By Amy Sterling Casil
“What do you want to write when you grow up?”
This question can only be answered by the individual author. What makes you most passionate? What do you believe in, care about, wish for, hope for, dream about? What nightmare do you wish to banish? What great love do you wish to feel? In what manner will you present your most closely-held hopes and dreams to others?
Much of what J.R.R. Tolkien was obsessed about has been revealed to readers through the publication of his many notebooks, drawings and drafts. By now, the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit have become so enduringly popular, virtually everything Tolkien committed to any scrap of paper has been published. The simple vision of a “scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy” that J.K. Rowling had on the train in 1990 has become not only the Harry Potter books and films, but an international merchandising industry, and a world in which millions of readers and fans wish to, in some way, experience and live. That strong. That powerful. As I’ve commented before, J.K. Rowling owes a tremendous amount to Charles Dickens, who told the first stories of little orphan boys on the outside, looking in.
This essay isn’t about how stupid publishers and agents are, that they cannot seem to recognize the biggest, most enduring creative work without an extraordinary amount of prodding and/or happy/lucky accidents. All but the most isolated writers, writing individually and alone, are influenced by the larger world. Many writers spend their entire writing lives writing “what is expected.”
There are those who wrote mashups following the popularity of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies in 2009. There are those who, upon seeing the rise in popularity of urban fantasy, wrote books featuring creatures of the fantastic in gritty urban settings. Today, there are nascent Hunger Games writers, and continued legions of Harry Potter-inspired individuals telling stories of wizarding schools and benighted orphan wizards, male, female, and transgendered.
If we’re talking about big ideas here, and we are, all of these big books, in a certain respect, was a game-changer in one aspect or another, or in some cases, more than one aspect. Let’s take Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire. Vampire books were hardly the “coming thing” when that book was written in 1970. The concept of a first-person “interview” telling a vampire’s story: also somewhat of a game-changer. This simple concept enabled the life of Louis, and through Louis, Lestat, to be told and shown to the reader. If you could live hundreds of years, what would that mean? In the 70s and 80s, there was one (1) highly successful female horror writer and she remains on top in many respects: Anne Rice. It is in some ways miraculous that the book saw publication, and she was able to build the career she has today, entertaining millions of readers with her deep passion and rich perspective. The character many people most-remember from Interview With the Vampire is Claudia, the little girl vampire beloved by both Louis and Lestat. It is said that Claudia was inspired by Anne’s own daughter, who died of leukemia.
A well-known book exists, Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman. Zuckerman identifies a number of common elements to bestselling books. Nearly all of the books and authors Zuckerman covers in the book were also made into successful films. He correctly identifies common elements to bestselling novels – elements that coincidentally, cannot exist without authorial (and reader) passion. Yet even with following Zuckerman’s guidance to the letter, a mediocre book can easily be written. Because there is an indefinable personal element that can only be contributed by the writer. It can only come from the writer’s inner heart and soul. It’s “who they are” and when that goes into a book, it is a piece of greatness. It is what writing fiction is about, in its highest sense.
A writer writes from his or her heart. At some unknown later time, a reader reads it, and it becomes at that time, the reader’s own story. And the reader is moved. Delighted. Engaged. Transported. Changed.
If you, the writer, have one chance to do this to another person — a person you will likely never meet or talk to — what is it you want to say to them? What do you wish them to say to themselves? When they read your work.
One of the several gaps and flaws in the traditional publishing system is that it makes it so very difficult for the writer to truly say what it is they mean to say.
There are hundreds of years of written and creative history in which the “expected” stories are the only ones which could be told. We are familiar with the “Hero’s Journey,” dating from ancient myths and legends. For the entirety of the 19th century, there were two types of novels with female heroines: 1) she got married to the right guy; 2) she cheated and paid the price. That’s it. Variation #1 remains the basis of 75% of Harlequin’s output today. This is modified to: “She screwed the best guy and got rich” for alternative titles.
But our world is about the unexpected today. It’s the era of the individual. And guess what? Being fully-human, and being individual, is hard.
We do have room today for as many stories as there are people. Yet some things remain common to all human experience.
Where do you, writer, fit? How will you cast the story that only you can tell?
As to me, I put my family and friends in it. If you’d like to beta read Like Fire, I will send you a copy. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Because I found what I wanted to write when I grew up.
Inspired by a lifelong love of nature, endless curiosity, and a belief in wonderful things, Amy Sterling Casil is a 2002 Nebula Award nominee and recipient of other awards and recognition for her short science fiction and fantasy, which has appeared in publications ranging from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction to Zoetrope. She is the author of 26 nonfiction books, over a hundred short stories, primarily science fiction and fantasy, two fiction and poetry collections, and three novels.
She lives in Aliso Viejo, California with her daughter Meredith and a Jack Russell Terrier named Gambit. Amy is the founder of Pacific Human Capital, a founding member and treasurer of Book View Café author cooperative and former treasurer of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, and teaches writing and composition at Saddleback College, after receiving her MFA from Chapman University in 1999. She is currently engaged in founding a new publishing company for the 21st century, Chameleon Publishing.