I have been listening to a LOT of podcasts lately.
For the past decade, I’ve been focusing on my craft; I’ve been steadily getting better and better at writing fiction, through classes, through podcasts, through practice. For most of that time, though, I’d been thinking of myself as “too young” — to publish, but also to get out here and start making a name for myself. Considering I was in high school a decade ago, that mindset makes sense, even if it missed the mark a little. My first novel, written during NaNo ’09, was definitely not publishable — it was a beginner’s attempt, and I was young, yes, but I’m still young. Back then, I was just new.
After a decade of writing with intent — because I did write before that, just not with the mindset of “I’ll get better and someday get published” — I’m not a beginner anymore. Not an expert, yet; let’s call me solidly intermediate. 🙂
So, back to the podcasts I mentioned: a lot of what I’ve been listening to lately has been less about craft and more about marketing, branding, building a creative business, and so on — things I am a beginner at. If you’re thinking “yuck,” well, I was too, at first. But the process has asked me questions I don’t have answers for yet, and I find that compelling.
After all, what is a story but an answer to a question?
The thing is, most of these concepts are centered around filling needs and solving problems; if you are developing a physical product or software, or educational content, that’s fairly straightforward. You write articles about the topic, you draw people in who have the problem, they hire you or buy your courses or your (nonfiction) books, bam, money. Easier said than done, I’m sure, but there’s a target there and a process to follow.
Which brings me to my biggest unanswered question: what about fiction? What problem or need does a good story solve?
Incidentally, I ran into this problem in college; I had to do a capstone project for my Digital Media Studies degree, and part of the process was to answer the question, “what problem are you trying to solve?” Among all the apps and websites, my group and I were making a video game. We struggled with this. I don’t remember now but I’m sure we came up with some bullshit like “it solves boredom!” in the end — but that’s pretty reductive, isn’t it? Do we really play games, read novels, watch movies, consume media, just to stave off boredom?
Well, no. Games, like stories, have been around as long as civilization. This is because they teach us something. Games are fun because we are hardwired to find learning fun, because we wouldn’t survive otherwise — games teach us skills, whether or not they are directly applicable in real life. The best games* increase in difficulty as your skill does, keeping you in a constant state of learning and improving, always just a step ahead of what you think you’re capable of — in the flow state. I could keep going; I did my Master’s degree on this. 🙂
(*subjective, obviously — and I really mean game mechanics here, because nowadays games include an awful lot of things that aren’t really skills and some things that aren’t fun at all and only trick you into coming back the way gambling does; so think about the oldest games, like backgammon or go or checkers, where you can always get better, but if you play against someone at your level you’ll hit that sweet spot between easy and frustrating… and compare against, say, tic-tac-toe, which anyone over the age of nine can figure out the optimal strategy for pretty quick, and then every time you play you force a draw and it’s not fun anymore. But I digress…)
Stories, on the other hand (or perhaps in both hands — many games are stories, too), teach us to solve problems by walking us through them in another’s shoes, safely removed from the problem itself. The question to ask, then, is not “what problem do stories solve?” but “what problem do MY stories solve?” What question am I consistently trying to answer with my fiction?
And this goes beyond the “story question,” of course; this is deeper than “can this prophecy-faking con artist avoid the very real, very large prophecy she accidentally triggered?” (this year’s NaNo) or “can this magic student save her dead teacher… and the entire country, too?” (that very first Nano). This is on the level of theme — all the good vs. evil, love conquers all things you might have hated to analyze in high school. Something fundamental.
It turns out my short fiction is all over the place — something to work on in 2020, I guess — but my novels? Unintentionally, every novel I’ve written does ask the same question at its core:
How do I find who I can trust — and how do I handle the people I can’t?
The degree to which this is buried varies, and it isn’t necessarily an element of the plot; usually, it’s part of the protagonist’s inner journey. It’s something they figure out along the way. It’s also… not really something I have a clear idea how to market! I’m not trying to be an advice columnist — if I had one single good answer to this question, I wouldn’t keep writing about it. And anyway, who reads fiction to find the answer to a question like that? It’s the story question that draws people in — the theme is what makes it resonate, or not. But it’s also what keeps people coming back.
So, here’s my question for the new year, my problem to solve: now that I know what I write and how to write it, how do I find the people who want to read it?
There are a lot of answers out there already — there are a lot of people who do this successfully! But trying those answers out is the hard part. If it weren’t, what would we tell stories about?
Okay, I was being a little glib there, but even so: here’s to a new year, a new question, and a new adventure. 😀