Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

‘Write the Story You Want to Read’

When I started ‘head writing’ my guest post for Bonnee last week, I thought I was going to end up with something different than what she asked for. It started shading from ‘why I write’ to ‘why I write what I write’, but once I started really writing the post, I worked my way back to the original question. Sometimes things work out the way they’re supposed to. Still, the the proverbial pump had been primed, and I was thinking a lot about why I write what I write.
A long time ago, I wrote a post about how ideas for me are usually the result of not one instantaneous blast of inspiration, but of several smaller ‘mini-blasts’ that kind of build on each other and make something bigger. Some weeks back I was reading a query letter on AW’s query letter hell (the ‘be brave‘ post came out of that one). Something in an exchange I had with the author got filed away in my brain for later use. So did a couple of other queries I’ve come across recently. Add in the thinking over the guest post for Bonnee, and things were starting to happen in the back room. Finally, while reading Catching Fire this past weekend, it all came together, and I had a new found understanding of the writer’s proverb (adage? Aphorism?), Write the story you want to read.
It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but when I first started hearing this I often thought, “What the hell does that mean? I don’t know what I want to write.” I’m usually pretty good at sifting through all the advice thrown at writers. I’ve known from the get-go that ‘start with action,’ for example, doesn’t mean car chases and explosions, that ‘never use adverbs’ really means ‘use adverbs as needed,’ and ‘show don’t tell’ should be followed by ‘when appropriate.’ Yet ‘write the story you want to read’ kind of mystified me.
The problem, as I have now learned, is I was taking this advice far too literally. The truth is I don’t think there is any particular story burning a hole in my head like cash in a gambler’s pocket. I haven’t been walking around for years thinking, “Damn, if only someone would write about an all-male burlesque show set on Saturn in 2145!” Nothing I’ve written so far is the result of yearning for *this* story or *that* one. Instead, I was fortunate enough to have a character or situation or scene kick open the door from the back room and say, “Here I am!” and that’s been enough to start. The rest of the story comes along once I start writing. It doesn’t always end up coming out the way I thought it might, but it comes out, and it’s right—for me.
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But I digress. The ‘aha moment’—the moment when the stuff from the back room kicked open the door and fused instantly with the stuff in the front room—occurred while I was 30 pages or so into Catching Fire and found myself at a fork in the road. In one direction was the story as written, though I didn’t know what that was just yet (I didn’t read any flap copy, I just grabbed the book). It turned out okay. I read the book in about a day, it kept me turning pages, yes, and I will read Mockingjay just to see how this finishes, but I wasn’t thrilled. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great, either. I think most of my disappointment was because of what I saw down that other fork.
Briefest of spoilers here, and I will say, this caught me by surprise in the book: Katniss and Peeta end up back in special edition Hunger Games, sort of like the Survivor All-Stars. As I said, it worked out pretty well as a book, but what I saw down that other fork was this: Katniss living in District 12, having to deal with the consequences of her actions from the first book (yes, true, going back in the games was a consequence of book 1, it was just a different consequence). Those consequences included things like dealing with her new-found fame and fortune, coping with the memories of her experience in the Games, having to deal with the way she is viewed by the people back home, which would likely be a mix of reverence, envy, and, possibly, fear (imagine seeing your friend legally kill several somebodies on live TV in brutal and clever ways, and then trying to have a normal conversation with them. Freaky, huh?). I wanted something that really dug into Katniss’s character, that delved deep to examine the impact of the first book’s events on her life and relationships to the people and world around her. I didn’t get it, and I was disappointed, until I shifted my expectations a bit.
I found myself thinking a bit about what I might have done, the story I wanted to see, and that was when the notion of ‘write the story you want to read’ really hit me. For me, for now, it’s about stuff that goes on sort of below the plot layer. It’s about characters and why they do the things they do. Plot is important, yes, but I like fiction that really focuses on characters and how they grow and change (or don’t) over the course of a book. That’s what I want to read. That’s what I like to write. It’s funny that I never thought of it that way before.

Have a great weekend, all.

8 Responses

  1. I had that same sort of fork in the road moment in Catching Fire too. The story in my head had her joining a rebel army and starting a revolution. Hmmm, could be because that's the book I'm writing. lol.

    But that "write what you want to read" notion is a pretty good one, at least for me. It set me free to write the novels I'm working on now. I like adventure stories like Alexandre Dumas wrote, and I like crazy novels like Diana Gabaldon writes. So that's what I write. 🙂

  2. I recommend reading Mockingjay and then rethinking it all.

    My opinion on this is that her staying home and living out her life would shift the book too far toward literary. That ship has pretty much sailed for YA.

    The only rule I set for myself going by "write what you want to read" is "don't be dry". I hate any dry writing, prose, persuasive, or informative.

  3. That really is an interesting way to think about it, though I have to say that now you've mentioned it I agree. The realistic quality that comes with watching a character change (or not change) throughout a story is something that helps readers relate more closely to them. Perhaps YOU should have written Catching Fire instead…

    Thanks for this post, and I'm glad that my question for the guest post has prompted so much thought for you 🙂

  4. Patrick, you're absolutely right, and part of my problem was forgetting that this was not that sort of book. And while *I* would have thought it was cool, millions of people would have been left saying, "Huh?" if she had written it that way.

    I've read some pretty literary YA in the not-so-distant past, so I don't entirely agree with you that literary ship has sailed. It just would have been wrong (maybe not 'wrong', but it would have really messed up expectations) had Suzanne Collins turned book 2 and/or 3 into a more literary-type thing.

  5. Hah, no, this was Suzanne Collins' story to tell, not mine. I think maybe I've been reading too much literary stuff (and writing it, too), and it colored my expectations.

    Funny, you never know what things are going to get the brain going.

  6. Gabaldon/Dumas love child…intriguing.

    I haven't gotten there yet (I usually try to leave a little space between books in a series or books by the same author), but I understand Mockingjay might be the book you thought Catching Fire should be. I'll know soon….

  7. That's an interesting revelation. If you're really interested in the characters, and how they change, that love should go into the book (or maybe hate) and they'll seem all the more real to the reader.

  8. Interesting take on CF. I really enjoyed the book (and loathed Mockingjay for many reasons). I write what I enjoy. I agree that plot isn't everything because I love character arc, but I need both.

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