Jan 10, 2011

Playing it Safe


We know that all stories start with an idea. Maybe we read something in the newspaper, have an experience, have a dream or overhear a conversation that lights a spark within us. We might see someone on the street, or overhear a snippet of conversation, or hear a report on the nightly news and think, “There’s a book in there somewhere.”

After we get the idea, we start plotting the story in our heads. We begin thinking about characters and making up dialogue. We test ideas on ourselves, trying to find the perfect situation to drop our characters into. Maybe we worry because we don’t know the end, or maybe we embrace the unknown and write to find out what happens. 

We dig until we find the right conflict and bang our heads against the wall over motivation. At this stage, the story might lose its allure. It’s no longer the magical tale that had us so excited a few weeks ago. In fact, it’s starting to look an awful lot like work.

Before you go any further, stop and ask yourself why you need to write this story. Look for a reason that goes deeper than the need for a paycheck or the desire to become published. Forget about your audience. Forget about your critique group, editors, agents, and contest judges. Just ask yourself what’s in this story for you?

If you don’t know the answer to that, you may find it hard to keep going when the going gets truly rough—and it will. So be selfish for just a moment and figure out what in this story speaks to your heart.

Don’t ask what you need to say in this book, what incredibly valuable piece of information you need to share or what philosophy or spiritual truth you’re supposed to include. Don’t think about entertaining your audience or wowing an editor. Consider instead asking what you need to learn from this book. Why would you read it if someone else wrote it?

Is it truly magical? Does it make you feel happy? Alive? Free? If you can’t find the place where the heart of the book connects with the heart of the writer, you may have trouble writing the book during crunch time. If you can’t find that connection, you may always be the writer telling a story. And if that happens, you’re probably going to sound like somebody trying to sound like a writer—and that’s probably not your own, unique and natural voice.

There must be something about the story that speaks to you besides the quest for advances and royalties. Something that calls to you besides the desire for publication. Something that touches your soul and begs for you to give it release.

Those are the things that appeal to the part of your voice that isn’t vocal, and these are the parts of the story that mean only you can tell it as it needs to be told. If you try to write like someone else, like anyone else, like everyone else, you’ll be shutting down the very thing that makes the book yours in the first place. Shut that down, and your chances of appealing to an editor, an agent, a reader will take a deep plunge.


I began my writing career with a mystery about a 73-year-old man named Fred Vickery. Fred wasn’t the protagonist I planned, but Fred took over in my quiet creative moments when my internal editor wasn’t allowed at the keyboard. After a brief battle, Fred became my protagonist.

Fred appealed to me because he was kind, compassionate, and wise, and because he said aloud many of the things I only dared to think at that stage of my life. Fred taught me never to edit my characters when they start talking to me, and though I do have to fight the urge in the beginning of almost every book, I can flip open one of my “Fred” books and remember within just a few pages all the lessons Fred taught me so long ago.

Why Do We Need Voice?

A story without a strong voice doesn’t come alive for the reader. It doesn’t touch the reader’s imagination, and that’s because the author isn’t present in the story.

I can hear you all shouting now! What do I mean? Aren’t I always harping on you to stay out of the story? What about author intrusion?

Well, you’re absolutely right. The author’s place in a book is a tricky subject. One of our goals is to remain invisible. We want our readers to become immersed in our stories and to forget that someone is behind the words.

We don’t want readers to break that very necessary suspension of disbelief which would lead to realizing that a person other than the viewpoint character created the story.

But if we remove ourselves entirely from the book, the story will have no soul.

Your author’s “voice” is something timeless. It should reach through generations and across the years to connect with the reader on his or her level. Our favorite books are the ones that whisper to us, “I know what you’re feeling,” though we don’t understand how.

Our author’s voice does the same thing. It says, “I know what you’re feeling,” and says it in a way that only you can. But of course, you can only say that if you are feeling what the reader is feeling. You can’t fake the emotion. You can’t fool the reader. Never lie. Even if the reader can’t identify the lie, she can feel it. Every time. Never fail.


You won’t find your voice if you aren’t in touch with your deepest self.

So how do you get in touch with your deepest self?

Mystery author Earlene Fowler told me once that the best advice she ever received about writing was to write about what frightened her most. She took that advice to heart and wrote a book about her greatest fear -- a woman trying to get on with life after the death of her husband.

That book sold, and Earlene’s career took off flying. Why? Because she wasn’t afraid to look deep inside herself to find where her own emotions would be most raw. Or maybe she was afraid, but she looked anyway.

If you routinely write about subjects that are safe for you, it shouldn’t be any surprise that your voice, that raw emotional part of you that you can’t create, might remain hidden behind those safe walls.

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