I read a thread on a discussion board recently that got me chewing over a question. The question was, “What motivates you to write?” I was as intrigued by the answers as by the question.
Two respondents admitted that ego had something to do with it (I found that to be an enlightening and honest answer), although it was not their primary reason. One liked the idea of being called an “author,” and so, I imagine, she wrote as a romantic ideal. She also liked the challenge of creating something worthy for publication. Another replied that, apparently, nothing motivated her.
It’s a fair question to ask, why do you write? But how does one give only one answer? I have so many reasons why I write.
I’d say I write because I enjoy the very process of writing. I love the sequencing of sentences, chapters, and story lines to create a smooth flow. I love developing new and intriguing worlds. I love giving voice to characters who are all my creation. I also write just to get better.
I don’t write for my ego. After all, writing fiction opens a person up to a whole lot of ridicule if they’re not any good or they write things contrary to the belief system of friends and relatives. Nor does my ego get a boost from simply seeing words with my name attached to it. I’ve written and reported too many stories to walk out of the newsroom impressed simply by authorship. For me, writing a story well is much more impressive than simply possessing the byline.
None of this is to say my motivation is any better or worse than anyone else’s. Still, it’s an interesting idea to chew on. Just why do writers write? Or do we, like the person responding to the thread, simply need no motivation at all?
Query letters, like resumes, are some of the hardest documents to write. Not only do they require writers to condense their story and expertise onto one page; they also require writers to do something very few people feel they can do well — sell themselves.
Self-exaltation, for most of us, is counterintuitive. It’s a clumsy exercise, trying to walk the fine line between promotion and revulsion. On the one hand, if we writers don’t market ourselves, who will? On the other, modesty — and probably reality — dictate that we not present ourselves as the best writers of the generation, especially if our attached chapters will have the agents laughing at our ineptitude (Of course, if we recognized our failings beforehand, we, doubtless, would not have sent out the query to begin with.).
The query format is simple enough, much like that of a cover letter. We politely explain the aim for our letter, tell exactly what we’re pitching (“My fantasy middle reader of 38,000 words”), and then provide a compelling and pithy synopsis. Finally, we explain our credentials or previous successes, offer a method of communication (email address or phone), and then thank the reader for his time. Oh, how easy I’ve made it sound. In reality, a good query letter is an arduous task, but one that can fling open many doors.
The rejection / acceptance letter is so much easier! One or two lines. Changing futures. But we all knew this — the number of words doesn’t make the difference. The impact is in the message. Poor agents. I almost feel sorry for them. We writers get a whole page to deliver our message, while they only get a fraction…
There are a lot of ways to tell a story. You can write reams and reams of text. You can condense to single lines of crisp copy. You can use slow, sweeping panoramas or quick, flashing images. You can employ breaks in scenes or breaks in audio. There are as many ways to tell a story as there are people telling it.
That’s one, and just one, of the many, many reasons why it’s so hard for me to answer whether I like writing long prose more than writing broadcast news. It’s an impossible comparison. They are distinct media with different aims, different audiences, and different results.
Is covering one hundred pages of paper more fulfilling than using one hundred seconds of America’s broadcast spectrum? Have I cheated the story in choosing one medium over another? Is there not merit in both visions? And, if backed into a corner, why must I declare allegiance to only one? Thankfully, I’m not forced to.
I am blessed with the opportunity to tell people’s real-life stories in more than one way. I am equally blessed regarding my own make-believe stories. For what better opportunities could a writer ask?
So when answering the question, “One hundred pages or one hundred seconds,” my answer can only be, gratefully, “Yes.”
Some books have characters which are so richly developed that, before the ride’s over, you feel intimately connected with them. You can picture them practically standing in front of you. You know their likes and dislikes, their mannerisms, even what they would and would not say.
That has always fascinated and amazed me; that I could say, in my mind, “No! Juan would never do that! How could his friends think he would?” The author did a great job developing that character.
I’ve found that I only come close to that when I take enough time to fully think the character through in my head. Sounds obvious, I’ll admit, but sometimes you just want to delve into the story and you don’t give your character a chance to “breathe” and fully come into being. I suppose you could say characters need time to grow into their own, and we need to be patient enough to let it happen.
As I’d gone through the process of thinking about, and then writing, stories over the years, I’d asked myself the question many agents and publishers say that authors are to consider: “Where does your work fit in the market?”
Many books / websites / interviews from these professionals and many trade discussion boards assure authors that this is something all writers are supposed to think about, especially if they hope to get their work published by a publishing house. Authors are supposed to identify the single genre of their work, understand the demand (or lack thereof) for that work, and then associate their work with other works already on the shelf.
I once found myself troubled with those requirements. Yes, authors should be able to determine such basics as the genre, I told myself; yet, I hated to associate my work with those of others ( “My book falls between This and That on the shelves.” or “It’s a cross between This and That.” ), never mind that those other works obviously passed enough hurdles to actually land on the bookstore shelves.
It was vanity, I suppose, to not want to label oneself or link one’s work with that of another, even though so very many stories are revisions and offshoots of others — or greatly influenced by them. We just don’t ever want to admit it.
So I was forced to recognize that even if one didn’t want to stamp a label on her work, it is an inevitable necessity. How is the agent or publisher to know what they’re being asked to consider if the author herself fails to identify her work in a clear and concise manner? They can’t, obviously, without reading it. Therefore, the author would be asking people with very limited time to find the answer on their own without her help.
Good luck, I figured. The request wasn’t so invasive, after all.
I had the honor this year of winning the “Best Reporting Award” in the Excellence in Wisconsin Journalism Competition. It is an award given by one’s peers and is, thus, very meaningful for its recipients, myself included.
Competitions and critiques aren’t always easy to face, we all know. No one wants to be passed over on an award, have their work torn apart, or see an editor slash and burn what you later must agree was worthless text. It’s tough, but I believe there is value in having your peers evaluate your work.
I’ve had colleagues tell me, in brutal honestly, all the things I could have done better. Happily, I’ve also had some great feedback on my work. I try to remember those nuggets of affirmation.
Today, I had one of those nuggets tossed my way; only it wasn’t from a peer. It was from a young reader who enjoyed a particular turn of phrase in one of my writings.
That is another kind of honor that I cherish.