Listen to your heart- a case for following your writer instincts

By: Jaime Dill

As soon as schools start wrapping up and ice cream parlors reopen doors, I want one thing only– to read a beachy, summer romance. It’s horribly cliche and extra funny given the fact that I rarely read romance novels. Yet, here I am, finished with Sixteenth Summer by Michelle Dalton and craving another.

I started Sixteenth Summer (published 2011) as a linguistic study, focused on comparing its morphemic details and modern register with 1942 Seventeenth Summer by Mauren Daly. Comparing Young Adult language through the decades of its development has been a thrilling project. But in the end, the coastal love story pulled me in for leisure, and I loved every second.

The question is– why? It’s important to me as a book coach to always ask why a story is a success and to translate that into an example for transforming client drafts into amazing books. Dozens of story-tellers have made a career of formulating such advice and selling it (my favorite being Story Genius by Lisa Cron.) But with all these helpful critics and teachers in a writer’s mind, it’s easy to over-complicate the process of making a story irresistible.

Let me explain.

Sixteenth Summer is not a unique concept by any stretch. Girl meets guy. They fall into like, then love, then must find a way to make it last. Except, it’s only for the summer, so they’re doomed from the start. I know what I’m getting before I read the first page– an exhilarating fall and devastating end, accented with kisses on the sand and laughter in the waves. It’s more than annoying for anyone with distaste for predictability and a love story without a happily ever after.

So what held me captive?

Simple– I wanted the experience, the bits I can’t have and the ones I want to relive.

See, I love the coast. A lot. And this North Carolina girl is every bit as southern as Dalton’s Georgian Dune Island. The setting is a place I desperately want to escape to every year but usually can’t, whether because of time, money, or you know, an unpredictable pandemic that turned 2020 into the stuff of nightmares. So much about the story formulation was forgivable because I was too busy enjoying the character’s salty hair, her local prowess for knowing where to find the GOOD fish fry, her bare toes in the surf. I lived vicariously through her ocean eyes.

And then there was the love. Lately, I’m busy polishing drafts and answering interviews for my poetry collection, set to release June 2021. It’s called I Remember Us and features reflective pieces of love in its infancy. The falling is a whirlwind, one that develops into something steady and mature before we can fully process what is happening. Perhaps this is why I constantly want to relive it, to conjure up old emotions and see if butterflies in the stomach still exist.

I am not a young teen looking at Dalton’s characters to discern some way to navigate new and scary feelings provoked by the cute guy in third period. But I am someone who married their high school sweetheart and loves stories reminiscent of that time. This makes me part of a legitimate but small audience group– the one you didn’t think of.

In other words, your writing will be irresistible to people whom you never imagined or predicted. Knowing your target and catering to their expectations is an important part of writing for marketability. But we’ve got to stop acting like that’s the only important aspect of telling a story. If queried today, Dalton’s island fling would be called boring, overdone, and without enough stakes (or sex). I know that book would be rejected in a heartbeat.

And I still loved it.

The fact we often forget when we buy up all these books that mean to teach us how to get rich from writing stories is that those books were written to make money too. The intentions may be genuine and influenced by a love for teaching, but as a whole, it’s much like the irony of blogs that are mega successful because they blog about how to blog. (Pro tip: If you want to boost your author platform, write about how to boost your author platform.)

I started this post by saying I’m a book coach, so my point can’t possibly be that resources and educators are useless and bad. Far from it. However, I don’t believe it is healthy for a writer to forsake their writing instincts (underdeveloped or not) to implement and impose a laundry list of tips and tricks. You have to remember– these role models are publishing about THEIR writing methods. You may connect with one or a few and absorb them straight into your writer bloodstream. But you can’t possibly do that with them all. Otherwise, your writing will certainly have a personality disorder.

We have to start giving ourselves more credit and follow our writing compulsions wherever they want us to go. Reading Dalton, I wasn’t in it because she followed the perfect 3-act structure or because she religiously listened to every word from Save the Cat Writes a Novel (which was published in 2018, well after Dalton. But that’s beside the point.)

I was in it because I wanted something the character had. How do you know what you’re writing is something readers want? Well, you can’t know, at least not by name or any quantifiable number. But YOU want it. And trust me, you are not so special that you are the only living soul who does. Trust in the audience that you can’t see. It’s not pretentious or naively stupid to fantasize and stay motivated by your imagined future readers. Those people really do exist. They’re just in the future. Don’t let them down because you were too busy catering to everyone in your present.

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