Every story has a story behind it – the reason that you even bothered with it in the first place. It’s the spark that comes into your mind, the image that flickers across your brain, the idea that wakes you up in the middle of the night and whispers, “Write me.”
When it comes time to connect with readers, this moment of genesis can be enormously powerful. It’s often the reason that the media wants to talk with you, or that your book captures the public imagination, or that someone invites you to speak – and this is as true for fiction as it is for non-fiction. I’m going to use two recent examples to show you what I mean.
When it comes time to connect with readers, the moment of story genesis can be enormously powerful.
Sometimes that genesis story is very clearly connected to the book you eventually write. This is true of Lauri Taylor’s book, The Accidental Truth, which comes out on Mother’s Day. It’s a memoir -- the harrowing story of the four years she spent investigating her mother’s murder.
Here is the description of her book:
When Lauri Taylor’s mother went missing one day in 2005, no one expected her body to turn up ten days later in a remote Mexican desert—and no one could solve the crime. Motivated by a nagging feeling that this was her last chance to make her mom proud, the Orange County housewife set out to investigate the murder. In the process, she was forced to investigate her mother’s life and her own childhood, which was filled with uncertainty and pain. Four years later, with the help of famed FBI profiler, Candice Delong, Lauri unravelled the mystery of her mother’s murder and uncovered the shocking truth about her life. The Accidental Truth combines the suspense of a true crime page-turner with the poignant emotion of a mother-daughter saga.
When it came time to connect with readers, Lauri brainstormed all the reasons readers, and by extension the media, might be interested in her tale. This list was not about her story – the words on the page -- but about the ideas that her story circles around, the ideas that were present at the genesis of her even writing the book. One of those topics on that list had to do with the loss of her mother, an obviously emotional topic.
Lauri came up with a pitch about the first mother’s day she spent without her mother. She crafted a short piece that references the woman who founded mother’s day and how Lauri’s journey took her on a similar path. It was a great story idea. The result of that effort is that Lauri landed a plum Op-Ed page piece in USA Today, which came out today. It’s a beautiful piece, and perfectly illustrates the story behind the story. The loss of her mother is what propelled her to write her book. It’s not what her book is about, but it’s what the newspaper piece is about -- and the piece will surely drive people to her book.
What About Fiction?
I have another client, Amy, who is just about to write the final chapter of a novel. It’s the story of one holiday weekend in the life of a group of friends who were thrown together in high school when one of them became gravely ill. The book is about the enduring power of friendship, and the ways that old friends are sometimes better equipped to deal with the things that go wrong in our lives than newer “adult” friends or even our husbands and partners. It’s poignant, hilarious, authentic, and very compelling – exactly the kind of story book clubs are going to love.
The novel was based on a medical situation that Amy herself endured, and that had re-emerged in her life as an adult. At first, Amy was drawn to write a memoir about her experiences, but she soon realized that she didn’t want to write a story about illness. She didn’t want to be all about her illness – she had been there, done that. She thought it would be much more interesting and fun to write about the antics, shenanigans and poignant moments of this fictional group of friends coming together around this fictional woman who had an illness. The illness, in other words, became just a plot point and not the whole story.
So she shifted, veered off, did something entirely new. She took off from her genesis moment in a whole new direction. But the point I am trying to make is that you never entirely leave that original spark behind.
Amy recently ran into an old acquaintance from her medical days. The woman asked what she was up to and Amy mentioned the novel-in-progress. “We’d love to have you come back to speak at [Big Medical Institution],” the woman said, “The patients and their families would get a kick of out it.”
So the topic Amy intentionally veered away from has come back like a boomerang.
Amy and I were brainstorming this morning about all the things she could do outside of the novel to serve that medical population for whom she has a great affinity – ways she could connect with people who were going through what she had gone through, but without writing a memoir. She thought about writing a Q&A about surviving, making a little guide, or doing a video, which she could present to the patients when she goes back one day to read from her novel. When viewed straight on these topics felt confining and uninspiring to her, but viewed through the lens of the novel, they now seemed rich and resonant.
No matter where you are in your writing process, take a moment to think about the story behind YOUR story, and how you might use it to bring you closer to your potential readers.