Today’s post is excerpted from Blueprint for a Book: Build Your Novel From the Inside Out by Jennie Nash (@jennienash).
In 2013, Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats wrote down the rules for storytelling she learned while working at the legendary animation studio. I especially love Rule #14. It’s not actually a rule at all, but a question:
Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
If you’re like most writers, your story has been haunting you for quite some time. It keeps you up at night. It nags at you when you are reading other people’s stories. It pops into your head at times when it is least welcome. It wants to be told.
It can be extremely useful to know why you think it’s haunting you. There is probably some clue in your answer that holds the key to your whole story.
Why yes, I’m referencing Simon Sinek
I start with why because of Simon Sinek’s mega-selling business book, Start With Why. I have learned an enormous amount about coaching writers from reading business books, and this one is at the top of the list. If you haven’t read it, do it now. If you’re not really going to read it, then listen to Simon Sinek’s TED talk on how great leaders inspire action. It’s 18 minutes long, but even if you only listen to the first six minutes, you’ll get it, because his message is crystal clear: “People don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it.”
In other words, it’s not enough to create a product that people might want to buy, or a book that readers might want to read. Your story has to spring from a deep conviction on your part, or it risks not resonating with the readers you want to captivate.
So all this work you’re going to do on what your book will be? It actually all hinges on why you want to write it—on why it is haunting you, or why you care. If you can articulate that, it will give your story all kinds of power. Your readers will be able to feel the why.
I actually believe that not knowing the answer to why is one of the things that holds a lot of writers back. They know they like to write, they know they’re good at it, they know they have a story to tell, but they don’t know why it matters to them or what, exactly, it means to them. As a result, they write a book that doesn’t ever really get down to anything real and raw and authentic. They write pages that skate along the surface of things. And if there’s one thing readers don’t need, it’s to skate along the surface of things. That’s what social media is for.
I can already hear you protesting that a book is not a product, not a commodity. So let me ask: do you want strangers to read your book? If so, you have to write a book people will want to buy. Even before we talk about dollars and cents, we want agents, editors, and readers to buy that we have something to say worth listening to. What that means is that we want our story to be generous and alive—and that requires knowing your why.
Knowing your “why” is going deep
Listen to what literary agent Ann Rittenberg says about generosity in a speech she gave at Bennington College in 2002. I have been referencing this speech for almost twenty years, because it gets so precisely at why you need to know your why:
What kind of writer can make characters [you care about]? I think the kind of writer who is not afraid to access the deepest places in himself and is not afraid to share what he comes up with. Such a writer can set those discoveries down on a page without interference from an internal tribunal. I’m sure you all have some kind of internal tribunal. It might be one voice, or it might be many, but it’s the thing that says, “You can’t do that. That’s insignificant. That doesn’t make any sense. Do you have any idea what you’re doing?”
I have a client whose writing I absolutely love, the way I love the writing of all my clients. I’ve gotten to know her well in the dozen or so years we’ve worked together, and I once told her she had no skin between herself and the outside world. Such a condition can make daily life painful, but it can also make for wonderfully particular, wonderfully alive writing. It’s writing that’s stripped bare of the kind of chatty filler that makes the writer feel more secure, that assuages the writer’s fear of what she’s seen in those deep recesses. Every sentence is pointed, to the point, a working part of the whole machine.
I see plenty of writing that has kernels of good in it, but it’s hedged around with so much tentativeness or uncertainty or excess or stinginess, that it doesn’t allow the outsider—the reader—in. It doesn’t reveal the character. And if I can’t find a chink in the wall, I know that the agent/author relationship isn’t going to be successful.
Yet when I read something that speaks to me, that absorbs me, that remains vividly in my head even when I’m not reading it, I’ve been intimate with the person who wrote it before I’ve even met him. This isn’t to say I know anything about him. I only know he or she is the kind of writer who’s willing to explore the deep essence of character….
You can see why the concept of authenticity and generosity of spirit is so important to writing fiction, so the very first thing to do is to get honest with yourself about your why. Dig deep and write one page on why you must write this book. What does it mean to you? Why does it matter? Why do you care?
Note that asking why you must write this book is different from asking why you are writing a book or what you want from the experience. Your motivation probably has to do with any number of things—fame, money, leaving a legacy, or proving to yourself or someone else that you can do it. Writers want to write! We want to raise our voice and be heard! We want to make an impact on readers the way writers have impacted us. The vast number of writers I work with say that they want to write a book before they die. It’s often a thing they have dreamed about doing since they were very young. These are powerful and important motivations, and I am all for knowing the answer to these questions—what you want out of writing a book, what your goal is, what you would consider success.
But for the Blueprint, we are talking about the why for this particular story. Why do you want to write this specific book? Why do you care? Because if you know why you care, your readers will get it, too.