Have you gotten here yet? Your first (or sixth) manuscript is finished, critiqued, rewritten, polished, and off to your editor or to agents in the form of a query letter. Now it’s time to get back to the drawing board, and the ideas...are not necessarily flowing.
Well, perhaps you aren’t in quite the spot I am. I hope your new story has prickled at the edge of your mind for a while, ready to be born, no need for twelve hours of Pitocin to make the stubborn thing move and no epidural in sight—oops, that’s another story. My point is, if your work-in-progress is flowing from your fingers at an easy two thousand words a day, I hate you. No, not really. (Well, maybe a couple of you.)
But if it’s not—well, then some thinking is in order. And some danger avoidance.
Most of us who’ve been in a critique group longer than an hour have seen sometimes wonderfully written manuscripts about a boy lizard and his two loyal buddies at their enchanted pool; or an impossibly attractive high school umpire with, um, really big teeth, who can’t help but notice the fire chief’s daughter newly arrived from Phenix City, Alabama—you get the picture.
It’s tempting. Here you are, time on your hands, pencil sharp and paper clean, and you can see what works, what sells. It’s natural to think “Well, I could write that”—but guess what? She already wrote it. Game over.
A few thousand words into my new work I got the sinking feeling that my premise might be a little too similar to—well, let’s just say a working title was skating close to My Sister’s Beeper. (Okay, not really, but you get the idea.) I emailed my critique partners, who assured me that my style is far different, my work is known to veer away from my original intentions anyhow and by the way, nice confidence on that talent assumption, Sister. So go for it! With some changes, of course.
The point is to write what screams at you, not what you think will sell. Mercy Jackson and Whatever-the-Heck-Mountain-Is-in-Italy isn’t your golden ticket to publication. Speaking of golden tickets, that’s been done, too: Marley and the Mock Lead Factory ain’t fooling nobody. Nor is sticking the word “wife” or “daughter” in your title (as I learned when I was forced to abandon my earlier WIP, The Janitor’s Common-Law Wife).
What is it that screams at you? So common, nearly a cliché, this advice bears repeating: write what you know. That doesn’t necessarily mean computers or lattes or kids or whatever it is you do during the day. It’s what you do in your heart, the truth that beats there, the quiet shouts of the lessons you’ve learned that demand to be shared. And since we are indeed all unique, the worry that there are only seven stories really doesn’t matter. Those seven stories times seven billion people means that how you write what you write will be different and fresh and new if you trust yourself enough to make it so.
It might take courage to put it in ink. (First danger, now courage? Who knew writing was so adventurous?) What if you try to write that which is dearest to your soul, and you fail? Well, that’s the chance you have to take—I have to take—if we are going to produce our best work, if we are going to share with the world that unique perspective we alone possess. It’s called good writing, good storytelling, and it’s out there waiting to be chased.
So steer away from The Rat and His Flat, and trust yourself. Write the book that scares you the most. Put down those words that want to fly from your pen, the ones that make you clap your hand over your mouth for the sheer baldness of the truth they tell. Your story. Your truth.
Followed by your success.