[Podcast] Novelist and Memoirist Donna Freitas on Identifying the “Why” of Your Book

2 identifying your writing purpose 3 honing the writing craft podcast post Nov 22, 2022

Every book has a heart. It’s not just an idea; it’s why the idea matters. Whether it’s a nonfiction book, a memoir, or a novel, every book has a purpose. It has a “why." 

The “why” is your answer to the question: “Why am I writing this book?” And if you don’t have an answer to that question, then you might need to spend some time wrestling with it.

Novelist, memoirist, and nonfiction author Donna Freitas spoke with us on the “why” of writing and offers this timely advice.

Why the “Why” Is Important

The “why” of your book brings clarity to your book idea. As Freitas describes it, the “why” is a roadmap for your book. It shows you the route to take to connect the beginning to the middle to the end. With it, you will know what you need to do—what scenes to write, which arguments to include, how to develop your characters, what research must be completed, etc.—to complete your book.

Freitas’ book, The Nine Lives of Rose Napolitano, for example, follows the story of a woman who chose not to have children, and the different variations of life when her choice changes: what would happen if she had a child? What would happen if she didn’t?

Freitas explains the “why” of her book was asking permission (and forgiveness) to be a woman who didn’t want to have children. The “why” helped her map out the plot, character exploration, and themes she wanted to explore in her book.

Each author’s why is unique. Some “whys” include:

  • To memorialize your family’s stories (family history) [link to family story];
  • To establish your expertise in your field (nonfiction) [link to rose Hollister/dave];
  • To insert your voice on a topic (memoir) [link to rob’s podcast];
  • To see the world through a new perspective (fiction/memoir) [link to Miriam’s blog].

To help you identify the “why” of your book, ask yourself: “Why am I writing this book? Why is it important for me to write this book now?”

The “why” provides direction to your writing moving forward. Often, authors get stuck when they aren’t crystal clear on the “why.” 

How the “Why” Improves Your Writing

The “why” of your book will help you 1) craft your content, and 2) keep your reader hooked.

Books, to state the patently obvious, are not an amalgamation of random content. Each chapter—and all of its scenes—serve a purpose: to support and develop your “why.”

Think of your “why” like a filter [link to Rob’s podcast]. It will help you determine which content is salient, and which content is useless. An easy way to determine which content to use: Ask yourself, “Does this piece of content support my ‘why’?” If it doesn’t, then consider cutting it, as difficult as it might be.

The “why” of your book is also instrumental to building tension. On the one hand, your “why” can increase the tension by exploring different scenarios/perspectives that present unique challenges to your big idea.

For example, in Freitas’ book, her main character, Rose, struggles with whether to have children. Freitas’ “why”, as mentioned above, is to make peace with her decision to not have children. In the book, each of the nine plot lines exposes Rose to scenarios that challenge her decision. Each scenario increases the tension as the reader either agrees with Rose’s decision or faults her.

On the other hand, your “why” can increase the tension by introducing questions your reader might have. This is true for all types of writing, including nonfiction. Take a look at Jon Krakauer’s memoir, Into Thin Air. Krakauer’s “why” is to chronicle his ascent of Mt. Everest in 1996 and the subsequent deaths of eight people in a single day. His “why” is to question “what” and “who” are to be blamed for the tragedy.

The tension mounts with each question the reader asks. Are the guides to be blamed? Why didn’t people follow the “turn-around-time” rule? What can be done to avoid another tragedy? These questions guide Krakauer’s structure and keep the reader’s attention from the first page to the last.

Have you identified the “why” of your book? If you haven’t, spend time wrestling with it. It will make your writing better, and give purpose to your book.