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Tough Love Talk: Your Story (Probably) Isn’t Special

I know you’re settling in to read this, especially if you’re new or newish to writing, with some degree of resistance. Maybe you even thought about just not reading it at all. You believe–absolutely believe in your bones–that your story is special. That there’s nothing like it. That what happened to you, whether it was good or bad or in between, hasn’t happened to anyone else. That it needs to be written.

As a former editor, writing instructor, and a lifelong voracious reader of nearly every genre, I can assure you with almost complete certainty that your story is nothing special. Even the experience that seems utterly obscure has likely happened to someone else. What’s more, the world is littered with narratives about those experiences, and the majority of them are written poorly.

I know this is uncomfortable, but stay with me.

I was contacted recently by a young woman who wanted to know where she should pitch a story about falling in love with a man from Cuba. She had met him while she was on vacation, fell madly in love with him, and in short order, they started the paperwork that would lead to them getting married and bringing him to the United States. Because the story was unique within her circle, she was absolutely convinced that it was unique in the world. It wasn’t. I can count a full handful of women I know personally whose story is nearly the same. Sure, some particulars are different, but the broad strokes are nearly identical.

Because she was convinced it was unique, period, she was also convinced that pretty much any editor should be interested in a story about it. She didn’t say how she planned to tell her story, how the narrative would arc, distinct from the way you’d tell the story at a bar or over dinner with some good friends. She didn’t say who she thought the ideal audience would be. She was just so excited, so sure that this story, her story, was so good that it needed to be published.

This is just one example; I could come up with a dozen others, easily. When I was an editor, I received pitches on a daily basis from passionate writers who wanted to convince me that no one– no, really, no one–had ever written a story like theirs.

Only the thing was, I’d just received another pitch on exactly the same topic.

**
To say that your story (probably) isn’t special is tough love talk, I know. It chips away at the foundation holding in place some of the most cherished reasons why you write: to tell your truths. To make sense of them. To seek–and hopefully receive–catharsis, redemption, validation, identification, or some other psychological need of which you may not even be aware. To share this experience that feels (and is) so precious and particular.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that.

But what makes your story special is how you tell it, what details you bring to it, what observations. The struggles and the lessons and the unanswered questions. The doubts that niggle at you when you can’t sleep at night, or the ones that pester you when you’re writing. Don’t try to convince an editor that your STORY is unique because most likely, it’s not. It’s how that story reaches and affects a reader through your skillful telling of it: that’s where you need to be investing your energy and your skills of persuasion when you’re reaching out to an editor. Rather than insist upon the novelty of your story, push yourself harder to answer the question: How can I tell this in a new way, a way that no one has told this kind of story before?

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2 responses »

  1. Thanks for this – It might sounds like tough love, but the good news is it means any story can be a good one and we can all stop agonizing over which idea is “the best” and worthy of pursuing. It’s all about the execution and the unique perspective you bring.
    Sometimes the best stories are the most unoriginal – the ones we can relate to in every detail and that seem to be telling our very own life stories!

    Reply
  2. As I was reading this article, I was thinking it’s how you tell the story that’s unique, not the story itself. Thanks for the reminder.

    Reply

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