This isn't new advice. You've heard it before, but did you listen?
The first story I wrote in college was about a sculptor who created a bust of her blind brother so he could feel his face like she did.
I'm not a sculptor. I don't have a blind brother. My professor guessed as much. He said the story lacked luster; it was missing authenticity.
He was right.
It's not that I can't write a story with a blind character, but the heart of the story needs to be mine.
My first YA, "This Girl Climbs Trees", was described by Publisher's Weekly as a "semi-autobiographical narrative with literary leanings". Well, maybe. When I think about my college prof's comments. Yes. The nuggets aren't really my life, but the essence, the themes are. Growing up, I questioned everything - life, death, boys, myself. (PW also said it wouldn't hold readers' attentions. My readers say they are wrong.)
My second novel, "Birds on a Wire", follows three teen boys and their struggles with their own identities. One comes out, one loses his temper, the other struggles with love and friendship. Not quite tales from my adolescence, but the underlying themes - yes. In high school, I worked hard balancing friendships and boys; I sought to understand the value of my family v. my friends.
I am writing what I live. Don't expect the plots are me; do expect the central messages are.
My third YA, "Clothed in Flames" (currently in the loving hands of editor Jane MacKay), drops us into the crowded mind of a girl who hears voices and thinks a fictional character can help her find the dad she's never met. (Not my story - not even close. Well, okay, all writers hear voices, yes?) However, the message about love, family, believing in yourself - that's me. That's what I live.
So, yes, Professor Boyle, you were correct. Yes, Neil Gaiman, you, too, are spot on! We must write what we live. Where we live is in our hearts.
What's important to you? Make a list. Write one of those stories. The plot is the vehicle that carries your message. Write what you live.
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