In today's tough publishing industry, so tenuously held aloft by shredding economic tethers, this question has never been more relevant. If you are trying to earn money from your writing, you've hopefully given some thought to answering this question. If your answer is "My book is just like Nora Roberts," you're on thin ice—Nora Roberts is already doing that quite well, thank you.
What do you have to offer the world? How can you make your writing important enough to sustain you through what may become many lean years? How can you discover your true material, that story that only you can write? The following questions, answered quickly, might lead you in a useful direction.
1. Let’s say you’re going to write a fictional story. Is your main character a man or woman? Why?
Humans are intensely interested in this primal question: Is it a boy or a girl? And if it's not clear, or a bit of both? Ooh, even more intriguing!
2. What was happening the last time you cried? The last time you laughed so hard you couldn’t breathe? The last time you were so angry that you want to hurt someone?
This speaks to what moves you. And what moves you will move your readers.
3. People write for many reasons. Why do you write? What are you seeking?
Circle all that apply:
- Part-time income
- Pain relief
- To inspire others/self
- To entertain
- To learn
- To work something through
- To educate
- Other: _____________________
This question speaks to how you define "what matters."
4. What are you interested in writing—a journal, articles, an essay, memoir, novel (if so, what kind?), nonfiction book, poetry?
Different genres reveal your concerns by raising different questions. Will the hero and heroine get together? Who will win the war? How will inner conflict be resolved? Will evil be vanquished?
Science fiction, like a nonfiction book, might ask how technology will impact this problem. A memoir, like a novel, might ask how the character will prevail against the odds. An article might ask who else suffers with this problem, and what solution current research supports. A poem might ask how one image can represent a truth about the world, or what our senses can be trusted to tell us. Journal entries might ask how the writer will ever sort through the mess of her life. An essay might ask how the author's perspective can impact others.
5. What “real characters” have you known in your life? Who have you truly admired, literary or real? Who have you reviled? What details set them apart?
Characters you feel deeply about can lead you toward your true story material.
6. What makes a house a home? What room do you love most in your home (think of details that support your answer)? Is there a place outside that you particularly love (use details)? Is there a city, building, outdoor space, or room in your world or story that is “hot” (rife with conflict)? Why?
This speaks to the way the settings we choose reveal us, as authors and characters. The central setting in Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist J.R. Moehringer's memoir, The Tender Bar, is a barroom occupied the men who raised him within it; Moehringer ghost-wrote Andre Agassi's autobiography, Open, where the author plays out inner conflict on the tennis court.
7. Complete this sentence: everything changed in my life the day that ______________. What life experiences can you draw from? How have they shaped you? How did these events reveal your character?
This is an inciting incident: the moment beyond which all changes, that raises a question for your protagonist and your reader and tips him into the story. What happened that mattered so much it tipped you into the story of your life?
8. Stories are best told through the eyes of an “outsider.” When were you an outsider? When were you an insider, and what outsiders impacted you?
This speaks to a powerful point of view—the perspective of your story. Readers will relate to this perspective because at some point or another we've all felt the pain of being an outsider.
9. What philosophies and religious notions shape the way you believe the way the world works? What life experiences impacted them? Compare before and after.
You don't have to work hard to build philosophical underpinnings into your story. They will simply be there, revealed in every decision you make. Identifying the beliefs revealed through your story, however—even after they reveal themselves to you in the first draft—will help you make the most of them.
10. Think of a story you like to share about your own life. Think of a favorite movie. Now think of a favorite book. What do all three have in common?
What does this say about what matters to you?
**BONUS: You wrote ten books before you died, and now your fans have gathered at your funeral. What would you like them to say about you?
I'll share my bonus answer: At the end of my life, should I be so lucky as to have a group of readers at my grave to see me off, I hope they'll say, "Those books were so her."
How about you?
Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Formerly a dance critic and arts journalist, she now writes women's fiction and memoir. The first chapter of her memoir, Standoff at Ronnie's Place, modified as a stand-alone essay, has been published online by Mason's Road, the online journal of Fairfield University's MFA program. She blogs about Healing through Writing.