Monday, September 19, 2011

Write what you love

There are some writers who only read and write in one genre. For example, I have a good friend who only reads realistic, literary fiction. She read the first two Harry Potter books and gave up. They were good, but they just weren't her thing, she wasn't interested.

Then there are people who read almost everything put in front of them. Literary fiction, sci-fi, comic books, horror, historical fiction... And yes, that has been my reading list for the past month! Everyone has things they can't get excited about, but most writers I know fall into this latter category: we'll read just about anything as long as it's good.

So, if we're not a sci-fi gal, or a historical fiction guy, how do we decide what to write? Especially if publishers are going to expect us to stick more or less to the same genre with each book? I've struggled with this before (Do you read what you write?), but this past year I've managed to stumble across some good answers, so I thought I would share those with you.

Betsy Lerner in her book The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers encourages writers simply to look at what they read, especially at what they return to over and over again. I found this advice maddening at first, given my omnivorous appetite for books, but on reflection it made more and more sense. There are commonalities in the things I love. It's not a genre, unfortunately. I can't get off so easily and say I want to be a realistic, literary writer. But the books I love do have plenty of similarities.

John Truby in his book The Anatomy of Story (which I reviewed two weeks ago) has a more general approach. He encourages writers in search of an idea to make a list of "everything you would like to see up on the screen, in a book, or at the theater. It's what you are passionately interested in, and it's what entertains you." Agents do this frequently in trying to describe their interests to potential clients. Why can't we as writers do the same?

Then there's this genius writing exercise from genius author Laurie Halse Anderson. Make a list of the things you're most afraid of. Use one in a story. Talk about a foolproof way to inject passion into your writing!

This past month I've done all three of these exercises. And combined them into one giant list of the things I'm passionate about (passionate with love or fear, all the same list!). So when my current idea was ticking off several items on the list, I knew I had a winner. Further, amongst all the commonalities, I was beginning to get a very good sense of the type of writer I wanted to be. Even better? The list is a keeper. I can see dozens of other ideas emerging from it.

Do you have a clear and defined genre? If not, how do you decide what to write? Any other suggestions?


  1. I must try this. Combining commonalities, what you're passionate about, and what you're most afraid is a brilliant triad to learn who you are as a writer, as opposed to who you think you are. This is excellent Anne! Thanks so much for this post :)

  2. Andrea: Aw, thanks, so happy I could share! It really has been a huge help to me. And you're right, raw, in depth journaling like this really does separate who we think we are from who we actually are.

  3. Anne,
    Three great exercises to try!
    Actually one of my first pub credits was a poem in Once Upon a Time. It was on the very topic of deciding what to write. I often have competing characters trying to get my attention. It isn't easy to decide!

  4. This is very interesting. I started out writing "contemporary" but I mostly read horror/thriller/mysteries with a little speculative fiction in the mix.

    Now, I find that my writing fills "closer" when I write about these subjects.

    It's weird but in a way, I always thought I wouldn't want to write dark but it suits me well.

  5. Just when I think I know what my genre is, a totally different idea strikes. I think I'll always love to read and write fantasy the most, but I'm finding that my writing tastes are starting to become as varied as my reading tastes. It's sort of fun, actually.

  6. I just write what I feel. It can be tempting to try to mold a piece into a specific genre, but in the end, there's no forcing it.

  7. Angela: Thanks! So nice to know I'm not the only writer struggling with this. Though I'm unfortunately not as poetic about it! ;)

    Karen: That is interesting! Did the switch stumble upon you, or did you consciously try to write something else? It's funny that it can be so hard to figure out what's inside us that will allow us to tell the best stories.

    Anna: Lucky you that you can make it work! Someday when I grow up, I want to be that type of writer, too. ;)

    Luv: That's so true, whatever we right, it has to come from us. But unfortunately agents and publishers still want to know what shelf we're going to end up on.

  8. I'd be interested to hear some of your commonalities! :)


  9. Linzey: Oh dear, that almost feels like sharing my underwear size! ;) But a fair question! I'll see if I can figure out how to work some of it into a blog post.


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