Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Essential Ingredient

Why do you write? If it's to become the next JK Rowling, Steven King or Sophie Kinsella, you need to step away from the keyboard or put down the pen and paper. I'm not saying it's not possible, but writing fiction simply to become rich and famous will never produce a book with that sort of potential. In my opinion, you need to write your story because you love it.

You don't have to love everything about it, but there has to be some facet that fascinates you. Maybe it's a particular character or an incredibly complex puzzle of clues. Maybe it's the setting or the prospect of writing a story where true love really does conquer all. There has to be that one little bit that gets you coming back to your keyboard. How can you expect readers to get excited or interested in a plot or characters that leave you cold?

Back when I was directing theatre, I quickly discovered that I couldn't direct a play I didn't care about. Why would I put all that effort and time into something that I wouldn't walk across the road to see? There always had to be something; even if it was only one speech in the second act, that made me think "This is worth it."

Writing takes time. A long time. You're going to spend months with these characters as they travel through your plot. Why would you spend that much time with characters or a story you don't love? Loving my characters makes me want to write them well. I want my readers to share their sorror in tragedy or rejoice with them in triumph.

Forget 'what's hot right now' because by the time you're finished writing and editing the odds are it won't be hot any more. Write what moves you. Write what makes you laugh. Write what makes you dream of a better world. Write what you love.


  1. Elspeth, I agree with you to an extent. I wrote two novels when I first started writing that I wrote for love. I loved the plot, I loved the characters. They've been rejected so many times I no longer keep track and I've stopped trying ti improve them. They are my wallflower novels- no one wants to dance with them.

    Now I do think a bit about the market before I start a book. I know in advance where I will send it. I know what genre it will fall under. I don't let my muse go insane. She needs to be roped in now and then. Since I did that I've had nine books (fiction) published, three fairly far along the pipeline in six years of writing.

    I don't know- I'm a full time writer and I need to be a bit practical.

  2. Alan; Thank you.

    Lauri; I absolutely agree. Practicality needs to take a role and I should have included that in my post. I'm saying once you've made all the practical decisions write something that you love.

  3. Elspeth - You are so wise to get us thinking about the real, deep motivation for our writing. I write because there are characters' stories that I want to tell - that, you might argue, need to be told. I write because I love telling those stories.

    That said, I think Lauri is right that it's also important to think practically, too, as hard as that is. I think the balance can come as we keep thinking about our writing and keep thinking about how to harnass that passion.

  4. I couldn't agree more! I love Toni Morrison's quote: "I wrote the book I wanted to read." Got me through Faking It.

  5. Aargh! I meant "harness" - must spellcheck!

  6. Margot; I sometimes forget to put my whole thought process down; to me practicality is a given which is my only excuse for not including it. You have to remember, I've got the creative brain and the business brain...

    Elisa; That's the whole ball of wax, isn't it? Within reason, of course.

  7. I have to admit I'm not very practical at all about this writing business. I want to write what I want, and I want to write when I want. I take the art of writing seriously -- I want to keep studying and improving.

    This is the joy of writing in retirement, I guess. It's a kind of freedom I would never have enjoyed had I tried to support myself with my writing.

  8. I am an Anonymous Addict and love it. I would love being a Famous Addict even more, but there is no doubt in my mind that on the days when I succeed in sticking my ideas together on the screen, writing crime fiction gives me a genuine sense of satisfaction.

    - well, it also helps that today I wrote a short flash fiction piece for my writing course, and even the most critical voices liked it ;O

  9. Enjoyed this post and muse. Reminds me of a Thomas Bergman quote I saw just today and tweeted-

    "Why do writers write? Because it isn't there!"

    Marvin D Wilson

  10. Karen; I'm glad I can help you on your way.

    Patricia; There certainly would be a freedom in your situation. My thought is even if you are writing to pay the bills, find something that interests you in what ever you're writing. Or find something else to write.

    Dorte; Oh, congratulations of your short flash fiction! I don't think I could do that.

    Marvin; Thank you. Great quote.

  11. So true! Writing has always been an act of love for me - including the "writing" of the stories in my head when I was little and nothing made it to paper. Still enjoy doing that :)

  12. I write because I have stories to tell. They build in my head and my job is to put them on paper. Or monitor, in my case. I hope someone reads them someday. I can write and edit to the best of my ability, and send them out. Beyond that, I have little - or no - control over an editor's or agent's choices. I wish I could wiggle my nose and make my wishes come true. Sigh.

  13. I have to agree. You spend so much time writing a book, it would be hard for me to keep doing it if there wasn't something about the characters or the setting or the story that I loved.

    Straight From Hel

  14. Yep. There have been times when I wrote something I didn't care about, just for the money. It was a drag, let me tell you. Much better to write what moves you.

  15. Inspirational piece, Elspeth.
    Without passion, there is very little.

  16. Fortunately, I picked a genre I love and so am happy to write within the constraints of it and keep the passion and also keep an eye on the commercial aspect of it all. I've heard other writers complain about some of the 'rules' of various genres. I think you're right...start out with the area you love, hold onto the passion, and write. (Does this make sense? I think I went off on a tangent!)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  17. Another great post. I agree that you should write for the love of writing and not the idea of making it rich. Sure the money would be great, but I do it because of the love.
    p.s. - I love Sophie Kinsella :)

  18. Jemi; You have a wonderful attitude.

    Carol; Let me know if you get the nose-wiggling thing down. This would be a useful skill.

    Jack; However, nothing wrong with money. Nothing at all.

    Rayna; Thank you.

    Elizabeth; I think everyone needs to find the magic combination of passion and practicality. (is it me, or does that sound like a title of a relationship manual?)

    Carolyn; Thank you and I love Sophie Kinsella too. She makes me giggle.


Please leave a comment as I love to hear from you!