Novels can rocket to bestseller-dom by virtue of subject matter. Social issues and trends, foreign affairs, new technologies, and world events hit close to home and open up myriad fiction possibilities.
Consider John Grisham’s multi-bestseller success. He said in an interview, “I always try to tell a good story, one with a compelling plot that will keep the pages turning. That is my first and primary goal. Sometimes I can tackle an issue—homelessness, tobacco litigation, insurance fraud, the death penalty—and wrap a good story around it.”
And speaking of lawyers, a lawyer-turned-writer friend of mine told me about a proposed law that would ban cigarette smoking while driving with a minor in the vehicle. It sounded reasonable to me, and when I said as much, she mentioned another state proposal that banned drinking alcohol on one’s outdoor property. She then made a case against the precedent, suggesting that if these bills pass, it could lead to personal government where each state enforces its ideologies, determining how its residents will behave. Shortly after our conversation, New York’s Mayor Bloomberg proposed a ban on selling large-size sugary soft drinks to combat the obesity epidemic. I thought of my friend’s argument. I’m all for educating the public on healthful lifestyle, but it’s another matter to legislate diet.
Personal government crosses personal boundaries, to say nothing of usurping the ideals that define our country. My imagination saw the trend sweeping the nation. There’s fiction, here, folks.
WHAT’S ON YOUR MIND?
If you’re going to be a contemporary storyteller, you’re going to want to sort of pay attention to how these things intersect and what were on particular people’s minds or on fictional characters minds. Or what is on your own mind. It’s one of the big mistakes I see my undergraduates doing: They will write about things that are not on their mind. It’s like, they’re off-center, they don’t really care about them, it’s just some vague idea of it. You really have to write from the center. When you write from the center you’ll find a lot of things you care about that may not superficially have things in common. But you put them down there in the story and they will talk to each other. —Lorrie Moore
What makes your blood boil? As Kurt Vonnegut suggests, “Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive.”
For Karen Thompson Walker, the subject was global warming. Her book, The Age of Miracles: A Novel travels the potentiality of climate change, following twelve-year-old Julia who wakes up one Saturday morning to discover, along with the rest of the world, that the rotation of the earth has begun to wane. Days and nights grow longer. Gravity increases as the earth’s magnetic field fails. Birds drop from the sky, whales wash up on beaches, and human lives spin out of control.
Has a particular headline grabbed your attention? Perhaps civil rights in China, uninsured motorist, people who text-message while driving? Pick up the flint and ask yourself, What if?
- Write an argument to defend your viewpoint.
- Now cover the flipside.
- Ask yourself—what kind of person would advocate the development of this issue; what kind of person would oppose it?
- What would either side do to support their position?
- What obstacles might stand in their way?
- Beyond the issue itself, what is at stake for those involved; for the world at large?
Keep up on current topics. Read specialty magazines, listen to conversations with one ear bent for story. And when you come up with a lead, ask who, when, where, and why.