Author Toni Morrison once said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
Since then, “write the book you want to read” has been fed to writers as inspiration, motivation, and even (let’s be honest) frustration. But lately, I’ve been thinking about this piece of advice and wondering if it might be the key to success for authors.
Let’s get a few things straight here. When I talk about success, I don’t necessarily mean fame and fortune. Rather, I mean that this advice might just be the driving force that will keep you writing right to the end of one book and maybe even through several more. Think about it: the more excited an author is about their book project, the more involved and invested they tend to be about the ideation, the creation, and the completion of that book.
When you are excited to sit down at your desk every day, your muse (or whatever creative force works with and through you) can’t help but show up—if only to peer over your shoulder with an “Oooo, what are you working on?” To me, that drive to keep writing, to keep creating, and to feel excited about my work is the ultimate kind of success. And maybe (because optimism is its own kind of magic) that excitement will translate through the book and be passed on to readers.
Happy readers not only buy your books, they recommend them to others.
Think about the books, movies, and TV shows you love most. What are the themes that seem to recur regularly? What settings and genres feel like they’re tailor-made for you? What movies make it seem like someone looked at your list of favorite films and said, “Yep, this is exactly our audience”?
What stories are missing from your life? Surely you’ve perused bookstores and streaming platforms and felt that frisson of excitement that someone hit your magic niche—and then felt crushing disappointment that they either failed to execute it or it didn’t really satisfy that particular hunger.
Start by making a list of subjects or niches that you’re always excited about, then dig deep. What tropes or hooks reel you in? What characters resonate with you most, and what kinds of journeys are you always excited to embark upon? Do you love happy endings, sad endings, cryptic ones, or morally ambiguous ones? Jot each of these answers down. Look for similarities or ways these themes and narratives might work together.
Most importantly, don’t be afraid to do something completely new or off the wall.
Writing the book you want to read might just be a singular motivation that will keep you excited about the book you’re writing instead of anticipating the market. It might challenge you to come up with new and fresh ways of looking at the material. It could also inspire you to start challenging the norms and expectations of books—provided you’re willing to accept that breaking the rules of specific genres (such as romance) might eclipse them from being categorized as such.
Sometimes those themes you want to write about hold a particular interest for you, perhaps even a skill or field of study you have never thought to include in a book. But what happens when you’re dealing with a topic or subject you’re not familiar with?
According to Chuck Sambuchino in “Writing the Book You Want to Read (Even When You’re Not an Expert in the Field),” your best bet is to do the work. “In preparation for writing your novel, read as widely as you can about your topic—fiction and non-fiction—until the terminology and practices become second nature.”
Sambuchino suggests keeping a list of things you are excited to read about and using it to heighten or even test the stakes. If reading up on the subject doesn’t seem to help, ask an expert. “Books are a wonderful start when researching a topic, but nothing will ever beat a flesh and blood expert. If you already know that person, wonderful. If not, don’t panic. I’ve found that when I tell people I am writing a novel, they are generally happy to answer my questions as long as I am respectful of their time.”
It’s easy for writers and authors to get stuck in our own heads, especially if (eep) you happen to work in book publishing circles. Here, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and the insider information about marketing and promotion, reader trends, or the ofttimes ice-cold realities of book publishing can hover at the edges of our minds. We start overthinking. We try to anticipate what readers might want or hope to ride the crest of a current book trend. It’s exhausting, and it’s one of the fastest ways to deflate any enthusiasm you might have about your book projects.
This is where the genius of Toni Morrison’s advice comes in. Because when you write for yourself, that’s the magic place to be. That’s where joy is found and art is created.
Which leaves one question that is (at least until now) unanswered: What is the book you want to read?
Go on and answer it.
And let us know what happens.
Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.