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How to Write the Right Story

*adapted from an interview with Daria Peoples-Riley



If you’re anything like me, you have a dozen ideas in your head at any given moment, maybe full stories swirling around in there that overwhelm your process. It can be difficult deciding which shiny idea to pluck from that dreamy idea tornado. Which one deserves your energy, time, and heart? Sometimes I choose an idea that loses its shine very quickly and it ends up sitting in a file on my computer, just a few pages of initial spark, but no real burn. Sometimes it carries me for years, but I can’t quite finish it. Both situations can be frustrating. And there are times an idea comes on fast and furious and you write through to the end and it still ends up staying in your computer, rather than making it to a shelf. There are no guarantees in this industry, so it’s important to guard your ideas and your heart, to cherish and nurture the draft, but in the end not be too precious about it. Jumping from shiny thing to shiny thing might work for some writers, but it doesn’t for this one. My heart has to be in it. And when my heart has been in it, more often the books have made it to a shelf. Most importantly what I’ve learned is that writing a heart-story doesn’t guarantee publication, but it does guarantee the greatest internal reward.


It takes time to learn how to listen to those heart-ideas, though. And here are a few takeaways from a conversation I had with Daria when she was preparing to speak at VCFA last summer, on how to know or find those heart stories. These are a few deciding factors she came up with, and my own thoughts on each.


Write what you know. Old cliché but solid advice. Writing what you know doesn’t necessarily mean you can only write what you’ve experienced, however. In fiction, you’re always writing other experiences because you’re making people and circumstances up. But behind the fictional wall, there should be your own truth, and often research. In my novel The Dare Sisters, for example, I set three sisters (who I’d seen in skateboarding in real life) in Ocracoke, NC, a place I knew and loved well. But I have never lived on that island, or any island, so I read tons of Facebook posts from local groups, local news articles and history, even searched random topics like the most common historical surnames on the island and interviewed people who lived there. I found all kinds of details that I wouldn’t know as a visitor. Writing what I knew grew from my experiences visiting to the extensive knowledge that I gained by researching.



This is the case for nonfiction too. When the idea for writing a biography on Gloria Steinem was tossed my way, I was already up to my ears in reading Gloria’s canon. I was reading for my own edification and curiosity about her work, with no intention of writing a kids’ book. I was writing novels, and never expected to write nonfiction. But I knew a few things: I knew a lot about her life because I’d been reading so much, I knew there hadn’t been a children’s biography about her yet, and I knew what it was like to feel like you didn’t have a voice. And if there’s anything I learned about Gloria it was how deeply important it is to her that everyone has a voice. So when my agent asked me what I thought about trying a biography, I leapt at the chance.


Art by Daria-Peoples Riley

You should feel a genuine pull at your heart. Sometimes this can be a hard one to really work through. Creatives often feel a pull at every idea—it’s why we do what we do. Discerning which ones are truly pulling at your heartstrings and which ones are trying to distract you takes practice and introspection. The Hike to Home was a story that took on many iterations. Not only did it have more than one editor, it was initially sold on proposal and had only been about half-way done at the time. Selling on proposal is great because you know you have an end-goal, a real deadline, and a physical book in the future. But the flipside is delivering a story that might not be fully developed in your heart yet. Knocking that book out was a struggle! I’m happy with the results but the process was rough. I had to keep reminding myself what was at the core of the story and that it was worthy and important to tell.


Hike represents a unique relationship between mothers and children, in particular. Lin, the protagonist, has an unconventional life and a mom who has a full and rewarding career outside motherhood, which is, at times, hard for Lin to fully grasp or appreciate. I felt pulled to this theme because my relationship with my children is unconventional and my relationship with my own mother is as well. It’s frustrating to see even in 2021 the demands and expectations society has put on the concept of motherhood, even moms themselves do it, and how these expectations often create an overbearing and manipulative dynamic within a family where kids depend on mom way too much for way too long, and later in life mom reciprocates. That weird co-dependence has never set well with me, and so my heart was driven to tell a story where a healthy mom-daughter relationship could exist within a nontraditional arrangement.



This is another way of saying what your story is about. Often new writers especially have a hard time expressing what their story is about at the core, and default to explaining only reductive plot points. Practice combining the two!


It moves you. You learn to listen to your inner muse the more you write, and the more you listen the more frequently you’ll write heart-stories. Writing is not all beautiful inspiration and constant flow. Sometimes it’s just hard work and painfully plunking the words out until you get through it. But at some point, your work should move you, the creator. Whether your characters crack you up, or a passage makes you cry, or you’re just super excited about the research that went into it, it should in some way affect your emotions!



If it doesn’t, how likely is it going to affect your readers’?


All of my novels have made me cry at some point. Either in the inception, discovering a moment I hadn’t expected, while crafting a difficult emotionally-driven scene, or coming to the end and being genuinely happy for my fictional friends. Because I write heart-felt stories, if this didn’t happen at all, I’d be hesitant for it to go out into the world. My books may not be loved by every reader, but it has to be loved by me first, and then I feel confident that someone out there will also love it.


A similar notion came up recently when I was a guest on the Writer-to-Writer podcast. The host asked me if, when writing, I felt a responsibility to my readers who are young and influential. This is something that folks in the kidlit community talk about a LOT. And yes, 100%, do I feel it. I fear it, at times, and if I think about it too much in the creation of a story it will paralyze the process. Not only will it freeze my creativity, it will likely result in me preaching a lesson. You see books like this all the time—incredibly didactic and sort of like reading a manual on how to be a good person.



Ironically this is how fiction got its start. Some of the earliest reading-for-entertainment pieces began as letters to young people on how to live their lives appropriately, such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, which are two of the most famous. In the 18th century, epistolary novels comprised 60% of all published works; they were obviously the preferred literary style. Letters often served as a tool of instruction for everything from societal expectations to propriety and politeness and basically rules for how one was supposed to live.


That trend has certainly returned, not necessarily in epistolary form, but in the instruction, and there is some merit in it, but it’s not the way I write or want to write.

I want to craft a good story.


So, I focus on that first, I write the draft while giving in to my heart, the flow, getting to know my characters and my simple love of writing stories. Once that part is over, I can look more deeply at what is at the core, what is it about, and then start thinking about my responsibility as an author and how I’m portraying the themes to my young readers.


All of this to say, if you’re setting out to teach a lesson, you’re not going to move yourself or your readers. You’re only going to inform them.


Settling on a heart-story can be difficult. It takes practice listening to your intuition, and sometimes it means starting a bunch of ideas and waiting to see which one won’t leave your mind, your dreams, your heart alone. But keep at it, keep writing, and listening. You’ll have the greatest reward if you follow that lead.


In the words of my first muse,

Listen, Dream, Speak!

~Jess

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