Why the Book Chooses the Writer — Not the Other Way Around

How to start writing a story
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Many years ago, before I’d even opened a blank document on my laptop, I imagined the sort of novel I might write someday. It would be an Important Book, one that would unveil a deeper aspect of the human experience.

Maybe, if I were lucky, the book would be reviewed by The New York Times and shortlisted for a few awards. My former classmates would read the book and tell me it brought them to tears, and my name would be mentioned in the same breath as Anne Tyler and Richard Russo. Perhaps Jeffrey Eugenides would invite me around for tea.

I will be the first to admit these ambitions were both unrealistic and steeped in snobbery. But at the time — and even now — those were the types of books and authors praised by the literary establishment. If I wanted my fellow Yale grads to take me seriously as a writer, clearly that was the kind of book I needed to write.

And then I sat down in front of my laptop, and what came out was — to steal from my book cover — “Bridget Jones with a killer cinnamon bun recipe.” Ahem.

Here’s the thing: I loved Bridget Jones. No, make that present tense: I love Bridget Jones. I love books by Sophie Kinsella and Jennifer Weiner and lots of other authors who write so-called chick lit. So why is it any surprise that when I sat down, that’s what came out? And why, initially at least, did I try to resist it?

I’ll tell you why: because I worried my friends and family — and the public more generally — wouldn’t respect me as a writer if I wrote those kinds of books.

Ridiculous? Of course. Unfair? Entirely. But in a world where “chick lit” had become a pejorative term, and as a woman who had spent her life chasing intellectual pursuits, I had trouble reconciling the book I thought I should write with the book I was meant to write.

When everything changed

Then one day, as I poked around Twitter for a few minutes, I came across a tweet from Jennifer Weiner. I can’t remember the exact wording of her tweet or what, specifically, she was referring to, but the gist was this: the book chooses the writer, not the other way around. (Click to tweet this idea!)

At that moment, everything came into focus for me. I didn’t need to label the kind of book I was writing. Plenty of other people would do that for me. What I needed to do was write, to help the story that was bottle up inside of me escape. It didn’t matter if that story was chick lit or a gory thriller. What mattered was that I told my story, my way.

Write the book within you

When it comes to writing fiction, there is so much talk about craft and form that it’s easy to start thinking you’re somehow cheating if the writing comes easily. Believe me, even when the writing comes easily, crafting a novel is never easy. There will be hours and hours (and hours) of revisions. There will be scenes that don’t work and dialogue that falls flat. There will be times when you wonder if your story is, in fact, the worst novel ever written.

Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. But I guarantee it isn’t nearly as bad as it would be if you tried to write something other than the book living inside you.

So shut out all of the voices, real and imagined, telling you to write a certain type of book or not to write another. Write the book deep within you, and instead of trying to be the next Richard Russo or Anne Tyler or Jeffrey Eugenides, do something even better: Try to be the first you.

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Dana Bate is a freelance writer and former Washington producer and reporter for PBS's Nightly Business Report, where she won the Gerald Loeb Award for a series she produced on the Indian economy. She studied molecular biophysics and biochemistry ... .

Dana Bate | @danabate

Dana Bate
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Comments

  1. I’ve been looking forward to the launch of the The Write Life. This is the first article I have read and it struck a chord with me. Thanks very much for bringing it to us.

  2. Jeff Richards says:

    Thank you for this! I’ve been struggling with this exact issue for years: writing what I think I should write rather than just writing what I WANT to write; consequently all my writing falls just shy of the mark. Just this morning I told myself: “Just write the damned book already!”

    Always good to know you’re not the only one wrestling these demons!

  3. Thank you for sharing this article. I’ve been penning down thriller/adventure plots from age nine and get told that it isn’t serious writing or of any value, so I know how that feels! Nonetheless, I can’t keep my characters from being kidnapped or going after buried treasure or being saved by MI6!

    • Keep writing those thriller/adventure plots! Writing is always of value if you value what you’re doing. If you aren’t passionate about what you write, readers won’t be either!

  4. Article is a refreshing reminder that being ourselves is always the best route to take. Like the design of your new blog, and best wishes for success.

  5. Great piece, Dana! You’re brave to admit your “snobbery”, and it’s definitely appreciated. A lot of writers feel this way — ‘I can’t use the word awesomesauce in this blog post, can I? What will my colleagues think?’ But when you own up to the story and voice that’s really inside you trying to get out, that’s when you create the stuff that no one else can.

  6. Sarah Sherrod says:

    I think you are absolutely right about just being yourself. Sometimes I think many of us forget that. I believe I needed confirmation of that fact.

  7. I love this concept of the book being inside of you and just choosing you as its messenger. Well said.

  8. I’m no personal development guru but I think it just comes down to really listening and acting on your instincts and being your true authentic self. Quite often we ignore what’s inside us or how we feel and instead go on to do things we don’t really want to do. This post is a great example of that. Thanks Dana.

  9. Totally agree!! And loved the Bridget Jones tagline about buns by the way. My experience with this was writing my first book (a suspense novel that a lot of people liked) and then trying trying trying to follow my editor and agent’s advice to write another suspense novel and finally tossing up my hands 40,000 words into the draft and going, “nah, think I need to write a memoir instead.” Look forward to checking out your books Dana. All the best, lisa

    • Lisa I’ve been trying to reconcile the different story ideas in my head for months now! I’ve got two coming-of-age and a crime drama type deal and I keep thinking “But they’re two different genres; can I do that?”

      Loved this article! I too need to stop listening to others and also stop trying to imagine what other people will think.

    • Thanks, Lisa! And best of luck with your memoir — way to follow your gut!

  10. And just like that, my Great American Novel is nudged aside to introduce my heartfelt work which, however brief, is My Truth. Thanks for the reminder.

  11. Brilliant insight. I’ve been there, done that, and now I’m happy to write what I write. Label it contemporary or women’s fiction, and I don’t care. These are the stories I have to tell. Thanks for this post. It reminds me what a snob I used to be. 🙂

  12. Dana, thank you for your inspiration: Try to be the first you. Thank you also for sharing what Jennifer Weiner tweeted: The book chooses the writer, not the other way around.

  13. Fabulous! This was my experience last year as I sat down to write my first book…it surely didn’t turn out the way I always planned. I love it, though. 🙂
    Thanks for the encouraging post!

  14. This is something I’ve learned to do thruout the process. Likewise, I’ve reminded myself, that if I love the story, then others will love it too–I just have to find that audience. I think nothing fulfills a writer more than writing the story that is all hers.

  15. Thank you, this post is exactly what I needed to read. That last line is just beautiful

Trackbacks

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  3. […] drafts and sometimes thirds — exist to hash your ideas out on paper. After you’ve revised your book, story, blog post or article until you can revise no more, you just hand it off to your editor to […]

  4. […] Many years ago, before I’d even opened a blank document on my laptop, I imagined the sort of novel I might write someday. It would be an Important Book, one that would unveil a deeper aspect of the human experience. Maybe, if I were lucky, the book would be reviewed by The New York Times and shortlisted for a few awards. My former classmates would read the book and tell me it brought them to tears, and my name would be mentioned in the same breath as Anne Tyler and Richard Russo. Perhaps Jeffrey Eugenides would invite me around for tea. Click here to read the rest of this helpful article. […]

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  6. […] That is exactly what I tried to do: please some of the readers. I had tried my best, and it pleased some of the readers. Reading King’s quote took me out of my bad review funk and focused my attention on where it should be: on my work. […]

  7. […] Maybe, if I were lucky, the book would be reviewed by The New York Times and shortlisted for a few awards. My former classmates would read the book and tell me it brought them to tears, and my name would be mentioned in the same breath as Anne Tyler and Richard Russo. Perhaps Jeffrey Eugenides would invite me around for tea. Click here to read all about it. […]

  8. […] Maybe, if I were lucky, the book would be reviewed by The New York Times and shortlisted for a few awards. My former classmates would read the book and tell me it brought them to tears, and my name would be mentioned in the same breath as Anne Tyler and Richard Russo. Perhaps Jeffrey Eugenides would invite me around for tea. Click here for more. […]

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