Monday, February 15, 2016

Writing Advice Examined: Should you write the book of your heart?

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series and the Ellie Sweet books. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

When I planned to write this post, I didn't even realize that it would fall so close to Valentine's Day! The reason it kept coming to mind had less to do with the calendar and more to do with my copy of the children's book Arthur Writes A Story that sits on my office shelf.

I had never read Arthur books until McKenna started elementary school and brought them home from the library. When she pulled Arthur Writes A Story from her backpack and read it to me, I grew teary. And then bought a copy for my self.


Here's a brief summary of the story. Arthur is given a class assignment to write a story. Any kind of story. Arthur knows exactly what he wants to write aboutwhen he got his puppy. 

He writes his story, and then he reads it to his little sister. DW declares that it's boring and that if she were writing a book, she would write about getting an elephant.

Feeling insecure, Arthur rewrites his story. The next day at school, he shows it to a friend and asks if he likes the part about the elephant puppies. His friend says it was okay, but that he's chosen to write about outer space.

Arthur rewrites his story to be about elephants in outer space.

He talks to another friend. This friend is focused on writing a well-research, scientifically accurate story. This leads to another revision. We now have elephants in outer space and Arthur uses all scientific names for them.

Another friend is putting jokes in her story. Arthur revises.

Another kid is writing her story as a song. Arthur revises. He even adds a dance.

When the assignment is due and Arthur shares his story song complete with dance in front of the class, everyone gives him a befuddled look. The kids push him on why he wrote it and Arthur shares that originally he wrote about how he got his puppy. They ask if he'll tell that story. Arthur then tells them the original story—the one he started off trying to tellwith the enthusiasm that we naturally have when we're sharing a story we care about. His classmates enjoy it more than the story he wrote trying to please everyone else. The end.

McKenna thought I was a bit weird to cry at Arthur Writes A Story, but the story resonated. I was in the midst of edits on my first historical YA novel—a book that was galaxies away from my comfort zoneand I was getting blasted from all directions with advice. Some had even advised against writing it, but I had anyway.

I wrote it because it was a story idea I loved, that I felt I had to write. Often writers describe stories like this as books of the heart.



Writers like to say you should write the book of your heart. Forget the market! Telling your story is all that matters! But is this good advice?

Maybe. Quoting my brilliant friend, Shannon Dittemore, "What kind of writer do you want to be?"

Do you care more about making money or about making art? In a perfect world, you get to do both. But if you had to pick, which is it? Either answer is fine, so long as it's honest.

Because our blog is for young writers, and since most young writers are more about art than about money, and since I don't really know much about making tons of money with writing, I'll talk to those who answer, "making art."

Just like the plotter or pantser question, most published writers I know are hybrids, including me. I want to write books I love and care about. I also want them to be published, and I enjoy being paid for my time.

That's why when I approach a new story idea, I always start with what story I want to tellJill wrote a lovely article on premise last weekand then I think about if I can make it an idea that will sell.

My story ideas tend to fall into three categories:

1. That sounds fun, but it would be tough to sell for reason x, y, and z.
2. I think that's a really marketable premise... but I don't know that I'm excited enough to write it.
3. I love this idea. And I think if I tweak this and this, I could sell it.

I've written quite a few of #1. Wow, I had fun with those. They will probably sit on my hard drive for the next 10 or so years.

I've written two in the #2 category. One of them, the trend swung the other way, so it's now become completely unsellable. The other I could sell. Maybe it would even do pretty well. But I just don't care enough to do the hard work.

But #3 is always the target I'm aiming for these days. Stories that fall in the purple space:


"Purple stories" land in the beautiful overlap of stories I love to write and stories readers love to buy.

Here's an example of what writing purple looks like in real life. When I first started writing YA, one of the problems I had was my main character's age. In the first draft of the book that became Me, Just Different, Skylar was in 8th grade. That's a great age for a middle grade story, but my book was YA in its maturity level.

When I realized this at a writer's conference, I could've dug in my heels. I could've said, "No, this is the book of my heart, and in my heart Skylar is in 8th grade." But I felt Skylar's age was a small thing. It was a change that would make my book easier to sell, but I would still be telling the story I wanted.

Maybe you don't want to write purple. Maybe you want your stories to stay firmly in the red. If you get published, fine. If not, that's fine too, but you don't want to change your story for anybody. Totally fine!

At every writers conference I've attended, there have been writers who feel that way ... but also would really like their book to be published. So can I throw out a few words of caution for those of you who only care about writing the book of your heart but also want to find an audience?

Don't get angry at publishers for not publishing your book: If you write a book just for you, it's unfair to get all annoyed at publishers for not seeing the value in it. Publishing is a business. If you want a publisher to buy your book, you have to show them that it's a good investment. The same is true for if you self-publish. Why should a reader plop down their money to read the book of your heart? If your primary goal was to make art, then you have to rest in the fact that you did that, and any money you make is just a nice perk.

Also, don't shut out constructive critics: Some writers like to point to The Help by Kathryn Stockett as a writer who wrote the book of her heart and had such a passion for it that the book eventually sold and was a crazy bestseller.

What writers tend to overlook when they pull out that story is how many revisions the author did. When she received rejections and feedback, she rewrote. Over and over she did this. And that book is a beautiful work of art, not despite her incorporating that feedback, but because of it.

Good critique partners and editors don't want to strip away what makes your book great. Their job is to make sure your vision of the story is being transmitted clearly to the reader.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic! Also, if you're participating in the February challenge, I'd love to know how it's going!




38 comments:

  1. I am going to try to pants this Camp Nano!

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  2. I needed this today. I've been excited to participate in the February challenge but waffling between which project I should use. Question answered, I suppose! : D

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  3. Hey Stephanie! I totally get what you're saying. The first "novel" I ever wrote was TOTALLY in the red zone. I loved my setting and my characters so much that I didn't notice/care that they were all stereotypes and my plot was as repetitive as they come...I'm trying to do better now with weaving the topics that are dear to my heart in with more generally appealing, unique storylines. Thanks for the reminder, though, to make my work appealing to the general audience (because I really, REALLY want to be published someday!)

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    1. It can be such a tough balance! A lot of writers - myself included - have books that we wrote early on that are so dear to us but we know aren't right for publication. We learn with each book though, don't we?

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    2. Yeah, but, all of a sudden, this whole thing doesn't seem so simple! See, I've started something new (and I mean BRAND NEW) and I made the awful mistake of showing someone the very first draft of my first chapter. Yes, I knew that you all say not to do that, but I suppose I'm a closet rebel. ;-) Long story short, they didn't love it and told me they thought the one book (the one I mentioned above) was better. The problem? I agree!! It might be riddled with stereotypes but I worked through it so many times. That cliched novel, that book of my heart, became SO, SO dear to me I can hardly let go and write anything else without missing it. Yes, I know it sounds over-dramatic, but I honestly feel that way! So basically now, that book has tugged on my heart strings and I'm debating whether I should try and salvage it or wipe it from my memory. If only it wasn't so cliched...is there someone on this blog who could help me brainstorm ways to add in a unique twist? I appreciate anyone's input!!

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  4. Great! I totally agree with you! I also have thought a lot about it. Thanks!

    joshlife333.wordpress.com

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    1. Josh, I just visited your blog and realized I started my blog, fishing4ideas.blogspot.com, the exact same day you started yours! I just thought that was funny... I'm weird like that! :):)

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  5. February Challenge is going great! I missed one day, but caught up the next. Great post, by the way!

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    1. That's awesome, Sarah! I was doing great until I got sick. That tends to zap away creative energy :(

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  6. Great post! this is one of my favorite writing topics! (sorry if the comment's a bit long)

    I actually only heard the term "book of your heart" a few months ago, but as soon as I figured out the definition, I instantly knew which book the book of my heart was. the question of art or money is so hard because this is a story that you don't want to change at all. (I had to change some names a few years ago when it occurred to me that I could actually write this, and even a small detail like that was hard to do.)

    I think a main thing that puts a story in one catagory or another is how much we care about the characters. most of the novels in the blue or purple area have great plots and characters, but not ones that we spend every minute with in our minds. the story's in the red area for me are not even stories, but a group of characters with a kinda plot (not really) that I love like family.

    ~K.A.C.

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    1. What an interesting perspective, Katie. Thank you for sharing!

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  7. This is such a great post. So many times writers write what they want to and don't want anyone to tell that it could be made better or more sellable by changing some things. If you want to get published, it's important to keep an open and willing mind about changes. Sometimes the changes might even be for the better.

    The February challenge is going great!! I already had an idea for the #WeWriteBooks challenge, but now I have a ton more tucked away in a notebook for future use.

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    1. It can be very hard to keep an open mind about changing things in your book. That's one reason why I've found it so valuable to take long breaks between edits. I'm much more open to change when I didn't JUST write the thing.

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  8. I love this post! I've always written what I've wanted to write, but it's easy to see how you can so easily fall into strict red or blue, seeing publishing vs. art/self-discovery as the end goal. The balance is tough, but I like a good challenge. You probably have to if you want to be a writer. Lot of heartbreak there.

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    1. It's not for the faint of heart, that's for sure!

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  9. Great post! I didn't participate in this month's challenge, but would in the next :).

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    1. We'll be glad to have you whenever it works for your schedule!

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  10. Great post! I actually think the book I'm working on now is 'a book of my heart', but I'm trying to keep the plot original and exciting. I really love my characters too :P

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    1. Lovable characters and an original/exciting plot is a winning combination :)

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  11. I love this post! I try to write stories that fall into the purple zone, but it can definitely be difficult at times.

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  12. I'm currently writing the first draft of my book, and my biggest worry is it won't get published because the main character is an elf and does things that a lot of people wouldn't do.

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    1. If you do a good job with character motivation, that can work well :)

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    2. Character motivation can do wonders:) I have an elf MC, but my WIP has five MCs (only one elf). I had trouble keeping things original at first, but after rewriting the first chapter four times I nailed it (for a first draft anyhow). Keep up the good work, as long as the character is leading you, you can't go wrong, even if they happen to like rabbit holes:)

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  13. I always seem to write things I love, maybe because I just don't have enough enthusiasm for other stuff, but thankfully I love editing too! And the February challenge is going great.

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    1. I also love editing. Actually, my favorite tends to be whatever I'm not doing at the time :) When I'm in the first draft, I'm thinking, "I just want to get this story down so I can work on making it better in edits!" And in edits I'm thinking, "I wish I was writing new stuff instead of just fixing old stuff!"

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    2. I'm the same. ;)

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  14. For me, I definitely want to write in the purple. I would LOVE to be published someday, but I also want the book I publish to be the book I love :).
    I have been having a lot of fun with the February challenge ... though sometimes I forget to write down an idea for the day and end up writing that day's story idea down around midnight XD. But I've had a couple ideas so far that I absolutely love, so I'm really glad you started this challenge, Mrs. Morrill.

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    1. I'm so glad you're having fun with it, Savannah!

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  15. I want the overlap: stories I love writing and stories people love reading.
    For the February challenge, it's going great! I had to do double one day thanks to my forgetful mind, and sometimes I do it in the middle of the night.
    Also, I have a question. In the book I'm writing, I'm not sure whether to do it in first or third person. First person has more character, but third person sounds nicer. Which one should I do?

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    1. That's tough, Josie. Maybe ask others to read it and ask for opinions? I've learned that I write best in first person, but I've tried third multiple times. Sorry I can't give you a clearer answer!

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  16. Great post today, Mrs. Morrill!

    At the moment, I'm being tempted by the red zone, but I think (although I haven't decided for sure yet) that I'll steer clear. I have an idea I love that's outside my genre of choice. Now, I know since I'm not a published writer yet, I could just ignore that roadblock, but I think I'll just recycle some parts of the idea for a different story that /is/ in my genre. (Although the few people I told the red idea to seemed to think it was awesome, so maybe I'll reconsider.)

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  17. This is probably one of my favourite posts! It can be so difficult to fit into that glorious purple zone and to be honest I usually fall under the red 'book of your heart' section. Though in a way, I don't suppose that has to be particularly tragic: as long as you're having fun writing, I think there's loads of benefits!

    Also having fun with the February challenge! I've been ill over this weekend though so I have a bit of catching up to do!

    Thanks again for a great post!

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  18. great post! So much to think about. And I love the visual of the hearts blended. Thank you~

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  19. Great blog! I really love how it is easy on my eyes and the information are well written. I am wondering how I might be notified whenever a new post has been made. I have subscribed to your rss feed which really should do the trick! Have a nice day!

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