So, What’s In It For You? Or, How To Not Quit
I know what you are thinking, if you have read some of my earlier contributions to this award-winning blog. “Oh, no, he’s going to make me get out a calculator and see if the midpoint of my novel is really a watershed, or make a big nasty chart that shows where all of my characters are in every chapter.”
Nope. Last time I promised the end of deconstructionism and I will hold to that.
As I write this I’m surrounded by smoke and the sounds of slot machines. I’m in a Vegas casino, writing while my friend and my wife gamble. And I am asking a question that we all have asked at one time or another — why am I doing this? Why am I here when I could be playing Texas Hold ‘Em? I love the game and learned poker literally at my father’s knee.
We all face those moments, where the story falls on its face and even you don’t care what happens to the characters. You think, “I have to finish Chapter X tomorrow when I could be at the beach, or I could be watching House Hunters International or reading the new James Lee Burke or Eloisa James.” (And I want to know why those times are so often at 2:00 am when the house is cold and dark and your characters have suddenly quit talking to you.)
I think the hardest thing about writing is . . . writing. Putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. It’s more fun to read blogs, go to conventions, and think about good stories. Way more fun.
However, that road does not lead to The End.
For more than half my life I made my living writing training and documentation. I specialized in large systems, neat stuff like the Army’s Tactical Computer System and the Navy’s ASROC Loader Crane. I could tell you all about them except a) you would fall asleep and b) if you didn’t fall asleep I’d have to kill you.
But I can tell you the single most important thing about training adults. It’s the WIIFM — what’s in it for me? To learn something, adults have to see the value in the learning.
So, let’s talk about what’s in it for you. First, a basic assumption: there is value in writing, in telling a story. With that as a given, all we need to do is shine a light on that value.
To keep writing, you have to see the value of what you are doing. Try these rules, guides, or mantras; use them as stepping stones to identify why you write when the path gets muddy.
1. I write because I have things to say. I think about the world around me and relationships and want to speak out.
In my case, if I am pressed, I will admit that I write to talk about violence in society and a moral individual’s response to it and, even more, the difficulty of finding, establishing, and maintaining a loving relationship with another individual. (Yikes! Did I say that? I write thrillers with girls and guns and fast cars.)
2. I want to entertain. Too much of life is unpleasant, or boring and I want to take my readers’ minds off that, if even for a little while.
See parenthetical comment above.
3. I write because I started the novel, story, poem, whatever and I will finish it, come what may.
In poker, if you don’t bet, you can’t win. In writing, you can’t sell/publish/attract an audience if you don’t finish your manuscript.
4. I write because I have fallen in love with my characters and their stories demand to be told.
This one’s tricky. I truly care about Heather Rubinsky and Katerina Kohl, two Las Vegas showgirls who showed up in one of my books. I probably hurt their feelings when I had to cut much of their backstory. (And you are the one audience to whom I can say that and who will understand that I think of them as real. When I say things like that on panel discussions, people tend to smile nervously and move away. On the other hand, you get it.)
5. I write because I like it. I like telling stories.
Works for me. I like storytelling.
Did I warn you there would be a quiz? No? Bummer! There’s a quiz. Here it is:
6. I write because… (insert YOUR thoughts here, or down in comments.)
The hardest thing about writing is . . . writing.
As Michael Corleone said in The Godfather, “It’s all personal.” You have your own reasons for writing, and your own benefits from doing so.
I believe giving some thought to articulating what you are getting out of all this work, and time spent staring off into space thinking, “What happens next?”, will help keep you going. And after you think about it — or maybe you already have — share your thoughts and help another writer. Please! Fill in Number Six and tell us about it. We’re all in this together.
Think about WIIFM — What’s In It For Me. Articulate that benefit and remember it for those times when your heroine has fallen in love with the hero’s wastrel brother and stamps her pretty little foot when you try to tell her otherwise. “I am doing this because . . . Her story deserves to be told, even if she is a foot-stamping little fllibertigibet. And I am the one to tell it.”
My father taught me many important things. Once when we were in Vegas I complained (I really wasn’t whining, at least not much and anyway he was my Dad and required to listen) that I had lost at blackjack. He said, “James, you’re really not here to win. You’re here to play!”
Let’s be honest — the vast majority of us will not show up in the New York Times Bestseller List. So what? Not all of the books on the list are good, and not all good books are on the list. Figuring out what’s in it for you will help at those times when you wonder what on earth possessed you to think you could write. You can do it.
James R. Preston is the author of the award-winning Surf City Mysteries. There are four books in the series so far: Leave a Good-Looking Corpse, Read ‘Em And Weep, The Road to Hell, and Pennies For Her Eyes. The new Surf City Mystery is called Correction and will be launched later this year. James’ next appearance will be November in Long Beach at Bouchercon, the national mystery convention. His work has been selected for inclusion in UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library Special Collection, California Detective Fiction. In Vegas during the completion of this blog he made the final table in one tournament and took first place in another. His father taught him well.