Writers are often looking for good advice. I’m going to share some of the best advice I ever received. It begins with Ray Bradbury, one of my favorite writers. In his book Zen and the Art of Writing, he has a wonderful essay discussing how he one day began to make a list of possible titles. He didn’t know what the stories were. He simply made a list of titles that captured his imagination.
The Lake. The Skeleton. The Attic. The Carousel. And so on…
Years later upon uncovering the list in a journal, Bradbury was surprised by how many of the titles actually became stories although he never consciously used the list as a reference.
When I read this essay, it reminded me how when I began writing The Nine Pound Hammer, I wrote lists also. I wanted that book—as well as the entire Clockwork Dark trilogy— to be a fantasy adventure based on American history and folklore, rather than rooted in the usual European archetypes common in fantasy.
My list included types of characters, settings, and set-pieces that I hoped would capture the feel of a mythical America: trains, swamps, cowboys, hoodoo magic, John Henry, bottle trees, mermaids, steamboat outlaws, crows, a rabbit’s foot, traveling medicine shows.
These were all elements that to me would make the perfect book. The book I always wanted to read, but frankly nobody else had written. If I was going to enjoy an epic adventure set to America’s myths, I was going to have to be the one to write it.
This led me to a discovery. You (I’m talking to you, writers!) have your own unique list—what I’ve come to think of as “Magnetic Nouns.” These are the things your imagination is drawn to. Your list of Magnetic Nouns is rooted in your experiences, your interests, your passions. To write about them unleashes the creative excitement you hold for these nouns. They infuse your story with imaginative energy. And ultimately, it’s what makes your story uniquely yours, the story only you could possibly write.
The legendary children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom in a letter to Maurice Sendak, when Sendak early in his career was feeling discouraged about his story subjects, said, “You may not be Tolstoy, but Tolstoy wasn’t Sendak either.”
Here is my gift to you, writers: the best advice I’ve ever gotten by way of Ray Bradbury and Ursula Nordstorm. Write the story that only you can write. Nobody else! Not J.K. Rowling or Suzanne Collins or Leo Tolstoy. What is your imagination magnetically drawn to? What is your list? Write the story that nobody else could possibly ever write.
I’ve tried to follow that advice. So far it’s served me well.
Happy holidays and happy writing.