April 17, 2012

Write What You Want to Read

        When I talk to kids about writing, one of the things I tell them is to try to write the kind of books they like to read.  That's how I write.  [I know that a more professionally viable technique may be to write the kind of books that publishers want to publish.  But I figure there are plenty of other people working that angle, and the readers who like the same kinds of things I do are the ones I really want to please.]  Of course, in order to write the kind of books you like to read, you need to read… a lot.  And you need to think about what it is about the books you like that makes you like them.
        Is it the main characters who draw you into the story?  Do you like characters who are brave, or silly, or clever, or shy?  Characters who are sort of like you, or characters who are practically the opposite?
        Is it the setting that intrigues you?  Do you like to read about things happening in an ordinary elementary school?  Or some other time in history, or another place in the world?  Outer space?  What about imaginary fantasy worlds or made-up planets?
        What kind of stories do you like best?  Mysteries?  Adventures?  Do you like funny stories or sad stories or scary stories?  Do you like happy endings?  (Personally, I insist on happy endings.  But I think I'll do an entire post on this another day.)
        Every story has to have trouble: a problem to be solved or a conflict to be overcome -- so think about what kind of trouble is interesting to you.  What kind of problems do you want to see solved?  And how do you like to see problems getting solved?  By trickery?  By hard work and persistence?  By epic battles?  By detective work?  By cooperation and getting people to work together?  By funny coincidence?
        I believe that if you consider these questions honestly for yourself, there's no wrong answer.  [It may be that not too many others share your taste and your story won't have a particularly broad appeal… but I figure it's better to write the best story you can according to yourself than to try to appeal blindly to tastes you don't share.]  Of course, when I'm talking to kids, my concern is to help foster a love of writing, not to launch them all on commercially successful writing careers.  But the real issue for the school students I speak to isn't whether or not their ideas are commercially publishable, but the fact that they're usually not given freedom to write whatever they want.  If this is the "realistic fiction" writing unit, then no "fantasy" will be allowed.  So how can you write what you love to read if this is the unit on a genre you don't care for?
        First of all, much as I sympathize with my kids forever being told to write realistic fiction when all they want is to write fantasy, I believe that it is important to make students try all different styles and techniques, not just the ones they're most comfortable with.  How can you know what you like if you never try?  How can you stretch your abilities if you always stick with your comfort zone?  That said, I still encourage writers to find ways to make every assigned genre their own.  No matter what genre you're working in, you can still choose the elements of your story to reflect what interests you.
        I give a version of this speech as part of my presentation to third and fourth graders, but today I'm talking to you.  Whether you want to write your own story or not, think about what it is you love in your favorite books of all.  Now appreciate the writers who shared that taste, because if they're anything like me, that's what they really wanted -- to reach out to all the others who might share their vision, and make a connection.

[Pictures: Romance, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009 (Commissioned for Penelope’s Romance Reviews);
Old King Cole enjoys his favorite book about fiddling, design for bookplate, adapted from rubber block print by AEGN.]

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