Monday, January 31, 2011

You're The Artist—It's Your Job To Write What You Love

The Big Post going around today is the recap of Sara Zarr's keynote at the New York SCBWI. It's taking the internets by storm for a reason. As a writer who is in that icky "not beginner but not published" phase, this is what I needed to hear. I already love Sara Zarr, but now I love her more.

This post, of course, got me thinking a lot about my journey the past few years. Particularly the advice that has been helpful, the advice that hasn't, and the advice that is deceptively helpful but can be very damaging.

The past year in particular I've been stressing over what kind of writer I'm supposed to be. I write YA, but I tend to do very big genre hops from project to project. Let's look at my last, say, five finished projects (as in full 1st draft): Contemp Fantasy, Super powers, Sci-fi, Steampunk, Contemporary. This concerned me because I hear over and over again that you need to build a brand! You need to establish yourself in one genre so your readers will know what to expect! This is your career at stake! DO NOT MESS IT UP.

I was freaking out about this. I felt like I wasn't allowed to write a contemporary because the project I had on sub wasn't, which was one of the major reasons it took me a year to commit to finishing that contemporary even though I secretly loved it.

At one point I was even considering switching to writing contemporary. This would be the ideal time, I thought, to make that change. I still don't have a book deal. I have had a fresh start with a new agent. My subs on the current project are quickly dwindling as the rejections roll in. Etc.

So I called Anna, my agent, because that's what you do when you need help making Big Decisions like this. I told her that I was struggling with my identity as a writer, and I wasn't sure if I wanted to be locked into the "brand" that I was currently in. What she said surprised me. Basically, she told me that wasn't something I needed to worry about. She said, "You're the artist—it's your job to write what you love. It's my job to figure out where that writing belongs."

(I cannot emphasize how wonderful Anna is. She keeps a low profile, which I'm pretty sure is because the writing world would be overwhelmed by her awesomeness otherwise.)

In that moment, it felt like she'd unlocked the handcuffs I'd unknowingly put on myself. Her advice was the exact opposite of everything I'd ever heard. It may not be for everyone, but it's what I needed very, very much.

That freedom—to write whatever I loved—got my fingers typing again. Instead of feeling guilty for every strange idea I want to chase, I feel like I can pursue what makes me happy. Oh, how I'd forgotten that's what writing is really about. I had lost a lot of my passion. And if you don't have passion for what you're working on, it's extremely hard not only to finish it, but to give it life. Yes, brand is important, but for me writing what I love is more important. That may ruin me, but if it does so be it.

For a writer who's been in limbo for quite a while, I've got to admit that I've been happier than I have been in a long time. And it's not because I have deal prospects or whatever. It's because I love what I'm writing, and my opinion is really the only one I can control. So I will write what I makes me smile, what make my heart flutter, what keeps me up at night with ideas and characters and dialogue. And I will leave it up to my smart, wonderful agent to find the right place for my books.

I think sometimes we try so hard to be the writer we're supposed to be. We try to follow all the rules because we think—hope, hope, hope—that if we do it will equal success. Well, sometimes it doesn't. Like I've said many times: Not every piece of advice you read is for you. It might take time to realize that some advice is hurting more than helping, but when you do figure it out just let it go. You're the artist. Do what you need to foster your creativity and happiness, and everything else will come when it comes.

38 comments:

  1. It's hard for me to explain how inspirational and helpful I find your posts. Thank you so much for writing this.

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  2. That's truly an inspirational post. Great to know you're writing what you love to write, which I think is what we all should do. :)

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  3. Amen to what Jordyn said. It's amazing how caught up we can get about our niche, genre, or movie casting before we're even *there.* In the meantime, we just need to WRITE what we LOVE.

    I need some sort of big wooden paddle with that written on it so someone can whap me upside the head with it a few times a day.

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  4. or I can, you know, just keep reading your blog.

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  5. A good reminder for every writer. Plus, this really frees me up to spend my time worrying and obsessing over completely different topics. (Hey. Rome wasn't built in a day.)

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  6. Thank you sooo much for writing this. You made my day.

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  7. Thanks for the link. Can't wait to click through.

    I am so grateful my agent also encourages me to write what I feel I must. She took me on with a mid-grade historical novel-in-verse (read: SUPER non-trendy) and believed in it (and me) enough to sell it.

    It has been liberating to have "permission" to continue to dabble in middle-grade and picture books, to research topics that thrill me in hopes books will grow from what I read, and to honor the interests of the young reader still inside me.

    Here's to a wonderful 2011 for you and Anna. ;)

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  8. I needed this today. I've been having a spectacular mope because I've abandoned my massively long favorite project and tried my hand at another genre. My betas actually like it instead of trying to say nice things about my margins to avoid being too harsh.

    I've been AFRAID that this book will be the one that gets me an agent, even a publishing deal and then I would be *doomed* forever to write in that genre.

    That was a hip-breaking cognitive leap, I realize, but your wisdom is most timely and reassuring.

    See, I had a point :)

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  9. I love that advice. Thanks so much for sharing it!

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  10. Oh this is wonderful! It's nice to see an agent think like that and really be behind you as a writer and what you love 100%! I think it really shows in someone's writing if they are writing because they love it, or if they are writing for the genre or trends.

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  11. I think what your agent said is perfect! She sounds wonderful!

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  12. Melissa Down UnderJanuary 31, 2011 at 1:38 PM

    I honestly believe that if you don't write what you love and with passion, how are your intended readers supposed to engage in the story?
    Better to have 5 books in 5 different genres that engage readers and take them on a journey, than 5 books in the same genre that you had to push yourself to write and leave the reader flat.

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  13. You know, I'd never heard that bit of advice. In fact, that's one thing I love about YA--that you CAN sort of genre-hop.

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  14. Awesome post! Very inspiring. Thanks to you (and your agent) for this.

    I'm trying to learn to trust my instincts and the process, instead of all the rules and have-to's. They can be crippling.

    Best to you!

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  15. Use the force, Luke. Let go, Luke. Luke— trust me.

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  16. Hey, thanks for the reminder. I have always lived by the "Do what you love and the rest will follow" motto - and yes, of late I have really forgotten it! I needed this today, so thanks!

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  17. Whew! Thank you for another calming post. I genre-hop as well. My 3 novels so far are

    1)mainstream/chick-lit
    2)YA fantasy in contemporary voice
    3) YA high fantasy

    and my upcoming idea is YA contemporary.

    I'm pretty much looking for agents who represent all.

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  18. That's great it's all clicking for you. And you're right, the writing is all we can control. Happy writing!

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  19. I echo everyone else when I say this is encouraging. I don't know what other words to put here aside from that.

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  20. Thank you! And I'm glad you've found that passion again. It's a nice feeling. :)

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  21. You are very lucky to have such a fab agent. Good luck with the writing now the shackles have been lifted.

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  22. i am so glad you are finding your groove again :)

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  23. You do realize you just added your agent to a lot of aspiring writer's "lists?"

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  24. Brilliant! Thanks for saying what I wanted to hear anyway.

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  25. LOVE this, Natalie. So happy to agent-mates! :)

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  26. Thanks so much for posting this. I really needed to hear it.

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  27. LOVE this post, Natalie!! Now I don't feel bad about the fact that I write dark and weird stories, with an occasional contemporary romance thrown in for good measure.

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  28. So true!

    Sometimes we think so hard about who we're supposed to be that we forget about who we are.

    It's a big mistake to make, yet everyone seems to make it.

    :-)

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  29. Yes, yes to this post.

    I love unusual YA books. Please write them up.

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  30. Well said, as always. Thanks for sharing!

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  31. Thank you for sharing that lovely advice from Anna. It's something we all need to hear.

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  32. You're lucky to have an agent like her! She sounds great!

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  33. "So I will write what I makes me smile, what make my heart flutter, what keeps me up at night with ideas and characters and dialogue."

    I love this line. I think this is what keeps me writing, even though all of the fears and disappointments.

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  34. Thank you for this! I have just had a conversation with someone about the exact same thing (before reading your blog post), as I was worrying about being pigeonholed (or having to pigeonhole myself) and then, if I'm ever lucky enough to get published, never being able write anything different. Reading this confirmed for me that writing an idea you are passionate about it the only way to do it, even if that idea's totally different from the last one – or the next.

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