are all powerful touchpoints. Look at how they could be woven into any story to expand on that message. This doesn’t need to be a soap box rant. As Mary Poppins would say, a spoonful of sugar is needed.You are slipping your message into a bigger package. I’ve included a list of books that blend story and social message well at the end of this post.

As an exercise, try playing with social justice ideas and tropes you are familiar with. How could a little awareness of environmental destruction accent a vampire story? They’ve been around awhile and would notice the effects of climate change. How might a werewolf react if he came to demolish a village suffering from food insecurity or clean water? Personally, I’d love to hear Frankenstein comment on healthcare. 

You don’t have to use your stories as sleeper agents for positive change but fiction that impacts a reader on this level gets remembered for generations. Here’s a list of books that have done just that and left the world a better place for being written:

  1. 1984 by George Orwell
  2. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  3. To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee
  4. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  5. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
  6. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
  7. The House of God by Samuel Shem
  8. The Fire in the Flint by Walter White
  9. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  10. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

Catch up on the entire BUILDING STORY series here.

YOU ARE THE SECRET PLOT TWIST pt 2

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.

Catch up on the entire BUILDING STORY series here.

WHY WRITE? pt 1

It’s my least favorite part of the writing process—the moment when I step back, look at what I’m working on and wonder what the heck I was thinking. It’s at this moment that any work of art is in the most danger. It’s when the creator decides if a project moves on to editing or hits the dustbin.

Stephen King had it when he tossed his original manuscript of Carrie into the garbage. We all have moments of self-doubt. It’s easy to give up and scrap the whole mess… or prepare ahead of time and reduce the anguish.

KNOW WHY BEFORE YOU TRY

Before you ever set pen to paper and fingers to keyboard, you can head off the terrible moment of doubt by being honest with yourself. It’s important to know why you want to write before you commit to it. The good news is there are no wrong answers. The bad news is it can be hard to be honest about our motives to create. Just remember there are no wrong answers and be transparent. If we can’t be truthful with ourselves we might have bigger things to work on.

5 REASONS WE WRITE

  1. To make money and be famous. This is probably the most disparaged motivation for writing but it’s a valid one. There is nothing wrong with making a living or getting accolades from what bounces around in your head. If this is your goal as a writer, treat your writing as a commodity. Research markets and trends, find the most lucrative and focus all your efforts there. Money doesn’t come without marketing, so make plans for what you will write, and then how you’re going to sell it.
  2. To sell yourself and your business. It’s easier to be published now than at any other point in history, but having a published book is still impressive and sets an author up as an expert. Whether you are writing fiction or fact, writing a book can validate you as a thought leader in your field of expertise. James Herriot wrote warm and fuzzy stories about animals as a rural veterinarian. What better advertisement for a veterinarian than heart-warming stories about animals? It’s no coincidence he ran a thriving practice until he retired in 1989 at 73 even though he published under a pen name. His veterinarian practice is still in business today.
  3. To teach and inspire. An altruistic motive, another reason to write is to share knowledge for the betterment of people-kind. A good story can ignite a revolution and change minds… hopefully for the better. Role models are important but not everyone has the blessing to grow up with positive influences in their life. Luckily, those who don’t have a flesh and blood inspiration can almost always access the pixel and ink variety. Providing that guidance is a rewarding and precious responsibility.
  4. To entertain and amuse. Just as noble is the desire to simply entertain. Sometimes people just need a little relief from the daily grind of reality. I learned this during the pandemic when I met a tiny, elderly woman returning a stack of pulp romance novels at the library. “Thank goodness these stories give me something to look forward to or I think I’d just give up” she told me. Not every story needs to change the world. Sometimes just changing one person’s world makes all the difference.
  5. Because you are compelled. I think this is possibly the most difficult to justify. Some writers write because they can’t imagine doing anything else. If they never make a penny, get any recognition or even have a single reader they will still write. Receiving some love for their work makes them happy, but if they were alone in a cave using charcoal and animal skin, they would still be scribbling.

KNOWING WHY IS KNOWING WHAT, WHERE AND WHO

Anyone who thinks the why they write doesn’t matter is doing themselves an injustice. The why is at the heart of everything and can be the difference between fulfillment or frustration. When you know why you want to write it helps you understand what to write, where to release it and for who. 

As an example, a lawyer who wants to publish a book to set themselves up as a leader in their industry probably won’t benefit from publishing a romance novel unless they specialize in divorce proceedings. But what if their motivation isn’t to supercharge their legal practice but to entertain? Then by all means, turn up the steam and let the broken hearts shatter. 

Knowing why you want to write helps you to streamline your career and avoid the terrible moment of realizing you just spent a good deal of time and energy on something that will not get you where you need to go. 

THERE CAN BE MORE THAN ONE

Just remember that why you want to write can change over time and from project to project, and often there is a blend of motivations rather than just one reason. In the case of the lawyer above, what if they wanted to establish themselves as an industry leader and entertain? Then writing thriller novels might be a satisfying option. What if they wanted to be an industry leader and inspire? Nonfiction about criminal redemption might be a good choice. The divorce lawyer might write about relationship topics.

Whatever your motivation, understanding the why will help you know where you want to go with your story. If your intention is to make an income, you’ll need to research what genres are selling and where. Paranormal romance seems to do well with younger, female readers and many of them use serial fiction apps like Radish, Wattpad and Webnovel. For those already self-publishing with KDP there is now Kindle Vella to explore.

If your aim is to get a message out, you might want to focus on a blog or ebooks you can distribute free. If you want fame with your fortune, understand the price. You will need effective marketing and a professional, polished product. If this is a one-time bucket list item then perhaps sinking money into your work to get pretty formatting and art is fine. If you are trying to forge a career as an author-preneur, every penny counts and you best barter or teach yourself. There are no wrong answers, but in this case ignorance is not bliss.

KNOWING IS GLOWING

Knowing why you write is the foundation you need to establish for a rewarding career, regardless of motives. And what does a successful writing career look like? If you know why you write, it looks exactly like that. Writers that constantly chase trends without knowing why often burn themselves out. Disappointment is their reward. 

If you are happy with writing a few stories for the grandkids, don’t let anyone make you feel like you aren’t a success when you achieve that. At the same time, if your goal is fame and fortune, understand that you are going to work hard, sacrifice much and demolish your comfort zones to get there. You can achieve whatever you want for your work if you know what you are trying to achieve and then take steps to do that. 

YOUR TAKEAWAY TASK

This week, take some time to evaluate your motives as a creator. Think of role models and people that inspire you. Try to pinpoint the elements you want to emulate. Why are they a success in your eyes? Chances are, that’s what you want. If you could achieve your goal any other way, would you? Feel free to share in the comments.

To help you, here are two excellent videos from leadership expert Simon Sinek on defining your why: