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This post originally appeared on Medium in November 2020.
There’s been a lot of uncertainty around here of late. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I can handle much more. The good news is that if you are feeling uncertain about your book project or idea — is it good enough? am I good enough? — there is a quick exercise that can give you enough clarity to write another day.
A lot of the uncertainty we feel about our writing comes from not fully understanding why we are writing this particular piece, whether it’s a book or a blog post or an article or a email. And the bigger the project, the more important this why becomes. The looser your grasp on the reasons why you are writing a piece, the more likely you are to give up, to throw in the towel, to just say forget it.
I don’t want that for you. I know how terrible it feels, because I have done it. So today, my goal is to give you three specific questions that you should ask for every single piece you write. And, by the way, this works for any type of writing, so replace “book” with whatever project you are currently working on to get the most from this exercise.
#1: Why must you write this book?
Allow all of the reasons to arrive. Here are some of the reasons that came up when I asked this question of my new middle grade novel:
· I have this idea that won’t leave me alone.
· I want a second book that gets a bigger audience than the first one did.
· I want to try traditional publishing this time.
· I want to have a collection of books for young readers.
You can see that my answers range from shallow to more profound, from practical to almost mystical in nature.
That’s the great thing about this exercise. You will realize that you have a number of reasons that you didn’t even know were bubbling under the surface. Also — surprise! — there does not need to be just one reason! You might have 20, or 50! There will, of course, be reasons that matter more than others. But what a gift to have multiple reasons to want to do something.
Sidebar: This is the point where I tell you that I’m cheating a little bit. It is actually the same question again. I know, I know. But we’re going to zero in on one specific word.
#2: Why must you write THIS book?
This time we are looking at this specific topic, storyline, genre, structure, etc. What are the reasons that this story won’t let you go? Why is this topic so important? Why must it be written in this way?
Here are some examples that came up for me:
· I need to write this as a middle grade novel because the middle school years are perhaps the most self-absorbed of all developmental stages, and they need to hear this message about different perspectives.
· I wish I could go back to my middle school self and teach her this. I would have been able to relax!
Again, your reasons don’t have to be profound. Some of your answers may not even seem like they matter. But let them come to the surface anyway. You never know what is going to be the reasons that moves you back to the page tomorrow.
As you can probably guess, the next question is going to sound remarkably similar, but bear with me one more time.
#3: Why must YOU write this book?
This time, you are only going to think about why YOU are the person who must write this. Why can’t your neighbor write it? Someone on the other side of the world? Your spouse? Why is this YOUR story to tell?
Here are some answers that I came up with for my work in progress:
· These characters are telling my story.
· This is my chance to explore some challenges from my childhood that I haven’t ever talked about.
· I have the perspective of having been a preteen, raising preteens and teaching preteens. I am completely qualified to tell this story well.
As you can see, these reasons are starting to get a little more personal, and I could get even more specific. Which parts of my story are these characters telling? Why are these lessons they’re learning so important? What difference might they have made for me if I’d learned them sooner? Getting to the heart of why I need to write this book is going to show me what my deep personal connection to it is. And the more deeply connected we get to our topic, the more authentically that will show up on the page. It’s also what will make it less likely that we will feel good letting the story languish untouched.
Are you struggling with your “WHY”?
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