Whose Story Is It?


I find enjoyment in visiting the website Quora.com and getting the answers to my questions as well as providing answers to those who are seeking them. Recently, someone asked a question about writing that I thought I would respond to here. The question was, how do you determine which story idea you will turn into a book?

My response was that if an author plans on writing books for a while, he or she will usually have many more story ideas than time to write them as books. At the same time, some stories aren’t fodder for a full novel. Instead, they end up being a short story, a script, or may never be written. What makes the difference? Well, some of it has to do with the scope of the story (how long it would take to tell it), the viewpoint and how fully developed it is. Pragmatist that I am, sometimes I simply base it on how easy or difficult it would be to write. But today I was thinking that a lot of it depends on ownership.

Ownership is a tricky thing to talk about, and I will admit that I haven’t quite mastered it myself. I tell my students that they need to see the story in their head first before they can recreate it in the mind of the reader. I have a couple of books that I have started that showed great promise for the first couple of chapters. But in the end, I abandoned them because I didn’t have that sense of ownership. I could tell the story, but was it really MY story?

When I was first starting as a writer, I accepted a ghost writing assignment for a neighbor. I struggled with it for weeks before finally giving up. Why? I just couldn’t wrap my brain around someone else’s story. The same thing happened here in Texas just a couple of years ago. A student of mine had a great story to tell. I spent quite a few hours interviewing him, but the story never jelled in my head. I ended up giving him the transcripts of the interviews and wishing him luck in finding another ghost writer.

Some people are good at this kind of work. Cecil Murphy, author of many “autobiographies” including the one on famous surgeon Dr. Ben Carson, makes a very lucrative career by writing other people’s stories. I can’t do it, and at age 60, I am not likely to learn anytime soon.

And sometimes your own idea doesn’t gel in your head. I am going through that challenge in my own current writing project. The storyline is there, the characters seem to be there, but the author isn’t…yet. I haven’t given up on the project, and turn to the advice I give my students. When the going gets tough…keep writing.

So that’s my plan. There comes a point when discretion is the better part of valor, when you need to just cash in your chips and move on. And only you know where that point is.

But at this point, I haven’t given up. I will keep you posted.

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