The Story Behind the Story
One of the first questions I ask any writer is, Why do you want to write this story?
There are permutations to that question that follow hard on its heels: When did it first come into your head? Why does it matter to you? Why this story and not some other one? Why now?
The reason these questions matter so much is that the answers often hold the key, not only to the point of the book, but to the structure, and even to the way that you will ultimately connect with readers. I say on my website that I have book-seeing super-powers, which is somewhat cheeky and ridiculous, I know, but also strangely true. The super-power, comes, in part, from my understanding the reality of where books come from. They do not randomly arrive out of the clear blue sky. They come from somewhere. The come for some reason. The book that is haunting you is not haunting someone else, and it is not haunting you at a different time of your life.
If you can find out why you, why now, why this book, you can unlock the secrets of your story – where it should start, what it should do, how it should proceed on the page. It really is a kind of magic.
So how does it work?
I was recently driving up to teach at UCLA (an arduous trek on the 405 through West LA) and listening to NPR (which I don’t always do; sometimes I listen to Ryan Seacrest. Sometimes you need a little fluff in your life…) A story came on the air that perfectly captured the power of the origin of a story.
It was Emily Spivak talking about her book, Worn Stories – a collection of memoirs of people talking about their favorite items of clothing. I had heard about this book, had seen the cover, had even read an excerpt somewhere. I was intending to buy it, so when I heard that the author was there in my local NPRR studio – live! Just down the freeway in Pasadena! – I was eager to hear what she had to say.
The host asked Emily where she came up with the idea for the book, and Emily proceeded to tell this riveting story about taking her fashion students to a thrift store’s regional sorting center, to basically watch where clothes go to die. Her point in taking the field trip was to show students that clothes are just rags unless they are worn and loved. Her point was to inspire them to design clothes that would be worn and loved. The trip also inspired her to start thinking about how clothes were worn and loved – and voila! A book was born. A book with a point, which is the same thing as a beating heart.
I said above that the origin of a book can give you its structure, too, and this one did. If you want to share stories of clothes that were worn and loved, you probably want a wide variety of clothes and stories, which means you need a wide variety of people. Emily set about developing a list of people she might ask to contribute stories to her book. She thought of some famous people who it would be interesting to ask, but she wanted a diversity of people talking about a diversity of clothing. In the NPR piece, she talks about how once she chose one story it would lead her to chose the next, in a kind of yin and yang, back and forth process. She talked about taking out ads on Craigslist in towns in the Midwest in order to fill out her table of contents – a detail I love, because it suggests such commitment and passion. So the point of the book that had been sparked at that thrift store suggested a structure, which Emily began to build.
As I sat there listening to Emily tell this tale, I realized that her origin story also gave this author a way to connect with readers. She was on NPR in one of the largest media markets in America, and what she was talking about was the story behind the story. She was talking about her love of clothes. Her passion for teaching people how to design them. Her beliefs about where they got their power. That one specific day at the thrift store sorting center. All of that occupied just a few pages of the introduction of her book, and yet THAT was the story that brought her to me, and to all the NPR listeners that day. That was no doubt the story that got the NPR producers excited about spending five minutes of airtime on Worn Stories. It was, after all, the very first question the host asked.
The story behind the story is often what gives a book its power to connect. This morning, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about a book called The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It has become a massive hit on at least two continents, but I had never heard of it before this morning. If you read the Journal’s piece about author Marie Kondo, the part that really hooks you is the part where she talks about her childhood and how she loved to fold things and clean things and tidy up, and how she was the classroom organizer in grade school. The moment when she stumbles upon her signature phrase – “Does this spark joy?” can’t help but make you smile, and, at least for me, want to buy the book.
What’s the story behind your story? What’s the spark of joy that is motivating you to write this book? Tap into that, and you may just have the key you need to writing a great book.
To listen to the Emily Spivak interview, click HERE. She starts telling her origin story at .41 and the story about developing her list of people to interview at 2.30.
SO MANY EVENTS COMING UP:
Join me and Dan Blank for a webinar series about how to connect with readers at every stage of the writing process. We’re doing a 4-part series for SheWritesPress, starting next week. The first webinar is free. It’s not a super nitty gritty-hands on program, but we will be giving a lot of information, telling a lot of success stories (and a few failure stories), and taking individual Q&As from participants every week.
Join me at UCLA for a one-day workshop on Navigating the Path to Publishing. It’s perfect for anyone trying to decide between traditional and self publishing.
I’ll also be at the Women’s National Book Association Los Angeles Conference on March 14