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May 10, 2012

Working in the Word Mines – Purpose

by Michael Langlois

There are three things that you need to write a book, but only one of them really matters.

You need the what, which is the format and the story idea.

You need the how, which is your craft and the sweat it takes to wield it.

And you need the why.

This is the big one.  Why are you writing this story?  This book?  At all?

The why is your guide and your muse all rolled into one, and the reason you started putting words to paper in the first place.  It’s the thing that keeps your ass in the chair and what gives you a rush when you see it on the page.  Without answering the why, everything else ends up haphazard or mechanical.

The best way to talk about the why is through example.  Let me tell you about mine.

Like most of you, I grew up reading every book I could get my hands on.  I wasn’t looking for anything more than entertainment and escapism, so to me, they were just books and nothing more.  But somewhere along the line, I started running into Books with a capital B.  Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein.  The Belgariad by David Eddings.  The Man Who Never Missed by Steve Perry.  Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart.

They started in the same way as every other book, but after a few chapters, something happened that I had never experienced before.  There was a synergy between the story and the characters and ME that generated pure electricity.  Moments of stunning clarity and emotional highs that were completely new to me.

It changed my relationship with stories, but more than that, it changed the way I felt about myself.  It allowed me to believe that it really was possible to change the world and do important things that mattered to you.  When Bad Things happened, they weren’t beating you down, they were simply the challenges that were always there in a good story, and that they were in need of a good ass-kicking.  And that I was capable of delivering it.

Those feelings and realizations changed my outlook on life.  I like to think they made me a better person.  Those moments are what what I look for as a reader, and represent the gold standard against which I measure what I write.  Attempting to give that experience to other people is my Why, and ultimatly what drives me to do what I do.

You have a Why.  Maybe you’ve never thought about it in those terms, but it’s there.  Get clarity around the why and your writing will move to a new level of effectiveness, your plotting will have new purpose, and hammering out that prose will be that much easier.

Never forget that the how and the what are always in service to the why.

I’m going to leave you with some homework.  Spend the next 18 minutes watching this TED Talk with Simon Sinek.  When you hear product, think story.  When you hear leader, think author.  Think about your why.

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