This post might sound overly simplistic in some ways, and overly complex in others, but it’s neither. Let’s break it down with a little background on me as a writer.
First, let me explain that my debut novel, which was published last year, is contemporary Women’s Fiction. It’s raw, and heart-breaking, and hopeful. It is not, in any shape or form, fantastical or unrealistic (other than taking creative liberties with plot, as any writer does). There are no fairies. There are no witches, no vampires, no werewolves, no magic potions, and no wands. There is nary a Phoenix, a griffin (Grphyon? I realized just now I have no clue how to spell that beast), unicorn, or any other mythical creature. It is a story firmly based in reality. Many readers have raved that it is realistic, that it’s something they can relate to. It could be the serious issue of recurrent pregnancy loss which the main character Julia experiences, or the underlying issue of communication within relationships (or lack thereof), or the question of infidelity within marriage. Whatever the reason, I love that it has connected with readers. I was driven to write Ditch Flowers, and I worked hard to write it. I’m happy, and proud that it came out as it was meant to come out.
With that said, my writing has changed since I began writing Ditch Flowers years ago (God, over 7 years ago!). I have changed as a writer. I still write Women’s Fiction, but it is pretty much exclusively kept in short forms, such as my completed short story manuscript, and I have no plans to write another WF novel. Now, I suppose my work-in-progress Witch Lessons could be categorized as a type of WF novel, because it deals with post-partum depression, relationships, sexuality, and other women’s issues, but it also is a sort of modern-day Salem witch trial complete with real magic, so…it’s a stretch.
Let me also say I had never given thought to writing any sort of fantasy. And that’s a disconnect I still don’t understand about myself. My favorite book ever is Beauty by Robin McKinley, a retelling of Beauty & the Beast. Besides that fairytale, I’m a sucker for pretty much any other. I am a Disney movie fanatic. A Harry Potter nerd. A fable, folk-tale, and fantasy FUH-REAK.
So, why didn’t I realize I should be writing the fantastical sooner? Even after I started Witch Lessons I realized of course it was a type of fantasy, but I just thought it was what it was, and that was it. The story poured out of me, as I’ve stated before, and even as I’m revising it now, I can’t believe how easily it is coming to me. I thought it was just a fluke, just a lucky sort of thing. Even my recent post about the muse being kind, still didn’t connect the dots to me. And then I had an ah-ha moment. Maybe, just maybe, the inspiration is here, the creativity is absolutely flowing with that manuscript, because I am writing what I am MEANT to write.
If you are struggling, I am going to suggest some things. They may ring true, and they may not. Maybe your situation is totally different, and I’m just a dunce, and everyone else already gets this, but here goes. I can tell you that the peace, joy, and simple acceptance I feel now is wonderful. I’ve never felt stronger as a writer. I’ve never felt more at home. If I can help anyone else feel that too, well, golly, that would rock.
First of all, as simple as this sounds, identify your favorite kinds of stories to read. It seems so apparent, like duh, I know what I like to read. But because it’s such an easy question, with a pretty obvious question, that I never actually asked it of myself. I still pick up Women’s Fiction, and enjoy it, and I read non-fiction, and like that quite a lot, too. But what I am increasingly drawn to, what I have been since I was a child, is all the fantasy stories I mentioned above- fairy tales, fables, etc. Seriously. If there’s any chance in hell I can escape everyday life, and dive into a story that makes me want to believe, that makes me want to disappear into that made-up world, I am THERE.
Maybe you write creative non-fiction, but you pick up cozy mysteries again, and again. Perhaps you’re supremely talented at erotica, but you tend to read memoirs over anything else. Maybe you are an award-winning writer of thrillers, but you devour historical fiction. Or YA. Or picture books. Whatever it may be, listen to yourself. Really, take a moment, and ask yourself what you love to read. Ask yourself what you have to read. If it’s different than what you are writing, feel compelled to write, or have written in the past, then ask yourself why. Ask yourself if you’re pushing yourself to be something you aren’t.
Now, it very well may be that you do enjoy what you write, and read in that genre as well. Like I stated above, I’m proud of Ditch Flowers, and I do still read WF. But my passion has always been, and continues to be Fantasy. I just didn’t *know* it until recently. Even after writing The Peony and the Sun, a fable, I still didn’t truly understand. It was literally within the last couple weeks that I knew it is what I should be writing.
Ditch Flowers was a labor of love. It was squeezed out of me. Many of the pages were like contractions. Painful, and hard-coming. It took me years to write. Because it was so difficult to get out of me, as rewarding as it is now, I have to wonder in hindsight, is that because it didn’t come naturally? Witch Lessons is less than a year out from the start, and it has been a bajillion times easier to write—and much faster. Besides that, the last month or so alone, I’ve written or started a good 6 or 7 fabulism stories. Granted, those are very short. But every single one of them came to me easily. I don’t mean to say that I’m not still working for my art (why does that sound so pompous? I don’t mean it to be) but if writing DF was like giving birth med-free, then writing these stories is like having an awesome epidural. (And yes, I’ve done both, and both were wonderful in different ways.)
So, if you’ve identified the type of stories you love to read, then you know the kind of stories you should try writing. We can break that down even further into identifying the length of story. I read short stories just as much, if not more, than full-length novels. I know I should be writing fantasy novels, novellas, and short stories now. Besides that, you can figure out the age group you should be writing for. I read adult, YA, and children’s books, and I love all three. It’s no surprise that I’m now writing in all these categories. Seriously, if you do not read in the genre in which you write, how can you improve your craft? And why would you want to write in a category you don’t deign to read? Don’t take that harshly, because my intention is to be gentle, yet firm. Read the genre you write. Write the genre you read. Your reading will be more enjoyable. You will write better. I truly believe both those statements.
If you now have answered the kind of books you read- genre, length, age group, then you can even delve further. Do you like books with a smidgen of mystery, a bit of romance? A lot of intellectual reasoning? Try weaving those details into whatever type of book you’re writing. It doesn’t mean you have to write full-on mystery, romance, or textbooks. It just means those elements should be included. Do you prefer reading minimalistic, simple prose? Or would you rather lose yourself in poetic, flowery description? Pay attention to the kind of writing that calls to you. It is what you probably should be writing yourself.
Now, it’s not as though you can’t admire work that you don’t care to create yourself. I absolutely do enjoy reading good historical romance now and then. But I have NO desire to write my own. Do I admire the authors who can research the dickens out of a time period, and create amazing settings with lots of historical detail, all while adding a feisty heroine and smoldering hero? Yes, and I like reading these kind of books, but they don’t speak to my soul personally, the way fantasy does. Alright, I sound like a total reading dork, and that’s okay.
If for some reason you still can’t answer what kind of books you like to read, I suspect this means you need to read more. Read different kinds of books, read books you think you may not even like. You could surprise yourself. If reading big books is too overwhelming, then try reading an assortment of very short stories in all different genres. That might help you narrow down your list. Then, you can go from there.
Once you are confident in the kind of books you like to read, and the kind you would like to write, you need to actually start writing. It wasn’t until I was a few short stories in, with a finished novel manuscript under my belt, to use a common cliché, that I realized fantasy was the one for me. So start writing. And if you’re unsure what exactly to write, my suggestion is once more, to give some love to the short story format. Diving into a whole novel can be overwhelming, exhausting, and intimidating. If you are still “finding yourself” as a writer, starting short may be just the jumpstart you need to get there. Start with 500 words. Even less, if you wish. On the other hand, it is already mid-October, and #nanowrimo (or writing a whole 50,000 word novel for National Novel Writing November) is coming up really soon. So, you could always begin there.
Beyond that, your work will improve, and increase in frequency, if you know what kind of a writer you are as far as habits, skill, and everything in between. It sounds like a lot to ask yourself, and maybe it doesn’t matter all that much, but once you really know who you are, and accept yourself, you can stop trying to fit into any other mold of what you think a writer should be. This could apply to any other category in life, too, for that matter. Stop trying to be something else. Learn who you are. Appreciate the uniqueness that is you. Find your passion.
I have learned the following things about myself as a writer: I do not, nor can I, write every day. (And I am still a writer, goddamnit). I am a pantser who feels lost without at least a paragraph of an outline. I have to write with background noise. Coffee is almost always a necessity. I hate writing around other people, unless those other people are strangers in a café who won’t bother me. I like to write between 9am and 11am if I can. Otherwise, I can hit my stride from around 7pm to 9pm. I like writing in an empty house, or when my family is asleep. I am inspired visually (thank you, Pinterest). I am inspired by prompts. I like reinventing familiar tales. I like to keep my drafts private until I don’t. Once I’m ready to show people, I rely heavily on feedback from trusted friends and readers. I want validation. I want critique, and suggestions. I need to hear my own fears, and thoughts of my writing reflected by another. I have to keep creating. I feel terrible when I’m not writing. I have to get the words out. I have to let the stories out. I am a short story writer. A novel writer. A writer of fantasy, fables, and folklore. I strive to be as talented as J.K. Rowling, Carolyn Turgeon, Robin McKinley, Judith Merkle Riley, Audrey Niffenegger, Alice Hoffman, and Laura Esquivel. (I realize that list could be much more diverse, so if you know some writers I should check out, please let me know) I need a happy ending, or at least a hopeful ending. I like a bittersweet tale, a little love, a little hope, a hint of magic. This is who I am.
Who are you?
Thanks for reading this long post, guys.