Almost as soon as you find any success as a writer, other writers suddenly want your advice – as though landing an agent or a publishing deal somehow makes you more of an expert than you were five minutes ago when you were still stuck in the query trenches and your two cents wasn’t worth, well, two cents.
Whenever I was asked for advice, I typically tried to think of something sage to say about revision or the importance of having a thick skin, but everything I said always sounded so trite and obvious. I mean, of course you have to know how to revise and you’d better be resilient as a querying writer.
So, recently I began to think more honestly about what it was that really got me some success as a writer. What advice do I have that actually might help someone else? And it turns out, it’s another question:
What is it you’re trying to say?
A good story is more than just a plotline and characters and tension and world building and all the rest. It needs all of that and more, of course, but what I think truly makes a story stand apart – stand on its own, even – is that little nagging something that made you want to write it in the first place. That’s what stories are. That’s why we tell them. That’s why we want them.
By way of example, when I started writing The Mirror Man, I didn’t set out to write a story about clones. I set out to say something about self-identity and the lies we tell ourselves about who we are. I wanted to examine what might happen if we were somehow forced to see ourselves from a totally objective standpoint – the way the rest of the world sees us. I wanted to know what that might do to a person. That’s what fascinated me. And I constructed a science fiction thriller as a vehicle to talk about those things. If I were another kind of writer I might have come up with an historical fiction or a romance novel. But I like science fiction, so it turned into clones. Sort of obvious, I know …
Of course, the story had to be interesting enough to hold a reader’s attention. The characters had to be sufficiently developed so you’d care about what happened to them, the world had to be believable, and it all had to fit together. But as I was writing it, and through all of the endless revisions, I never let go of what I was trying to say. That was the thread that weaved in and out of the story and held the whole tapestry together. In the end, that’s what made my story interesting – both to me and, hopefully, to the reader.
So, my best advice to writers would be this: Before you write a single word, ask yourself that one question: What is it you’re trying to say? What is that elemental little nagging something that you’d like to examine? Give yourself time to think about that. Turn it around in your mind. Live with it for a while. Let it fascinate you. And then build a story to talk about it.