Anyone who writes hears this often: “Hey, I’ve got a story you should write.” And you want to listen and do listen, because 1) why not be polite? and 2) story-sharing is good and also fun, and 3), but a remote #3, because this story just might become your next project. Since option #3 is so remote, story-sharers probably feel some offense when they so rarely hear: “Yes! That’s it! I want that story, tell me more!”
But why is #3 so remote? I’m thinking about this lately while casting about for future book topics and have a few thoughts.
The Coincidence Problem. Weird hook-ups happen in real life that would feel just too forced in a novel/short story. There are many variants. Here’s one I heard: A soldier lies wounded/dying on the battlefield. A stranger carries him through many dangers to a field hospital and leaves him there. There’s no chance to thank the stranger. Years later, they meet on a street in another country. Heart-warming, but wouldn’t readers write off the coincidence as “too unrealistic”?
The Life Story: As in “You should write my uncle/grandparent’s/ancestor’s story. H/she . . .” Sometimes the story is precious to the teller because of personal relationship. Or writers like me don’t want to do whole lifespan novels but just want to focus on a few critical years. Or the “this happened and then that happened” is an interesting sequence of incidents or career moves, but not a connected, driving plot that can suggest a theme.
The Research Angle: The topic may be too remote to the writer’s life experience or interests. I don’t buy the “Write what you know” box but at least it should be “Write what you want to know about.” For a year at least, you’ll be researching and thinking about and immersing yourself in another world. I’m just not that into learning about computer electronics, or competitive eating, luge design, hired guns, demo-derby driving, managing a multi-national conglomerate or long distance swimming in hot, mucky places. I just don’t want to go there.
The Entitlement Issue: (related to the Research Angle) There’s a constant debate about whether someone who is not a member of a certainty minority, ethnicity, or other group should or can write about that group’s experience. Obviously if all writers were in lock-down with their own autobiographies, fiction would perish. I could only “do” mid-century, mid-Jersey suburbia. But the subject is worth personal soul-searching and careful thought before you go marching into somebody else’s world dragging your own world-view behind.
The Genre Fit: This is pretty obvious. Most writers stay in their genre. Mine is historical fiction. I’d flounder in mystery or westerns or contemporary relationship or things coming back from the dead.
Then what? The story would make a great joke, anecdote, or case in point, or inspiration, or “Wow! I didn’t know someone could do that!” or “What a creep/hero/mess-up/weird-o s/he is.” But there just isn’t enough there to sustain more than a few hundred words. Usually the issue is a lack of theme. The story isn’t “about” anything more than the event. You’ve got 80-100,000 words for the typical novel these days. If the story you hear while drinking a half glass of wine is maybe 500 words and makes its point very well, thank you, what’s the point of a novel about it?
So . . .
What does make that spark up the spine that says “Yes, I could go there!” For me it’s some nearly visceral connection with a character whose journey I can connect in some way, usually metaphoric, with my own. Something that tugs at you and doesn’t stop. As an example, there are thousands of good causes out there. It’s impossible to do good for all of them or to make a ranking of importance. Is groundwater pollution more or less important than nuclear proliferation, child welfare, education, global warming, election reform, any ism, AIDS or any other devastating disease? You pick the cause that touches you the most and let others do what touches them.
You go where you’re called, where you feel most alive. You wait for the spark. Perhaps it’s like a photographer wandering in a city, camera in hand. Then, a trick of the light, a play of angles, a quality of social interaction and the image becomes more than itself. It zings you.