Lake Atitlan, Panajachel, Guatemala

“Reading and writing are acts of empathy and faith. Guard that trust carefully — in this rapidly changing business, it’s the only sure thing.” ~Erin Keane
"Never give up. And most importantly, be true to yourself. Write from your heart, in your own voice, and about what you believe in." ~ Louise Brown

"Write something to suit yourself and many people will like it; write something to suit everybody and scarcely anyone will care for it."
~Jesse Stuart

"A writer's job is to take one thing and make it stand for twenty." ~ Virginia Woolf

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Deciding What to Write

As a writer, figuring out what project to work on next is part of the job. As a blogger, wondering what to post can be puzzling. Blogging is personal, and posts with heart are what appeal to me. I appreciate those who share something of themselves: things they're going through, insights, ideas, successes and failures, ways they've changed.

Writing books is not as spontaneous as blog writing. There's a form for each genre which must be respected. A book is a lengthy enterprise, not to be dashed off in a spurt of inspiration. Maybe the first draft can be written like that, but to achieve a professionally finished work, the spurts of inspiration must be supplemented with hours and hours of sometimes perplexing drudgery.

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This is why I only write the book I want to write. Whether it's marketable or popular isn't a consideration, at least not in the early stages. John Truby in The Anatomy of Story, says to "write the story that will change your life."

As I look back on my six published books, I realize each one of them fit this principle. Each one was important for me to write at that particular time, and the writing of it changed my life in a significant way. When I hear from a reader, or see a review that shows me my book also changed a reader's life in a significant way, it means more to me than all the royalties in the world.

One of my absolute favorite reviews on House of Diamonds exemplifies exactly what I mean:

 

 "As a reader who is struggling to start a family this story was my worst fears put to paper. But it reminded me also of the love of a being more powerful than all who does what is best for us whether we see it or not. It was honestly what I needed to read to put my current struggles in perspective and I recommend it to anyone who feels they can't deal with their struggles. Thank you Ms. Gowen for writing this book, it was just what I needed to read."



Recently I've been struggling with what to write next. At first I was doing the third book in my Diamond series. After all, it's been four years since the second, House of Diamonds, came out. And it is supposed to be a Mormon Family Saga. What kind of saga only has two books in it?

Despite it making perfect sense for me to write that next Diamond novel, I just couldn't do it. I finally put the rough draft away for another time. Apparently this isn't the story to change my life at the moment. Whenever I worked on it, I'd get upset, revisiting a time in our family's experience I was not ready to face. I want so badly to write that book but right now I just can't.

Instead I'm eagerly working on something else. That's my clue I'm on the right track--how I'm excited when I think about it, getting ideas, looking forward to my writing time, jotting things down in a notebook when I'm not at my computer.

As writers, we think a lot about sales and marketing. We have to as part of the job. But maybe we should be considering what means so much more than money: changing a life. Especially one's own.

And if in the process our work changes someone else's life for the better, then we have truly done a fine job.

"Every story I write creates me. I write to create myself." 
--Octavia E. Butler


52 comments:

  1. I totally agree with you! Each of the novels I've written were because of something I felt I must write. It has been a huge blessing to me with The Mulligan when a person said that the book really touched a part of their lives. I don't care if I touch only one, it's a reason to write.

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    1. Terri, I totally am with you on this. It may sound cliched but true that just one reader who responds with a positive, genuine email or review about what the book meant to them, how it changed their life, -- wow, nothing better and makes it all worth it.

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  2. If you aren't feeling the passion, don't write it.
    I write what I enjoy, although after the first book, I do consider what might sell. Of course, science fiction is never going to sell big, especially space opera. So I guess I'm still just writing what I want.

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    1. Alex, I don't know that space opera, sci fi won't sell. With ebooks, a lot of genres that seemed to be dying are getting new life and the old style sci fi is one of them. I think it's great that you're writing what you love and it's a genre that fills the need for those who love it too and may not be able to find it everywhere.

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  3. I so get this, Karen. I can't work on anything if it doesn't feel right. Each book seems to bring its own gifts that come in the writing of it. This one I just finished was a major life transforming experience, but then, so was my memoir. I haven't begun a new project yet. Too busy taking dance classes!!

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    1. Karen, Your memoir was wonderful and I still think about things you said in there now and again. Lessons you learned. I'm glad your recent book was a life transforming experience for you as well. In that case, I'm sure it will be for readers too.

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  4. Yes! This is so true. I don't want to spend such a significant part of my life on something meaningless to me. I love all my work - my therapy and youth work - and all my creative ventures and they all share my purpose.

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    1. Jan, "all my creative ventures and they all share my purpose"

      That's such a profound phrase. I think of everything I do which is creative and which shares my purpose, and there's a lot more on the list than just writing.

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  5. I need to have passion about the story before I choose to write it. Every story comes to me in a different way. I think I have an inkling of what will come after the trilogy I'm working on now, but right now it's only a name--a first name. It arrived one day unannounced, and it hasn't gone away. That was about a month ago.

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    1. Carol, Isn't it fun how these things come to us? When I fell in love with the concept of Afraid of Everything, it was the title and the image of a woman curled up in a coma thinking "this isn't half bad."

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  6. Sounds like you've got the right idea. It's one thing to make a decision to stick to one story (and if you have writer's ADD like me sometimes you have to be a little strict about it) but it's another thing to force a story out when it's not ready. Or stop another from coming when it is. Sometimes the words know better than you what should be said and when.

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    1. Taryn, Really well said! It's kind of weird how I was thinking there was something wrong with me when actually it was just me trying to force a story out when it wasn't ready. Or maybe it was me who wasn't ready.

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  7. It's hard when you know the story and think you are ready to write it, and then it doesn't happen. I was going to do a teen version of Overcoming Obstacles - had an outline, notes, and had done some research with teens. I just didn't feel it though, so I set it aside. It's still sitting there, too.

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    1. Diane, It's nice to know I"m not the only one! At first I thought it had something to do with my skill as a writer, but I don't feel that way any longer.

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  8. No matter how good an idea is, if the passion isn't there to put the idea into written words, it isn't worth the effort. Without passion and heart... it's simply drudgery.

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    1. Susan, Is that ever the truth! It was getting so I dreaded my writing time. I felt like I was torn in half whenever I went to work on it.

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  9. Couldn't agree more - you have to write what excites you, what's in your heart. Otherwise it would be pretty painful ... and probably not much good.

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    1. Simon, LOL, not much good indeed! Why else are we writing unless it's from excitement and enthusiasm for the story we want to tell?

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  10. What you said, exactly. Even if it means I have to wait for the next diamond book (I'm a fan of the first two) your next book will be a diamond all its own.

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    1. Mirka, Thank you! And I know I'll write the next diamond book, but it has to be when I'm emotionally ready to face the difficulties our family went through at that time and write about them objectively.

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  11. I think one could only write something if it excites and inspires you. If you have to write something that no longer hold much appeal then it feels like those essays we had to write in school...they were no fun

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    1. Birgit, Yes, and it did feel like I was forcing myself to work on an unpleasant assignment.

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  12. Thank you for sharing the importance of writing what matters to us, despite its marketability. I honestly believe that theory makes the strongest writer.

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    1. Sheri, As writers we hear so much about marketing and writing more books and getting the next one out without too much delay that I think we can forget why we are writing in the first place. And anyone who thinks it's for money should have their head examined.

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  13. I am not a writer, just an occasional blogger. I, though, understand what you are saying. Some of the comments I have received on different posts are so kind and make me feel that some of my words have made people smile. Nothing could please me more.

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    1. I always enjoy your blog! And a blogger is a writer.

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  14. I guess I'm more of a spontaneous writer. I used to love essay exams in college. I just write even if I didn't know that much about the topic and often I did pretty well on the exams, which I might assume meant that my writing was decent enough to pull off a ruse for whoever was grading the paper.

    I would like to publish a book one day that had some impact on others.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Wrote By Rote

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    1. Arlee, I hope you will. I have enjoyed your posts on writing memoir. Since I'm looking at doing that down the road I've appreciated the tips and will revisit those posts.

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  15. What lovely thoughts. That's why we write. To reach the reader. Now you've started me to thinking. Maybe the reason I'm having trouble with one of my WIP is because this isn't the time to write it. Thanks for waking me up to possiblities.

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    1. Beverly, You're welcome! I took me awhile to figure out what my problem was with that particular ms. Glad it helped you think about one of yours. I thought there was something wrong with me, or with my writing routine or something. I actually came to the realization when I read something on Julie Musil's blog about a story she had not been able to write earlier. This is why I love blogging, especially with writers, because you are all my writing, support group and we can all learn from each other.

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  16. At one time (about 20 years ago), my plan/hope was to write a successful book. I worked on it for 15 years, struggling all the way. It was then I realized that my writing was more toward short stories/vignettes. Somehow it was a relief for me to know what I truly wanted to do.

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    1. Susan, when I first started writing for publication it was children's stories, I suppose because my children were all young and I thought of them as my audience. That changed through the years and now I could not imagining writing a children's story or a YA book.

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  17. I agree! I write from the heart, and I write what I feel like at the time. I usually have 2-3 WIP ideas that I choose from when I finish a MS. I choose whichever one I can get into, emotionally, at that moment. It's important to really care about what we're writing and be involved in our stories. You seem to do this very well, Karen!

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  18. I have really appreciated all these comments. You guys have helped me know that I truly was right to set the manuscript aside for now. I'm sure there will come a time when I'm ready to work on it again. Thank you, everyone, for your input.

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  19. You've got to follow your muse.
    Nice to meet you, Karen.

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    1. Sandra, Thanks for the comment and for following my blog! I've been to yours and followed as well. It looks like you had a really enjoyable wedding weekend with family and friends.

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  20. I've had to abandon many projects over the years because they just weren't right. Sometimes an idea doesn't quite work out when executed. But I think we're better off for it because we've learned what doesn't work so that we can appreciate it when something does.

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    1. Stephanie, Excellent point. I know there will come a time when I'm ready to work on this emotionally difficult project I've set aside. I think the work will go easier and be better for waiting..

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  21. I love to get a crazy idea and go with it, and if it works, then great. If not I'll set it aside. I have never planned any of my writing. Perhaps it might be worth a try.

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    1. Jeff, I do best as a spontaneous writer as well. Then the idea that really excites me I can work with for the long haul.

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  22. You have to write what your head is telling you to write. Anything else and your readers will notice the difference.

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  23. I've always believed you should write what you want to read. That way, your passion will show. All the best for your new project. :-)

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  24. I have so many half completed novels that I despair of ever completing one but a different writing genre has 'found me' at the moment so, while the demand lasts, I'll continue to enjoy writing history books for children. As for blog posts, I find that the more personal posts receive fewer comments but I can't work out why.

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  25. Thanks for sharing this with us. Wishing you the best on your writing journey. Yes, write for ourselves, first, I agree.

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  26. Hi, Karen,

    I feel exactly the same way. Our stories need to change our lives. If they don't, then how could they possible affect anyone else's. When I wrote my second novel about child abuse, a fellow blogger had read an excerpt I had posted from it. She had asked to read the whole manuscript. Since I had only edited it a few times, I was reluctant, but I was also very honored for the request.

    I had sent it to her. A few weeks had passed. Nothing. I sent her an email just to see if she had received it. A day later, she had written me back. I could feel the emotion and almost see the tears staining my computer screen. She was an abused child. She had relived so many of her past hurts. At times, she needed to stop reading to collect herself.

    Her words tore through me. I felt her pain. But then, her final words warmed my soul. I had helped her extract so many of those demons. She had lived with her secret for almost seventy years. Finally she was able to put them to rest. My job was done.

    To date, this novel has not been published. I am still looking for an agent/publisher. Even if it does't find a home, it had helped one person. That is enough for me.

    Good luck on your newest novel. I'm looking forward to reading more about it!

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    1. Michael, Maybe you needed to write it not just for yourself but for this reader as well. I hope one day you find the right publisher for your book. It sounds powerful.

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  27. Karen, this was a wonderful post. It almost made me want to write a book! Your comment on my last post touched me deeply. You never know what life will bring though. My husband was more than six years younger than I, so I always thought he would be there to take care of me in my old age. Older than his old age. So you never know. Love your man every day you have together, is the lesson I learned this past year.

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    1. Inger, Thank you and your posts of the last year have taught me that as well.

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  28. Isn't it wonderful when you find yourself doing the right thing? It's as though a piece of the puzzle has slid into place and now everything is balanced. And if you can hold to that feeling, remember it, it's both a wonderful memory and a sort of guide for the uncertain times.

    Diana.

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    1. Diana, This is so very true and applies to decisions in life generally and not just to writing. Wonderful insight!

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  29. Hi Karen - yes ... our words are our words ... and if we can reach people - friends and bloggers ... then it's wonderful. However sometimes we need time - we can't 'dash' things out for the sake of it ... the next manuscript will come ...

    I'm so glad you're working on your next project - sounds intriguing ... and will fit you perfectly ... enjoy your process ...

    I have House of Diamonds to read ... it will be evocative I know ... and will make me think ...

    Cheers and enjoy your rains - Hilary

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    1. Hilary, As much as I'd love to dash out a novel or two or three, I just can't. They have to mature and fall into my hands like a piece of ripe and delicious fruit.

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