Only You Can Write It
by Lynne Kelly
Often when I finish reading a great book, I close it and think, “Man, I wish I wrote that.” Usually it's a story with an amazing plotline that never occurred to me, along with a spot-on voice that made me feel like I'd met the characters in real life.
I'm sure all writers feel that way at times, and it's a great compliment to an author to wish that we'd had the imagination to have written the same thing. But we know we couldn't have, right? Even if I did have the same story idea as the author, and the same talent, we wouldn't have written that book.
After having a novel published, I'm amazed at how everything came together to make it happen. Not only could no one else have written the book, I couldn't have written it if any number of lifetime events had been altered just a little.
There's a reason I started out the Chained acknowledgments page by saying I wanted to thank everyone I've ever met, and I'm really happy that my publisher let me carry on for three pages. Other than the obvious ones who helped, like critique members or experts who vetted the manuscript, sometimes a casual remark I overheard sparked an idea for a new plotline or character trait. Even with all the people I did mention, I'm sure I left someone out.
When I first got the idea to write a book about an elephant, I was at a presentation by author Jack Canfield, who talked about believing in your ability to succeed even if you've failed in the past. To illustrate his point, he told the audience a little something about elephants: if they're caught and tied up when very young, they'll struggle and struggle to break free, but once they give up, they give up forever. So years later, the full-grown elephant is still tethered by that same thin rope or chain, because he doesn't know it could easily break free if he just tried again. Although the lesson was “Don't be like the elephant,” for some reason as I sat there I started thinking about a children's book about an elephant who doesn't know she's stronger than the chain that holds her captive. I don't know how many people were in the audience that day, but it was a pretty big group. Of course we all heard the same presentation, but for some reason that one message struck a chord with me, and I sat there turning it over in my head for the rest of the night, and started writing it down the next day. I wasn't even a writer before that night. What if I hadn't gone to that presentation? I shudder to think of it.
It helped that I was a teacher at the time, in a resource classroom for elementary school students with reading levels ranging from kindergarten to fourth grade. Because of that, I was more familiar with children's literature that most adults. Teaching is something else I never thought I'd do; I'd been a sign language interpreter for years, and started teaching when asked to fill in a vacancy in a high school American Sign Language class. I discovered that I liked teaching, but wanted to work with younger kids, so I became certified as a special education teacher. So there were more things that fell into place just the right way—if I hadn't started that new career and hadn't selected that particular field of teaching, I wouldn't have had children's books on the brain so much. Also, the book wouldn't have turned out the same if I'd ended up at any other school, because the conversations I had about it with my co-workers helped shape the direction of the story.
I could go on, but you get the idea—there's work to writing a book, but there are also pieces that fall into place that make the stories possible.
A co-worker of my husband, when he found out I write for children, advised, “You know what your wife should do? Write a book like that Harry Potter.”
Really? I hadn't thought of that. I should get on that right now. Oh wait, it's already been written. Never mind.
Of course, it'd be lovely if I'd have been the one to write the series, but I couldn't have. It doesn't mean that no one else ever thought of an orphan boy who attends boarding school after finding out he has magical powers, but no one else has the same imagination or experience that J.K. Rowling has. Even if we'd all been on that same train Rowling was on when the idea came to her, and if she'd exclaimed that idea out loud, as fully-formed as she says it came to her, none of us would have written Harry Potter. There's only one author who could have written it; each of us would have gone home and written completely different stories. Our experiences, ideas, and people we've met all weave into our imaginations to create stories that only we can write.
At the end of Chained, Hastin reflects on his whole journey and remembers his father saying to him, “A story is no good if you hear only the ending. You have to know how you got there.” Also he acknowledges that everything that's happened to him, the good and the bad, have all made him who he is and brought him to the road he's standing on at that moment.
And the same is true for you. You'll read novels that you wish you wrote, although you couldn't have. But that author couldn't have written yours. The characters running around in your head will meet everyone you've ever met, will learn from everything you've ever done and learned, and you will write the story only you can write.
That's the book that will make people say, “I wish I wrote that.”