A Challenge to Write Life-Changing Fiction (+Giveaway)

Stories have intentions.

That wonderful idea was just one of many nuggets I found myself highlighting in what has so far turned out to be my surprise read of the year—noted literary agent Donald Maass’s The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

Like many of you, I cut my teeth on Maass’s now-classic Writing the Breakout Novel, but for whatever reason never followed up with any of his other many writing guides, even though they’re all on my TBR list. Fast-forward sixteen years to when I caught Emotional Craft of Fiction as part of a Kindle sale. I started reading it about a month ago, fully expecting a smart but conventional tome of tips for drawing dimension into characters. I got that, but what I wasn’t expecting was that, non-fiction though it is, this would be one of those books with “intentions.”

Just as the best of all writing advice should, the wisdom found in this book applies to so much more than just writing. If storytelling is about exploring life, then good writing advice should inevitably evoke solid life advice as well. (Which, on a side note, is what I’m excited to learn Wesley Baines, a familiar name on this site, is exploring in a forthcoming book about the importance of writers developing traits such as empathy and wisdom.) I find it no coincidence that the two great interests of my life—storytelling and personal growth—continually converge. They are, in so many ways, the same interest.

Many people have taken the time to tell me they enjoyed my book Creating Character Arcs more for its insights into their own life changes than for that of their characters. My response is always an eager, “Right?!” Because that was totally my own experience in discovering character arcs. For me, understanding how to convincingly portray human change on the page was ultimately a journey in understanding how I change and grow.

That, in itself, should be reason enough to go out and read Maass’s book right now—because its great insights into character crafting are really just an emergent of its insights into life itself. The book (intentionally?) came to me at exactly the proper moment in my own life, as I am neck deep in working on emotional fluency.

More than that, however, I found Maass’s book and his comment about “intentional stories” to be a rallying call to writing not just authentic fiction, but the kind of fiction that both invites and encourages readers to follow the characters on Positive-Change Arcs.

I’m not even going to try to do justice to the vastness and depth of the topics Maass covers, but after finishing the book, there are two things I want to do.

1. I want to share a few of my own thoughts on why and how to take up Maass’s challenge to start (or continue) writing not just fiction, but life-changing fiction.

2. Because I want everybody everywhere to read this book, I’m giving away 10 paperbacks to random winners. Scroll to the bottom of the post to enter using the Rafflecopter widget. Winners will be selected at the end of the week. If you don’t win, please find a copy somewhere else and read it! You gotta pinky promise.

5 Starters for Writing Life-Changing Fiction

There are so many different kinds of stories—everything from heroes’ journeys to stream-of-conscious mirrors of prosaic days, from fantasies to exposés, from comedies to tragedies, from genre mashups to literary tomes. There’s something for every one of us at every moment of our lives. Every single type of story has within it the potential seed to absolutely transform at least one of its readers.

Those are the stories I want to read and watch. They don’t come along very often, but when they do, they are nuclear.

I would like to write these stories as well. (Even if the only reader who is changed is me, I’d still be pretty happy with that.) To that end, here are some ideas I’ve mulling on, some of which coincide with those presented in Maass’s book, others which were catalyzed for me by the book.

1. Write With Honesty and Self-Awareness

It’s not stories that change people’s lives; it’s the truth. When stories speak truth, it’s like they’re puzzle pieces fitting into inner holes the audience didn’t even realize were there. There’s a line in Jonathan Latham’s essay in Light the Dark that talks about how when you encounter something true, it doesn’t feel like you just learned something new. Rather, it feels like you suddenly remembered something you knew all along.

The only way to write truth so powerful it gives readers that dichotomous sense of coming home to a place they’ve never before visited is by daily doing your utmost to clear away your own inner fuzziness. Cognitive dissonance, defensive egos, and repressed emotions are things we all deal with that inevitably muddy our thinking. As human beings, we bear the responsibility to try daily to do a little housecleaning. As writers, that responsibility is doubled. When asking readers to suspend disbelief, we are implicitly asking them to believe we will share with them something true. That’s a contract of trust.

2. Write With Humility and Humor

But let’s not be pompous, shall we? Every day for me is a discovery of some life-truth that astounds and excites me. I want to share every one of those truths with every single person I can. But even in the midst of my own enthusiasm (and, sometimes, overweening pride at my unprecedented cleverness), there’s a part of me that knows full well not all my truths are going to be interesting to others. Indeed, not all of my truths are really true. Today’s certainty may turn out to be tomorrow’s mirage.

If, in writing, we accept the terrible responsibility of speaking truths to our neighbors, then we also do well to acknowledge our own unsuitability for that role with more than a little self-deprecation. I want to tell the truth; I want to change your life. But, c’mon, I’m just a struggling schmo too. Very likely, that’s the greatest truth I’ll ever know or share.

3. Write Actionable Fiction

As a reader and especially a viewer, I spend an inordinate amount of time preemptively bypassing stories that seem hellbent on sending me to bed with a downer. I love incisive, hard-hitting, even dark fiction—but not if it gives me dog-breath from the bad taste in my mouth.

Maass nailed it when he wrote:

Some people may read fiction to be frightened, but they never read it to be brought down. They may wish to be challenged, but they don’t want to be crushed. They may read for amusement, but they still have heart. They do seek an emotional experience, as I’ve said, but they also want to come away feeling positive.

I think of some of my favorite stories—The Great EscapeThe Book ThiefGladiatorWuthering HeightsBlack Hawk Down, True Grit—and I’m rather surprised to realize how dark they all are, how most of them end in quantifiable tragedy. And yet… and yet. What these stories have to say about the world is anything but tragic. They tell hard truths, but in the end those truths feel triumphant.

The insight I find most poignant in Maass’s quote is that we should be striving to write actionable fiction. In the same way copywriters are taught to end with a call to action (something people can immediately respond to after hearing about the benefits of the advertised product), fiction writers should also consider what the end of a story may be encouraging readers to do in their own lives.

This does not mean ending with some blatant moral that tells readers to go out and make the world a better place. But we all know the feeling of inspiration found at the conclusion of the kind of story that very well just changed our lives.

This call to action is most important in stories that tell dark truths. Otherwise, the message is “roll over and die.” Stories of injustice, stories of horror, stories of death—they should be about more than just injustice, horror, and death. They should be about what we can do about these tragedies in our own lives after closing the back cover of the book.

4. Write to the Find the Best of Yourself

When you read your own stories, who do you see? It can be hard to identify the person peeking out from between the lines. But take a hard look. If the person you see has been honestly represented, then very likely she’s not a perfect person. She may be full of rage, pain, and fear. She may be downright scary. That’s okay.

But don’t leave it at that. Don’t let your fiction be nothing more than a place to vent all the hard parts of being you. See if you can’t also find the best of yourself looking back at you.

Maass again:

This may sound like I’m in favor of pandering to readers, but I’m actually appealing to the good, positive, and inspiring person called you. Don’t give me easy reading; give me the best of you. When you do, it becomes the best of me, too. Do you believe that it cheapens fiction to make it humane, heart grabbing, filled with goodness? You are not alone in that belief, but I disagree.

The best of you is not some fake version of fairy-tale perfection. The best of you is that enraged, hurting, fearful person who rose above herself and found change. That’s the person I want to know when I read your stories, because that’s the person who is going to inspire me to rise as well.

5. Write Fiction That Hopes

Sometimes it’s hard to even know for sure which stories have changed your life. Sometimes they don’t obviously change us until long after we’ve read them. But sometimes you know.

This summer, I had the opportunity to watch the extended versions of the Lord of the Rings movies on the big screen as part of a “flashback cinema” program at my local theater. Over the course of three weeks, I sat through all 11 hours and 22 minutes. As a kid, I remember the news gushing about how “life-changing” the films were. For me, this time, they were. It felt like an incredible to gift to get to experience this particular story in this particular medium at this particular time in my life. Samwise Gamgee tells us “there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for”—and, just like that, my life is changed.

You can change the world with stories of of truthful darkness or even despair. But I can’t help but believe, in agreement with Maass (and Sam), that it is much better instead to choose a different catalyst of change—the catalyst of hope:

You are writing to show us how things are, but aren’t you also writing to show us how things can be? Your current novel is not just a report, right? It’s a vision. It’s a gleeful celebration of what is hard, important, hopeful, and beautiful about life.

***

There are so many reasons to love stories. And as humans, we do—we truly do—love stories. Speaking at least for myself, I think the single greatest reason I first fell in love with stories, and continue to follow them even to this day as the guiding stars of my life, is their power to change me. If a story creates no impact in my life, then I find I am invariably disappointed on some level. I want to be changed. I want every day to be a transformation. That is why I read, and that is why I write.

And that is why I want you to read Donald Maass’s inspiring challenge to write stories of depth and meaning. Be sure to enter the giveaway below. I leave you with a final quote:

Novels that are truly grand, generous, and confident do not come along very often, but why can’t such novels be yours every time?

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What’s a story that changed your life? How has it inspired you to want to write life-changing fiction? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I am going to add this to my list to read. Right now I am reading your Outlining Your Novel. I had grabbed a couple of other books to help me get started in writing, but I am making so much progress with planning my book that I am afraid to add in anything else or distract myself. The amazing things that are unfolding as I answer the questions/suggestions you pose… That sounds corny, but for the first time I feel like I have a clear idea of where I am going with a book and a very high chance of having something worthwhile at the end! I have had so many false starts and it’s just very exciting. I am so excited to get a chance to work on my book every morning.

  2. Ava Fairhall says

    This is an awesome post – I love reading your blogs every week, I always find something new to try out in my writing. And being able to write emotional fiction that moves people, that’s my favourite thing to try right now.

  3. Valari Westeren says

    I’m reading Wuthering Heights for the first time, and I’m kinda surprised that you like it so much. It’s just striking me as dark and tragic without much hope right now. But now I’m encouraged to keep reading until the end. And who knows, maybe it’s one of those stories I’ll have to read a second time to fully appreciate it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Full disclosure: it took me three reads to fall in love with it. First time, I read it, I gave it three stars. Second, four stars. Third, five. 🙂

  4. I have a terrible time remembering details from my past ~ details like books that changed your life, teachers that made a difference, the biggest lesson you learned under the bleachers at the football game [no, wait, I know that one 😉 ] ~ those kind of details. But I read a lot and am grateful to have found your blog, Ms. Weiland. Your input is developmental in my growth as a writer. Thank you!

  5. The story (series) that changed my life was the Chronicles of Narnia. I now love everything C.S. Lewis. When I was a kid I really didn’t enjoy reading, but this is one series I read over and over. I now love reading, writing, and am working on my first novel. I relly enjoy your podcast and blog as it inspires not only writers to become authors but inspires people to become everything they were created to be! Thanks!

  6. I don’t read a lot of fiction. I’m mostly a movie guy (and writer). But in my mid-20s I read Steinbeck’s East of Eden. I read the last five pages through eyes blurred by tears, and when I finished the last page I convulsed with unstoppable crying for a full ten minutes. It was the most powerful reading (or movie) experience I’ve ever had. Did it make me a better person? I’m not sure. As best I can recall, it left me with the profound feeling that life itself is simply tragic, even though I’ve not experienced anything like the traumas portrayed in that book. Perhaps it deepened my ability to feel intensely, to empathise, to want to empathise.

    Thank you so much for what you do, Katie. I’m a big fan, have been for a couple of years now. A little heart flutter happens every time I see one of your emails in my inbox.

    cheers,

    Jim

  7. Anne Bender says

    The story that changed my life is Jonathan Livingston Seagull. My mom had me read this when I was about 10 years old and I have never looked at life the same way since.

  8. Rebecca Hunter says

    I don’t know about a book that has “changed my life”, but I was really touched by Kamin Mohammadi’s books, and I think Paul Galico is an amazing author.

  9. The story that changed my life was the Betsy-Tacy series. Ever since my mom first read them to me, I’ve adored them.

    Another book that’s changed my life is your 5 Secrets of Story Structure. It has taught me so much. Thank you!

  10. Thank you so much for this post. I feel it clarifies the type of books I hope to write. I truly appreciate your posts.

  11. This is some fantastic advice K.M! I’m definitely adding this book to my ‘Writing Books to Buy’ list!

  12. Karla Diaz says

    As always an on point post. This is exactly what I needed to read/hear for my current WIP. Thanks, K. M. I’ve always enjoyed reading but writing wasn’t really on my radar until about 10 years ago. I have read so many books that I’ve loved and I’m sure many have impacted my life: Pride & Prejudice, Lord of the Flies, Harry Potter, Hunger Games… But lately (and I mean in the past 5 years) books on the craft of writing including all of yours (Structuring Your Novel and Outlining Your Novel were the very first ones I purchased). Today I’m reading The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know, and I can’t put it down!

  13. M. R. Shupp says

    I recently just read The Story of With by Allen Arnold, and I can’t get it out of my head. Being creative with God is so much more rewarding than being creative without Him; thus, I am really striving to change the way I’m creative to be with Him.

  14. Great article. I think one of the reasons i like WF – both to read and write- is because an idea to ponder– is part of the story. I particularly like “Write Fiction that Hopes.”
    The book that changed me would be To Kill A Mockingbird. I was fortunate to teach 11th grade English for years and we discussed that book every year. Teaching hope through fiction is important.

    I follow your newsletters. I hope to see you at NJRW conference.

    Judi w/a Reece

  15. One of many books that changed my life was Kristin Cashore’s “Fire.” She has a wonderful, soul-touching way with words. Somehow she’s economical with them, too. Her writing brightens my day every time.

  16. This book sounds amazing. I’ve been slowly going through all of your posts and re-teaching my self how to outline and create unforgetable characters. It takes time to learn but I appreciate all that you share for the sake of the craft. Thanks. <3

  17. Yvonne Griffiths says

    Little Women moved me to write life-changing fiction; it felt like I knew Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. How Louise May Alcott weaves the challenges her characters face, with their emotional highs that leaves the reader laughing and crying with them, inspires me to write stories like that.

  18. I read LotR when was in the forth grade and it sent me on the way toward loving fantasy.

  19. LaVeryle Spencer wrote a book called Bitter Sweet about a woman whose husband died and she moved back to her hometown. It was kind of a sad book, but it’s about a second chance at love story and in the end, she has gotten back together with a man she loved many years ago. At that time in my life, I could connect with the emotions in the book. As a young girl, I loved Little Women.

  20. One of my favourite books is The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth Craighead Speare. I read it years ago for a school project, and kept coming back to it, and coming back to it, and I’m still going back to it, trying to figure out what about it fascinates me so much. To an extent, I realized that it definitely had an emotional appeal that simply wasn’t in so many of the books I’ve read.
    I’ve often heard the advice “write what you’re afraid of”, and understood it in the vague idea that facing fears requires bravery, and the conflict produces a rawness in writing that people crave. But, at risk of pointing out the obvious, that is scary. Advice I brushed under the rug because “I’m not at that point yet” (actually, to be honest, I use that excuse a lot).

    Your post really helped me understand this better. Thank you. (And I will definitely be getting my hands on that book!)

  21. Sandy Schuster-Hubbard says

    The Diary of Anne Frank. If Anne could share that people are good at heart given her austere circumstances, then so could I. Read this when I was thirteen. She also had the insight that our parents can only offer us so much, and our character is what we make it.

  22. Michelle Taylor says

    There are many non fiction books that have changed my life but I can’t think of any fiction books right now. Here’s to hoping I can find one.

  23. ‘My Friend Flicka’! It was a book that was an unusual choice for me at the time but I found it so compelling that I read the series and enjoyed them all. I believe it was the first book that I connected with emotionally while I was reading it – instead of after I finished reading it. Right now, like so many others posting on your blog here, I’m reading your ‘Creating Character Arcs’ – which really is a book that is changing my creative and writing life! You are an amazingly clear and talented teacher KM – thanks for creating and running this blog. I’m sure Mr Maass’s book is good, but I’ll bet that a future book of yours on the topic will distill all that information down into a clear set of exercises that your students can use and apply to their own writing. Happy writing KM and I too shall endeavour to write something life-changing!

  24. I’ve read so many books and I think that all of them shaped who I am today. But I can’t pin point one specific story that changed me or a part of my life.
    In another medium I remember an instance where a story really had a direct impact on me. It was an anime called Sakurasou no pet na Kanojo, about a group of misfit students, who live in a special dorm.
    The MC is rather normal and has to move there because its the only place he can keep his cats. He is bored by his normal, all too regular life and lacks the drive to accomplish anything. This changes once he starts living at the dorm. The eccentric students living there are all really talented in different kinds of art and really hard at work to one day become professionals. Seeing them all being super motivated at work, he realizes, what he is missing: a dream. Interestingly enough in the end of the story he fails to accomplish his goals. But it doesn’t end on a depressing note. He realizes that failing is ok, that it takes hard work to get where he wants, and that he will keep trying to make it in the world of game design. But there is one thing that is not ok: not even trying.
    This made me think that, while I was writing stories, I wasn’t really trying to get anywhere. Whenever I feel like becoming an author is too far fetched of a goal, I rewatch this series (or some episodes) because then I think, I have to keep trying for real. If I fail that is ok, but not even trying is not ok!

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