Should You Write What You Like to Read?

I’ve written several times on this blog about examining what you like to read, and writing that. For the most part, it’s common advice that I think is a pretty solid place to start when it comes to figuring out what you want to write.

But it’s much easier said than done.

First of all, there’s the challenge of identifying just what you like to read. What if you like more than one kind of story? What if you only like certain parts of stories, and not the rest of them? What if what you think you’d like to read the most doesn’t exactly exist? (The last one sounds like a great opportunity to create something new, until you realize that you have no examples to go on.)

Second of all, you can stare all you want at what you like to read, and all you’ll have is a vague idea of how to write exactly that story (or fanfiction). While there’s nothing wrong with that for writing, for a career in writing you actually have to write something new and original (at least marginally). And when you venture out to write your own thing, you realize that now you have to come up with that genius plot twist, or that effortless prose, or those loveable characters. Just because I can listen to great singers all day doesn’t mean I can open my mouth and not cause hearing damage to any unfortunate listeners.

And third of all, you might come up with ideas or want to write something that’s nothing like what you want to read. Maybe it’s just a random idea that popped into your head and you can’t stop thinking about; maybe it’s something you want to try writing for fun or growth or for someone else.

So while I think that looking at what you like to read is a great tool for figuring out exactly where your tastes lie, it isn’t the ultimate answer in what to read. If it can help you find something to write, awesome; but it shouldn’t stop you from writing something that interests you if it doesn’t match what you like to read.

Write what you want to write.

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Rebounding from Resistance

Sometimes you just need a good pep talk.

Both of my parents are excellent at telling it like it is and telling me to: “just do it already.” And sometimes I really need to hear that.

Resistance takes a lot of different forms, and it’s sneaky. It can sound like a positive voice—“Oh, you should definitely work on this right now, be productive in this way”—so you think it’s not resistance at all; it’s helping you work. But it’s just another way of talking you out of working on something else.

For me, after the read-through, I felt a strong wave of doubt about this project. Not that it was so bad I could never publish it, but a lot of doubt about whether or not it was right for trying to publish now. And with my parents’ straight talk, I realized that it was just more resistance and fear making me procrastinate the inevitable—having to show someone my work.

I still have a lot of editing to do before it’s ready to go, but moving into this stage makes it real. Because I was finally able to seize onto that perfect “first draft” mentality of anything-goes, make-it-crappy, no-one-will-ever-see-this, carefree attitude, the first draft could be just a throwaway project if it had to be. Now that I’m heading into revision, I’m actively trying to make it something that someone will see, and judge, and if I’m very, very lucky, pay me for. Yet that payment (at every level of the “audience,” from editor to random reader in the bookstore) comes after a great deal of judgment.

Which is just the way art works, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t scary. And actively going after it? Most of me wants it more than anything… the rest wants to hide under a rock. Ideally, a money rock that will just grow money forever. Alas, no such thing exists.

And I do want to share my work—I really didn’t write it just for money. I wrote it because I loved the idea, and the characters, and I want to share them. Revision is a necessary part of that sharing, and I think I’ll even enjoy most of it.

If I can get myself to actually start.

My plan right now is to go scene by scene. The fundamental structure is pretty sound, at least right now, but the first episode definitely feels very rushed and I’m sure there are other scenes that aren’t paced well. Since I’ve never really revised before, I’m just kind of going to make it up as I go along.

And you’ll get to hear all about it. :)

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Building a Brand

So, somewhere along the line, I kind of got it stuck in my head that I need to build a “brand” (or “platform”) for my work. Basically, you hope to gain an audience with the first work, and then they’re going to expect something… similar for the next work. Not identical, not repetitive, but in the same vein. That way, the people who liked your first book will look at your second and say, “Hmm, I’ll probably like that, too.”

Okay, so I am fully aware this is ridiculous to think about at this stage. It’s kind of like worrying about how you’re going to afford your new wardrobe before you even start working out, or worrying about new hours for a job when you haven’t even been called for an interview. It’s not that it’s bad to be concerned with things that may never happen (be prepared!), but it feels arrogant to even be worrying about a potential audience when you barely have a product.

That said, because my potential first work is a standalone, the second work can be anything. And my concern at the moment is that the “anything” won’t be anything like the first. On top of that, I kind of feel like I’ll write a bunch of things that are similar to each other but not to my first book, so that will be the random anomaly…

So is it important to build a brand? If you read a book by an author, and let’s assume you like it, would you read their next book if it was a different genre or style entirely?

For me, the particular issue is YA vs. Adult. My first project is YA, and I love that. But I don’t know if I want to write any other YA books—at least, they’re not really coming to me at this point. But if my first book is shelved in the YA section, and my other books… aren’t—how will people find my books?

Again, this is crazy. No one’s finding me because there’s nothing to find, and there might not ever be. All of this hinges on actually being published, and then actually being read (and liked…), and then actually being published again—all things that are NOT guaranteed, not even close. I know this.

But I worry. It’s what I do. And I wonder where I should write other projects to get a better sense of my overall style and voice so I can plan my career and build the right audience for my work. Yet time is not on my side here…

I like thinking about the future, and a potential career, in the same way that every dreamer ever has imagined future success. It’s fun, and it’s motivating, and I think it’s perfectly healthy. But it shouldn’t substitute for doing actual work, and if it keeps you from pursuing the opportunities right in front of you in favor of the mirage of potential options, it’s a problem.

Ultimately, I think this is just a new manifestation of doubt keeping me from working on revision, postponing actually letting anyone read my work. It’s still just fear and resistance.

It just manifests in the most absolutely ridiculous ways. :)

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MacGuffin Plotting

A MacGuffin is an item that becomes the central focus of the plot—despite the fact that it doesn’t really matter what it actually is. It has become a staple feature of blockbuster films, even though some call it lazy plotting—but what is its purpose?

I’m writing this coming off of watching the newest Marvel movie, Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel movies have become famous for MacGuffin plotting, which can take a few shapes.

  • Bad guy wants to get the MacGuffin, we have to get it first
  • Bad guy has the MacGuffin, we have to take it/stop him from using it
  • We have to get the MacGuffin to stop the bad guy (and/or his plan)
  • We want the MacGuffin (for money, save the world, etc.?), bad guy wants it too

I’m sure there are more, but the point is, any plot that can be more or less revolved around an object could be called a MacGuffin plot. Some plots have a MacGuffin subplot or use a MacGuffin as an element of the larger plot, wherein finding the object is a small part of the larger plot.

As usual, there’s nothing wrong with a MacGuffin plot. It’s a staple of fantasy fiction, going back to the One Ring of Lord of the Rings, or the Sorcerer’s Stone/Horcruxes of Harry Potter. And in the Marvel movies, we’ve had the Tesseract, the Aether, and now the Orb.

MacGuffins are actually really useful for making an epic plot simple. A villain’s plan to take over the universe and/or destroy it could be really complicated—or it could be really simple, just getting the object. That makes stopping their plan equally simple, while also including lots of action. Instead of having to deal with armies or elections or complex social forces, villainy and heroism can be reduced to a game of capture-the-flag. But, add enough “import” to the object, or to what the villain (or in cases of positive MacGuffins, the hero) wants to do with it, and you still get an epic-feeling story.

Likewise, it provides a simple ending to an epic story. In the “real world,” stopping an enemy army is rarely as easy as killing a single person, even the leader—and though fantasy stories rarely attempt to resemble reality (nor should they need to), it would be a stretch to believe that an entire social movement would just end if the bad guy’s taken out. However, give the bad guy and his legions a single plan, stop that plan by stealing/destroying its central object, and it’s marginally believable that their momentum would be stopped dead. Story over.

I don’t think MacGuffin plots need to end; they can be really useful, and they’re great as a starting point in building an epic story. If you want to move away from them or complicate them, focus on developing the characters (including the villain) so that they’re more than just chess pieces on the board. Also work on complicating the plans and battles around the object, so that the conflict is more complex than just toddlers fighting over a stuffed animal. And, if you like, work on thematic elements to deepen the conflict—though the fight may ultimately be reduced to who has the ball, why they want the ball or what they’re going to do with it could have a lot of depth and resonance.

Take the time to explore motivations, backstories, relationships, social forces, and characters, and even the cheesiest MacGuffin plot could become something more.

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Epic Heroes and Cliches

I really could not think what to post about today… So you get some random notes I made on epic heroes! Congratulations… :)

Heroes and Epic Fantasy Clichés

  • A lot of times, heroes (almost always male) will start in one of four ways:
    • Already powerful/unique (Sherlock, Superman, X-Men)
    • Goes after power (Batman, Ironman)
    • Stumbles upon power but develops it themselves (Spiderman)
    • Epic hero (see below)
  • The epic hero cliché is:
    • “Average/ordinary” hero (Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins)
    • Discovers specialness about themselves
    • Directed and driven by mentor (Gandalf, Obi-Wan, Dumbledore)
    • Arc covers them rising to the challenge (given by mentor) to be “the one”
  • Epic (“Rising”) hero is almost ubiquitous with heroines, as opposed to male heroes who can sometimes already be powerful or drive their own agency (without a mentor)
    • Perhaps a fear/intimidation/dislike of powerful women, so they need to start ordinary?
    • As opposed to an admiration/attraction to powerful men
  • Occasionally, an ordinary hero(ine) will rise through randomness or their own actions, and not through predetermined but unknown specialty
    • Katniss wins Hunger Games through some (relatively ordinary) skills and luck, but then is forced to be a symbol of revolution through the actions of others (not her own agency)
    • Frodo randomly has the Ring and decides to take it, not because of some unique ability to do so—but is directed, at least initially, by a mentor (Gandalf)
    • Jake Sully has to take his twin brother’s place (random coincidence/opportunity) and has some ‘natural ability’ to direct the avatar but not beyond the realm of randomness; drives his own actions, with help, from then on (?)
  • Then there are some combos:
    • Elric brothers go after power, then are made even more “powerful” (unique) through ritual gone wrong, and then use that power through own agency for specific purpose
    • Paige Mahoney already knows she has power, even a somewhat unique power, but doesn’t know the full meaning or usage of that power until she’s taken in by Sheol/Warden
  • Ways to make epic hero special/unique:
    • Backstory specialness, unknown history—parents, reincarnation, prophecy, etc.
    • Current specialness as a result of story/plot—found item, survival, gift from ally, etc.
    • Unique perspective/knowledge/discovery (in current story)—investigation, research, ability, etc. (relies more on coincidence and unusual actions of protagonist—requires them to already be somewhat unique, the only one to think to look there, etc.)
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The Read-Through

I just finished my first full read-through of my project.

And, surprising no one, my feelings are complicated. Part of me was disappointed that it hadn’t magically become perfect, that it did have serious flaws, and that at least the first portion will probably need pretty extensive rewrites. But part of me is also incredibly proud of what is good, of parts that, to me at least, are pretty freaking awesome and somehow came out of my brain.

So I’m a bit jumbled. There is a part of me that wants to throw it in a desk drawer to marinate for another decade as a “first novel” that never gets published. For the most part, that part of me is feeling like it needs to write another book, a “better” book, as some sort of insurance or defense mechanism. Like, “see, I can do other stuff, too.” Even though I’m not sure that I actually can write anything else…

But there’s also a part of me that wants this story to be shared. Not for any career reasons, but just out of the simple and pure joy of having someone else read your words. And possibly hate them, sure, but that’s okay. They’re still being shared.

I’m still intimidated by revision enough that I’m not sure quite where to begin. And my read-through didn’t really change any of that intimidation one way or the other—it didn’t make it worse, which is good, but it didn’t make it too much better like I hoped it might.

But I… wrote a book. And no matter what happens next, that’s still amazing to me. :)

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Three Ways to Evaluate an Idea

With my first major project heading into revision, I can’t help but think about what I’ll write after. I know, I know, focus on one thing at a time—but the idea of actually publishing my current project, while thrilling, also terrifies me. Because my current project is a standalone, it’s a completely wild and open landscape as to what I write next.

And what if I can’t think of anything?

If my lot in life is to be a one-hit wonder (and “hit” may be an exceedingly generous term), then I’ll be happy to have written at least one thing. But I am still going to try and think of more things to write.

I’m lucky in that I get a lot of random ideas, all the time. Mostly, they’re fragmentary and derivative, but they can usually be shaped into something more. The problem is that it’s hard for me to identify which ideas are worth pursuing, and which are worth leaving behind—or at least leaving aside for now.

So I thought of three ways to evaluate an idea, to test its validity for you (not its validity for the market, or for prestige, or for an audience).

Continue reading

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