Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Creative Life: Write the book you want to read.

Technique Tuesday

At one level, Austin Kleon's third suggestion, "Write the book you want to read," (from How to Steal Like an Artist) sounds like simply a variation on the common writing advice to not chase trends.

Why is that advice so common? Or, more to the point, why do we need to repeat it so often?

It all comes down to Return on Investment.

A novel requires a substantial investment of time and energy. As relatively rational economic actors, we all would like some assurance that we'll receive a return on that investment at least equal to our opportunity costs. (Or, in simpler terms, we'd love to know if we're wasting our time.)

Writing to a trend is seductive because we can point to a proven market.

But consider. If through means fair or foul you acquired a time machine just long enough to pop back to, say, 1995 and tell your younger self that a story about an eleven-year-old boy going off to a boarding school for wizards was a sure thing, how likely is it that you would have a castle in Scotland now?

It's not the idea, but the execution (as we've also frequently pointed out).

So we're back to square one: how do you know that your book will be worth the effort?

Kleon's answer gets to the heart of the matter:
The question every young writer asks is: “What should I write?”
And the cliched answer is, “Write what you know.”
This advice always leads to terrible stories in which nothing interesting happens.
The best advice is not to write what you know, it’s write what you *like*.
The best way to find the work you should be doing is to think about the work you want to see done that isn’t being done, and then go do it.
No one really knows what's going to work. (If they did, the major corporations that own the big publishers would manufacture all the best-sellers and shut us would-be scribblers out of the market.)

You might sigh, nod, and say, "I suppose if I write the book I want, then at least one person will like it."

That's true in a minimal sense, but Kleon's advice captures something more powerful and empowering: if you like it--if the story really speaks to you--then others will like it too because most people don't know what they like until an artist shows them.

Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


  1. "How likely is it that you'd have a castle in Scotland now?" This is great! I love the way your mind works!

  2. Lacie,

    Thank you.

    I confess: I'm particularly susceptible to brain flattery.

  3. I so agree that you've got to write something you like. Because you'll be with it for a LONG time.


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