Writing Advice From my Mom

Just off the phone with my mom and will return to my daily five pages in a moment. This is too funny. My mother, bless her, was trying to help when she said, “Have you ever thought of writing a potboiler? A little bit of sex, a little bit of humor, a little bit of mystery…you can’t go wrong.”

My mom is the most obessive reader I know, and her tastes epitomize the Average Reading Public that commercial publishers target. Could it be that what she said was wise rather than naive? Now I ask myself: Could I write what my mom called “an easy read for people”? Just to get my foot in the publishing door? Could I?

I’m not saying I couldn’t, but it comes down to loving the story I’m telling. So far, my love hasn’t veered me toward potboiler-dom. If I come up with a story idea that grooves me in that direction, well, okay then, but I don’t see myself saying, Okay, now I’m going to write a potboiler that fits the publishers’ favored formulas of the moment…

My brain filters life and story in certain patterns that probably don’t lend themselves to potboiler-dom. I’m not saying I’m high-falutin’ literary. I’m not, not at all. I consider my stuff more commercial than literary, but maybe it’s not as commercial as I think it is? Still a little too complex? A little too character-driven?

Frankly, I have no idea.

All I can say is that once upon a time I wrote a sex scene, and even then, the sex in the scene was a bit surreal and beside the point anyhow. The sex meant something else — which is what I’m saying here: I don’t have an “easy” mind, so how can I write an easy read for people?

I guess we’ll see where the stories take me. You never know. I leave myself open to anything my brain conjures up…

15 comments on “Writing Advice From my Mom

  • Ha.
    God bless your mom.
    I wrote a potboiler once and it never sold. The editors all said it was “too self-consciously commercial.” Good grief.
    Write your heart, instead.

  • This is exactly what I was talking about the other day on my site in the outlining post. The idea for a chick lit YA series that I have is a good one. Really. And I love YA chick lit when I’m in the right mood and it’s really good. But I just know that I CAN’T write it. I tried outlining for six weeks before I realized this! I think one of my clues was this… My husband reads everything I write and when I was working on this idea I thought to myself, “I guess I won’t ask for his input on this because he won’t like it. Even if it’s really funny, he won’t think it’s worthwhile.” My husband will read any really good YA I send his way, but he’s not a YA reader per se, so he’s definitely NOT my target audience. But I truly do want to write a book that teens love AND someone like him can read. Chick lit YA can be great and enjoyable and fun…but I can’t write it. It’s not in my heart enough.

    Write what you want to read.

  • Both you and Liz say the same thing: Write from the heart, and I agree. I used to say to myself, How hard could it be to write a Harlequin romance? Hah! Too hard for me!

  • Gotta love our dear ones for supporting us and believing we can do anything well.

    Lisa, please write what is close to your heart even if it is inconsistent or flawed. An earlier post suggested that you write what you can because you can always edit. I second that!

  • Hi, Lisa —
    I didn’t know how else to get in touch with you, but I wanted to let you know that author Dora Levy Mossanen has responded to your question. It’s a little long so I won’t paste it here. I’ve posted it at http://DeAnnaCameron.blogspot.com.
    BTW, I love your blog! And I completely agree with you on being true to the story that’s inside you, whether it gets your foot in the publishing door or not. I believe writing a story is a little like falling in love. You can’t pick the one that makes your heart race; it sort of picks you.

  • Kathryn, yes, my mom is rooting for me to actually earn a living with the fiction, that’s for sure!

    krissnp, true, and it’s hard to move away from writing them once we’re “typecast.”

    DeAnna, thanks so much for following-up on my question! I’m going over to your blog now. The writing’s all about the heart, isn’t it? You’re so right: gotta want to be with our characters for the long haul.

  • Your “mom” sounds like a great person. I understand the concept write what sells, make money to eat or in my case get the book I am so passionate about finished and published before you get to old to see the monitor! I agree with writing from the heart too. However, I do believe in eating so I work the short story market. Keep writing your blog is inspiring and like you said writing is a passion of the heart…

    Annie O.

  • Hey cedar, thanks! Unfortunately, eating is a consideration, isn’t it? I’d love to be able to say that I don’t think about such factors, that I’m a true artiste, but that wouldn’t be true…Eating is good and not having to earn money any other way would be great!

  • Oh, moms are great…and always pitching for us. Very cool picture of you and Mom, too. How about a short story pot boiler? Is there such a thing? At least you wouldn’t have to get entangled for a couple hundred pages…

  • I did that once, too, Lisa…decided that Harlequin romances were the way to go. So what that I didn’t really like reading them? So what that I would rather write about characters than think up romance plots? I thought it would be simple…I’d use a pseudonym and bang out four of them a year and at last make some money for writing! It sounded perfect. But, alas, just as everybody here says, I couldn’t do it. I’d start a book, and pretty soon it would take off in a whole different direction. Or like Joelle said, I’d be thinking that I could write it but it wouldn’t be for certain people I loved and respected to read. For what it’s worth, I think that writing a book is a lot like getting married: you have to really, really adore what you’re doing at the outset, because you’re going to hit some rough patches, and if you’re not absolutely in love, you’re not going to be able to make it through. Go with your heart. It’s the only way.

  • oh, short-story potboilers, eh? If anything, that would be more difficult for me (if there is such a thing)!

    Sandi, it’s unanimous, all right: heart heart heart! Thanks for sharing that you, too, pondered writing romances just for the money — just wouldn’t work in the end.

  • Ha, ha, I loved the “too self-consciously commerical” comment! You can’t fool the Muses. If you’re acting the writing harlot, they won’t be helpful.

    But I do think what your mother suggested has merit. You began writing with the question, “can I do this?” And you showed that you could. I think if you set out to write a good potboiler because it intrigues and excites you–if your feeling goes that way–then you should follow it. It’s like the red balloon; go after it.

    If, on the other hand, that’s not the case, then you’ll end up with what the first commentator said, “too self-consciously commercial.” What a great rejection! Her advice is right, even if it bankrupts us: write your heart out. I loved that.

    I have another thought though; a writer has practicalities too. Even Van Gogh had to work for his handlers in order to support the family. He would paint a portrait for grocery money, then do a field; paint some nobleman’s wife; then do a vase of flowers. And so on. The ego works with the psyche. So, suppose you write five books with a financial heroine, the CFO of some big corporation who is kidnapped and held hostage in a third world country. She makes it out, all is well, and she’s finished. You must move on; you have to build a bridge between that series and the next one.

    Or maybe you have a nonfiction book inside you; you have to write it; so you build bridges with editors and prove that you can, in fact, do this work. Writing is not only heart work, it’s brain work. You’re brainy, so I wouldn’t just throw out the entire idea. Something about it caught your attention. Give some respect to that spark of “aha!” even if it was merely your love for your mother.

    But don’t go lifting yourself up on every high hill as a potboiler harlot if that’s not your calling. There are temple prostitutes standing in line. 😉

  • Hi Eve, marathon commentator today! Practicalities are at the heart of my anxiety about getting published, I think. You’re right: that’s reality and we gotta think about food and roof and heat in winter…It’s definitely a balancing act.


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