Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The question I haven't been asked, and the question that still makes me think


I was hoping to announce a new (well, rewritten) ebook, but that's still a couple days away, so I'm putting up a question I just answered on the Much Cheaper than Therapy blog.

My old writing teacher asked me: What question has no one ever asked you that you wish they would.

I should have come up with something funny. For example, I wish someone would ask me, "How come you look so much like Angelina Jolie?" Sadly, no one has ever asked me that.  But the thing was, I'd gotten a question that I still think about, so I wrote about that instead.

After sixteen years of publishing, I think I’ve been asked just about every question there is about writing. At conferences people ask about agents, editors, and revisions. Bloggers ask about the writing process, how book ideas happened, and what’s next on the horizon. The really interesting questions come during school visits because kids will ask any and every question that pops into their mind. What is your favorite color? What did you eat for breakfast this morning?  How much money do you make?

The question I’ve never been asked is: Is it all worth it?  I suppose everyone thinks they already know the answer to this question. The aspiring writers are sure it is, the bloggers are glad it is, and many of the students--when they realize how much money I make--are sure it isn’t.  (The first boy who asked me how much money I made pondered my answer and then said, “So, writing is really more of a hobby than a career.”  It was back then, now it isn’t.)

Perhaps the best answer to the Is-it-all-worth-it question is: “If you want to know if you’re really a writer, try and stop.” That pretty much sums up life for the avid writer. We’ll write whether it’s a hobby or a career.

The question that surprised me and still haunts me sometimes, came from a young girl during one of my school visits. She couldn’t have had the wisdom or prescience to realize what she was asking when she said, “Have you ever written anything that you regret writing?”

At that moment I thought of every book I’d ever written and the millions of children who have read them. I thought of how books affected me as a child. Some made me want to be a better person, some expanded my mind, some comforted me, others influenced me to do things I shouldn’t have. Books are that powerful. You can’t step into a main character’s skin, live their story, think their thoughts, and not be affected somehow.  Authors are kidding themselves if they think they can step away from that privilege and responsibility.

Standing in that school auditorium, I thought of the story ideas, plot outlines, and random chapters I have on my computer in my Possible Manuscripts folder.  A lot of those story ideas are really good. Some of them might not have the best affect on readers though. I vacillate whether I should ever write those books. On one hand, I as an author want to go on those journeys, to give life to those characters, and experience their stories with them. And doesn’t an author need to be true to a story no matter where it goes or what paths it takes the characters on? Who am I to censor creation?

It’s not the fault of Batman’s writers that some psycho dressed up as the Joker and shot up a movie theater. It’s not Stephenie Meyer’s fault if some misguided folks try to be vampires, or Footloose’s writers fault that teens died recreating car stunt shown in the movie. People are born with common sense and should use it.

But once you publish a book, once it’s out in the world of sale and resale, it never goes away. You can’t ever take back what you’ve written. You can’t add disclaimers. No matter what common sense dictates, readers don’t even seem to fully realize that everything a character says or does isn’t condoned by the author. I’ve had people order food for me because I wrote that my main character liked that food.

The books I have out now are fun, romantic comedies and adventures. I write about good characters making mostly good choices. The others stories are still safely tucked away. For now at least, they’ll stay that way.

That's when I looked the girl in the eyes and told her there were books I wish I’d written better, but I didn’t regret anything I’d written.

15 comments:

Tiana Smith said...

Looking forward to the rewrite :) There are definitely books I wish I had written better - but since I'm still unpublished, they just sit on my hard drive. A while back I thought about querying one of them, but then I realized it wasn't my strongest work, and I didn't want to start off my publishing career with a weak story I'd later regret. I think it was the right choice. I'm planning on querying the one I'm writing now, and it's about ten times better than the other one. So, fingers crossed :)

denise greenwood said...

As an author about to have a first book published and I visited your site as one of the "blogs of note" when setting up my own this week. I have been drawn by how down-to-earth and inspiring yoru words are.
http://www.denise-greenwood.com

Janette Rallison said...

Tiana, you're making the right choice. I guess I don't regret publishing my first few books because they made me consider myself a 'real author' and keep working on my craft, but yeah, I would have been much better off if I had published something stronger right off the bat. Now I'm glad I'm able to rewrite the three books that need rewriting.

Denise, good luck with all your writing endeavors!

Allerednic said...

How wonderful to be able to say you don't regret anything you've written. As a reader, I can say I haven't regretted reading anything you've written either, and that I've loved and learned from all of your books. Thanks for sharing your work with us! :)

Middle-aged Mormon Man said...

Glad to be reassured that you are a writer, and I'm not.

Glad you are.

Steelefamily said...

Awesome post. You can't write fast enough for me :)

Nursing Jobs said...

This is really inspiring! Thank you very much for this, now I have determination to finish my write-ups!

John said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Janette Rallison said...

Allerednic,I'm glad to hear that you don't regret reading anything I've written. That's a whole other topic. All the times I've seen or read something and thought, "Well, that's hours of my life I can never get back again . . ."

Middle-aged Mormon Man, I do not recall saying anywhere in my post that you weren't a writer. In fact, I will say here in the comments that I'm pretty sure you are. Own up to it, you love putting those shiny little words together.

Steelefamily, I wish I wrote a lot faster!

Nursing jobs, awesome! Go finish your write-ups. (Wait, were you talking about novel writing or patients charts? No matter, both need to be done.)

John, thanks. I think. (No more details in this comment.)

Taffy said...

That is a good question the girl asked. One every writer can ask themselves too. I love your books. They are good, clean, witty with flawed characters (like us) who grow and become better (hopefully what we all work on).
The romances don't hurt either!

Janette Rallison said...

Thanks, Taffy! Yep, I'm a sucker for romance. It was almost hard to write a middle grade (Wrong Side of Magic which is with an editor at Putnam right now) because there wasn't really any romance. It was still a fun book though.

Alexandra Maylin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alexandra Maylin said...

I think you are very right about what you said to the student who called it a hobby. I can't stop writing and I never want to. I love it so much. I also have always wondered if I should send in my work, but have never been sure if it was really up to snuff. I'm trying it here, so I'm hoping for some positive feedback. I saw your blog on 'blogs on note' and happened to love numerous stories of yours. I figured if I was going to find great fellow authors, it's be on a site written by a great author. I'd love if you'd look at it.
www.alexmaylin.blogspot.com

Melanie Jacobson said...

Because I write contemporary YA, I struggle constantly with what's real and what I'm okay with putting out there. And I feel like it's a razor sharp edge between real and crossing a line for me, but I'm determined to keep my balance. Thanks for your thoughts on this. They've really helped me confirm the choices I'm making about who I want to be both inside of my books and out of them.

Jody C. Combs said...


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