Have you been asked that question? “So, what do you write?”
It’s not good enough to simply reply with, “Stories.” To ask what one writes is a perfectly legitimate question. However, while it shows one’s interest in me as a writer, I have always feared this question because I never had what I believed was a sufficient answer. By not having an answer, I assumed it meant I was not a very good writer. However, after thinking about it recently, I now realize that my lack of a good answer is actually a good answer. I’ve always been told that I seem to provide multiple paragraph answers when only one word should suffice. Of all the non-one-word answers, this one will be my favorite.
“So, what do you write?” Common answers are simply a genre that might include science fiction, horror, YA, historical fiction, or speculative fiction. I still think that any fiction is speculative, but that’s for another day. Why did I dread that question? Because I thought that if I couldn’t answer it immediately with a genre, then I must not be focused enough on my writing. I thought it meant that I did not have a clear enough understanding of my work or of the markets out there. And, if I didn’t have a clear enough understanding of my own work, how could I possibly expect an agent or publisher take a chance on someone who doesn’t even know what he writes?
“So, what do you write?” That’s when I would stammer and fumble with something like, “Well, a recent book accepted for publication was a ghost story with a mix of humor and straight drama. Before that I wrote a psycho-thriller. Before that it was like a horror story mixed with a generational family saga sort of a thing. And before that, it was YA paranormal. Somewhere in there was a crime thriller, but not so much on the crime. Well, a little crime, but more like a man on a personal journey but gets involved with a crime thing by accident. And I have some short stories, but they’re a lot of different things.”
My answers were all over the place, and I didn’t like it. Nobody asks John le Carré or Danielle Steel that question because over 100 books collectively in 40 years speak for themselves. Just look at the book covers featuring either weapons or Fabio-type models respectively and you’ll have your answer.
My friend Heidi Sieverding, author of what she definitively calls
“sexy horror,” has published eleven titles and has more than three dozen in her library of books written. If you were to ask her, “So, what do you write?” BAM. She’d give you an answer.
I love to follow villains rather than heroes. What’s it like in a villain’s head? How’s he tick? How does he see the world, his family and the “good guys”? My obsession with villains makes me unique. I don’t write the perfect romantic storyline, or follow any kind of rules. I like to break rules and stretch limits. Especially when it comes to what defines a “vampire.” I’ve been both praised and criticized for my fresh, modern take on that subject.
Her growing collection shows she’s clearly more prolific and successful than I am, and that’s beyond admirable. I am jealous of her ability to know exactly what she writes and how she writes, but I realize now that I’m just not the same kind of writer she is. That’s neither bad nor good, just different. She knows what she likes, has developed solid characters that are akin to being her best friends, and greatly enjoys writing about them. Her production is connected to how clearly she can define what she writes as well as how much she loves writing in general. She has carved out a niche, and her loyal fans know what to expect from her.
I love writing too, but I don’t have such a clear direction of what I like to write about. I haven’t been lucky enough – or willing to do the necessary work– to create on-going characters or fantasy worlds with which to create multiple books. Sieverding goes after books like a bowler goes after bowling pins. Maybe twenty years ago I could have done that, but not today. I wait for stories to come to me, which is why I can’t clearly define myself as a writer. I write stories, but the kind of stories each will be can’t be determined until the next one comes to me. I’ll explain later the process of how they come to me. For now, the good part is I have figured out a better answer to the question, “So, what do you write?” To explain it, I need to ask a music question.
Question: “Are you a fan of (insert name of music artist/band)?”
Answer: “Yeah, I used to, but I only like the old stuff.”
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this answer in response to a question about Bruce Springsteen. “Well, I loved his first few records, but then after Born in the USA, he started getting too serious for me.” That was the new complaint, he had turned serious. The old complaint was that all he sang about were “cars and girls.” Well, yeah, in a way, but, so?
The complainers had missed that on his Born to Run album, he wrote from the perspective of a 25-year old and his girl contemplating their future while wandering the streets in the middle of the night. On his album Nebraska, he wrote through the mind of a struggling 32-year old hoping to convince his girl to risk the end of their savings in an Atlantic City casino. On Human Touch, he wrote as a lonely 43-year old pained at the sight of his former girl walking with her new love. On Devils and Dust, he put himself in the shoes of a 56-year old who had gotten another shot at love and promised himself he wasn’t “going to fuck it up this time.” You get the idea.
Springsteen is not going to be like Aerosmith or the Rolling Stones, bands that create songs as if they are still in their 20’s and write about what 20-year olds want to hear. Don’t get me wrong, those are fabulous bands, but they are limited in their art. They are the equivalent of Van Gogh recreating “The Starry Night” over and over again but from slightly different angles each time. Thus becomes the dilemma of an artist. Do you create according to what you think people want, or do you create art according what your own wants and inspirations?
For some writers, it’s the same thing, and that’s a blessing. For Heidi, only in her late 20’s, she’s lucky in that both are happening. She’s writing what her creative mind is guiding her to write, which is also what her fans want right now. Lately, she’s branched over to sports titles instead of just the horror thing, so she’s already growing from her own, unique genre. Twenty years from now, who knows? Both she and those same fans might want something completely different, unlike Danielle Steel who has made millions writing the same thing for over 40 years.
How does all this help me answer the question, “So, what do you write?” Here’s how. I don’t write or seek to write in a genre. I write what comes to me. I’m not ever going to say, “Oh, I’m waiting for the muses to bring me inspiration!” No, that’s not how I work. I write when I look at something and wonder, “What interesting thing could happen here?”
1. In my 20’s I wrote my first book, a middle grade story called Grandpa’s Watch, in which a boy is accidentally drawn into the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. Why did I write that? I visited Gettysburg, walked the battlefields, and wondered, “What interesting thing could happen here?” It wasn’t planned. It happened.
2. In my 30’s I wrote my second book, a YA paranormal called Lizzie’s Journal in which a teenage girl moves into a new house and meets the ghost of teenage girl who was murdered in the same house. That came about while looking at houses with a realtor and wondering, “What interesting thing could happen here?”
3. In my 40’s I wrote Room 317, an introspective thriller about a loner who contemplates suicide until stumbling upon a situation that called for someone to be willing to risk his own life to save others. That came to me after looking back at my own life’s troubles and wondering, “What if I had done a few things differently?”
4. In my mid 40’s I wrote a paranormal/horror/family saga called The Curse, about a sleeping demon from an 1800’s farm that wakes up in the present when his domain is disturbed. That came about when I was sitting in my bedroom and looked out at the development in which I lived, a place that had previously been a farm, and I wondered, “What interesting thing could happen here?”
5. In my late 40’s I wrote a ghost story called Connecting Flight that will be published January of 2015. It’s about two people who die in a plane crash but can’t get into heaven. It came about after reading a news report about a plane crash. Then I wondered, “What if two people were holding hands and prayed really hard that they wouldn’t die?”
6. Written after I turned 50, my yet-to-be-published story called Woodbury Avenue is about a stalker who moves into a quiet suburban neighborhood. It was written after I moved into a quiet suburban neighborhood, and I wondered, “What if a psycho-stalker bought this house instead of someone ‘normal’ like me?”
7. My current work in progress, Time, is a time travel story because I’ve always wanted to write a time travel story. The only thing that had been holding me back was the “What if?” moment, which came to me back in the spring.
I’m not sure how to categorize my next story, but it will likely be called Apple. It came to me recently when I was driving through farmland while eating an apple. When finished, I threw the core from my car into the dirt on the side of the road. Then I wondered, “What if someone came along who was so hungry he had to eat that apple core?”
“So, what do you write?”
I write what comes to me when I look at the world around me and see something powerful enough to make me wonder “What interesting thing – be it positive or negative – could happen here?” I don’t write in a comfortable genre even though agents, publishers, and readers prefer that. They want a string of titles similar enough to market them to a faithful audience. I know that, but I can’t write in the same genre over and over because – to me – it would be like writing the same story over and over. That’s not a knock on anyone who writes that way. It’s only a knock on myself because my way will limit my success.
Consider this before starting your next story. Open your mind. See what comes to you. Look at things nearby while you’re driving. Observe things. Bend things. Twist things. If you pick yourself up and put yourself into unfamiliar places where you will see new things, you might be pleasantly surprised at what you take with you when you come out on the other side.