I’ve been reading John Truby’s ANATOMY OF STORY. And let me tell you, that thing is stuffed full of so much good stuff for writing. Many things I was already subconsciously doing, but after reading about half the book now and keeping his “steps” in mind as I’ve gone into my new WIP, it’s really allowed me to address certain problems right up front.
I think one of the most important things he’s said, though, is near the beginning of the book. He gives a two step approach to developing a premise and the first step is this.
WRITE SOMETHING THAT MAY CHANGE YOUR LIFE
Truby goes on to say, “This is a very high standard, but it may be the most valuable piece of advice you’ll ever get as a writer. I’ve never seen a writer go wrong following it. Why? Because if a story is that important to you, it may be that important to a lot of people in the audience. And when you’re done writing the story, no matter what else happens, you’ve changed your life.”
Gosh, I love that! Mostly because it took me over three years of writing before I came to that conclusion myself, and then to read it in a craft book was a nice piece of validation. But I think he is absolutely right. You are going to spend at least a few months, a year if you’re like me, working on this story. And guess what? It might not go anywhere. It might stay stuck on your computer forever. But if you write something that changes you, changes the way you look at the world, changes your life, then it’s all worth it.
I don’t like to look on any of my writing time as a waste, even when it didn’t produce top-quality material, because it all taught me something. But I spend two years on a contemporary fantasy manuscript when I first began writing. And to this day, I can tell you the plot and all about the characters. But I still can’t truly tell you what I was trying to SAY with it.
Because in the end, the best books, the ones you reread and carry around in your heart with you always have something TO SAY. Not in a preachy manner, and not as a lesson. But they speak to us because there is a message behind them. An idea the author wanted to explore. A dichotomy.
What you have to say won’t always be the same kind of thing. I’ve written two books and am currently drafting a third, since I figured out this life changing aspect of writing. And each of those books has a very different thing I was trying to say or explore in the story.
Book #1 – The give and take of love, friendship, and forgiveness is a kind of magic. A bit of grace without real explanation.
Book #2 – It is possible to be two seemingly opposite things at once. Living and dying, faithful and doubting, scared and brave.
Book #3 – Creating a community by attending to each other’s needs.
Now just so you know, books 1 and 2 are contemporary and number 3 is a light fantasy. Your genre doesn’t make a difference here. The highest fantasy can still explore themes important to a contemporary audience. Indeed, if you want your story to have staying power, it must resonate to people in the “real world.”
Now, writing something that will change your life takes practice, I think. I never discovered what I wanted to say with my very first book. It took three rewrites to figure it out with my second book. It took halfway through the first draft of my third book to fully realize it, and then finally, with this fourth book, I knew what it was before I started. And guess what? It has taken so much pressure off of writing this story. Because I know that everything has to eventually serve this greater purpose of showing the creation of community.
The thing was, I always thought I had a premise before. A premise to me was just a good, hopefully unique idea.
I want to write a fairytale retelling from the male POV! Boom. I started writing.
I want to write a book about grandma guardian angels. Boom. I started writing.
I want to write a book about a girl who might have a cancer gene. I waited. She has two possible futures. I should find a way to show that. Okay, then I started writing.
Finally, I waited and waited, and let my idea develop for a bit before writing. I should note this was because I had to finish another book first, not because I was actually growing wiser as a storyteller. 😉
I want to write a book about a fallen star full of wishes. Wait. Wait. But how do I make that important? What is important about wishes. Wait. Wait. If wishes just came true, we wouldn’t need to help each other, would we? Wait. Wait. If we weren’t helping each other, we’d live in isolation. Wait. Wait. And then I had a thought. This is about a neighborhood coming together. Building community is something I think about and talk about a lot. And so it was very natural for this idea to come to me. Because I’m already passionate about it. And because I’m passionate about what I’m trying TO SAY, writing this book doesn’t feel quite as hard, and it already has layers right from the beginning.
But I had to let it simmer and steep for a while. I had to ponder on it and also reach inside myself and ask, What is important to me?
Truby has two different exercises in his book to help you dig out of yourself what is important to you. What sort of ideas will change your life and be worth your time. I won’t give you those, I think you should buy the book.
But even if you don’t, I can’t recommend enough, waiting to write your story until you’ve gone beyond a premise that’s just “cool” and actually explored the question, What do I want to say?