Safe Writing

safeSafe Writing

I know I’ve been driveling on about appearing naked on the page and telling your emotional, if not literal, truth. I absolutely believe that this is the way to compelling story-telling. But it is exhausting. And frustrating. And makes you long to retreat into safe writing.

What is safe writing?

It’s your fallback position. It’s what you find easy to write—whether action, romance, or humor. We all have comfort zones where we feel that we’ve mastered the craft involved and the subject no longer terrifies, if it ever did.

I know a very fine writer who could write sensuously and sensitively about sex. This is no mean feat—most of us have trouble with this type of scene, worried it will be too much or too little; too crass or too vague. But she mastered them. Except for a problem which can be true of any type of fallback writing. Often it seemed that when she had a choice to go deeper into the characters, she would veer off into a sex scene. And since she did it very well, the reader was distracted away from what might have been a more fruitful area.

I’m not suggesting avoiding what you’re good at, but it’s important to be aware when you might be using it as a crutch. Or, better analogy, a scenic route that allows you to avoid the main road.

Why do writers do this?

Risk-free writing is self-protective

I think a common reason is the one illustrated above. Going deeper into the characters usually means going deeper into yourself. Which is undoubtedly scary. A character’s conflict with her mother may bring up painful memories of your life. To avoid revisiting these uncomfortable feelings, you instead create a mother and daughter who get along, support each other, and have each other’s backs. Which you probably can’t write convincingly as you didn’t have the experience of that. So, might not be good writing but it protects you.

Unfortunately, these painful areas are often where the gold is. When you use your experience of similar thoughts or feelings to inform the characters’ psyches, they ring truer because they are truer. Remembering being abandoned and allowing these feelings to be with you as you write can make powerful writing.

But only if you are willing not to play it safe.

Or derivative

The other, more practical, reason to avoid safe writing is that it is often bad writing. Protecting yourself from unpleasant feelings keeps you on the surface. And then the piece feels derivative because you’re not bringing your authentic self to it. The unique voice and perspective that makes you worth reading.

Do I need to be wild and crazy?

No, you don’t need to be wild and crazy in your writing. Unless that is actually you.

But there are two things that you can try to get out of safe writing.

The first is play. Play with what a scene or a character might look and feel like if it was more based on you than on some ideal. Don’t have to use it in your final manuscript but run up a trial balloon.

The second is to be brave. Say you try the experiment and you find (as I think you might) that the worts-and-all character which reflects some part of you is more absorbing than your original writing. Take a deep breath and see if you can use your true feelings as you write.

I know—back to exhausting and scary. But worth it when the real you shows up in your writing.

I Have a Bunch of Scenes. Now What?

I

scenes

 Have a Bunch of Scenes. Now What?

The last post dealt with creating a novel through writing manageable chunks.  I’m not advocating actually writing in such a mechanical way as I prefer a more haphazard, and freer, method. But whichever approach you use, you’ll eventually end up with a bunch of scenes, all of which may tend in the right direction but don’t necessarily read like a fully-realized novel. Which is probably true.

Sub-plots and other useful bits

The main plot is of course important to a novel whether it’s the growth/decline of the protagonist, the resolution of a mystery, or a couple finally getting together. However, it has other components which are equally important. They have to do with creating a fully realized world into which your reader can happily immerse herself.

The setting

In some novels, say ones in the Arctic, the locale itself can almost be a character. It’s not necessary to go that far, but your characters and their actions need to appear in a context. While writing all the little scenes, you have undoubtedly included some background setting. Now, you should review them to see whether you need to amplify or otherwise enhance the setting to create a fully realized world.

This doesn’t mean simply more description although that might be a component. Ask yourself whether the setting itself can and should prompt your characters’ actions. A storm in a forest might clarify or emphasize your heroine’s bravery or timidity. Work lay-offs could reveal how your protagonist reacts to crisis.

Sub-plots

Another way to create a fictional world is to trace what happens to other characters in the story. If we return to the Martha story from the last post, does she have a sister, Tanya, who finally rebels against the shoddy treatment Martha dishes out? Rather than just write that one scene to illustrate Martha’s ruthlessness at home, you can create a whole story for Tanya. What was it like growing up with Martha? How has it shaped Tanya’s life? How did she get to the breaking point? Why now and not earlier or later in her life?

There you are—a sub-plot.

Scenes sewn together

A variety of sub-plots makes the reading more interesting and your fictional world deeper and more complex. But it isn’t going to work as a novel if all you have are a bunch of linear sub-plots. Clearly, they need to be woven together.

Actually, during the writing itself, these links and crossovers may have already occurred to you. Hey, Martha could need Tanya to do something for her and Tanya ‘forgets.’ Go with them, by all means.

But in the editing phase, look to where you might be able to kill one or more birds with one stone. For example, say you’ve decided that Tanya is as selfish as Martha. Rather than a scene where Tanya is being selfish and another with Martha demonstrating the same quality, why not show them fighting, both trying to get their way? If you add some setting, you have the beginnings of a fully and more integrated novel.

I have to say, the whole time I’m writing this I have an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach. Breaking down a novel into parts is simply a way to show that it can be constructed from little scenes. PLEASE don’t write your novel that way. Let the imagination flow and creativity reign. It is only in the editing that you can and should be more analytic.

Novels are Too Big to Write

novels

Novels are Too Big to Write

Many writers are daunted by the thought of tackling a novel. Takes too much time, I don’t know how to do it, I don’t have the creativity for a whole novel, etc. etc.

What do you like to read? If you live exclusively on a diet of short stories, you can skip this post. But if you also read novels, why aren’t you writing what you like to read? Because, it takes too much time, I don’t know how, yada, yada, yada.

But here’s a secret that famous authors such as Alice Munro and Carol Shields know.

Long pieces of writing are made up of short pieces somehow sewn together. [1]  

I know Alice Munro is known mainly for short stories but her novels, e.g. Lives of Girls and Women, are a series of long short stories woven together.

Novels are little stories sewn together

The problem is that, as a reader, good novels don’t feel like just a series of short stories hung together. They flow, they have a plot which runs the course of the novel, they feel as if they have sprung out of the head of the author as one perfect piece.

They have not. Okay, maybe there is a Mozart equivalent who can go directly from head to finished product, but for everyone else, it’s a more piecemeal activity.

I’m going to break down an example in quite a mechanical way just to show you how it’s done.

An example—Martha, the ruthless

Martha, a ruthless, self-absorbed woman, walks over everyone at work and at home. The novel will end with Martha getting her comeuppance. What are the little scenes you need to write?

Establish Martha character

Near the beginning, you need a scene where Martha shows her character. So, what event or situation would demonstrate this? Humiliating a young colleague in front of co-workers? If important, you also need a scene of Martha being destructive in her personal life.

What happens to this character?

  • She identifies her goal (getting her boss’ job?). Show how she comes to that decision.
  • She trades on her boss’ weaknesses. She sets him up to look indecisive or incompetent to his boss. Probably need a series of scenes on how she engineers this. As the big boss probably needs more than one incident to decide that Martha’s boss has to go, she sets these up, too. Also several scenes.
  • Is it smooth sailing for Martha or does she run into shoals? Shoals are always more interesting. Who or what might impede her? Does her boss catch on? Need a scene where he realizes this. Does he need to make sure he’s right? Another scene where he tests his hypothesis.

How does she get her comeuppance?

How does her downfall come about? Who is doing it and why? Scene needed. What is the plot to bring her down? A series of scenes. How does the comeuppance roll out? A big climactic scene.

As I said, this description is more mechanical than the writing process would actually go. I did this only to show how a story can be broken down into a series of scenes, all of which are manageable length. Writing them puts you on the road to a novel. There is, however, how you sew the scenes together into a novel. Next post.

[1] Shields, Carol, Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing Random House, Canada, 2006 p.24

Self-Censoring

self-censorship

Self-Censoring

Self-censoring is pernicious, mostly because the people who do it most are often the ones who least realize it.

What does self-censoring look like?

I was in a writing group with a woman writing about a personally difficult topic—meeting a long-lost relative. She wrote effectively about her fears and hopes for the encounter. And about her reactions to it. But nothing about the meeting itself. It was as if she closed the door to her readers on what was the emotional core of the story.

The problem is that this writer was surprised (and threatened and offended) when it was pointed out that she had written around the story rather than about it.

I get it, I do. And have some sympathy for the woman who seemed to have felt that depicting the meeting was a bridge too far. But you can see how her unconscious self-censoring affected the quality of her story-telling.

Holding back affects the quality of writing

I’ve written before of the tough necessity to appear naked on the page. Being embarrassingly, shamefully, and completely honest is the only way I know to achieve the emotional truth which readers recognize and respond to. Readers know if you are giving the straight goods even if you don’t. Being readers not writers, they don’t think, “She’s not emotionally honest.” More likely, they’ll say “I just couldn’t get into it.” And not read what you have to say.

Are you repressing your writing?

I think we all do a bit of self-censoring. To capture a real person on paper, we might change the hair color or leave out the most obvious tic or quirk.

But the real self-censorship comes which you find yourself thinking, I can’t say that! and write away from that spot. The fear of exposing yourself or hurting others can happen at any time but is very common in memoirs. Self-censorship is death to the creative process. Without knowing it, you avoid some topics and choose others. You write charming travel logs rather than the abuse at the time of the travel.

What if I’m going for charming?

Nothing wrong with then but, while they might provide light entertainment, they rarely stir a reader’s soul.

But more importantly, here’s the thing. In a way I don’t understand, my finished product is almost never as deep, affecting, true—whatever words you want to use—as originally hoped for. Many writers have that experience. The piece may be good, even very good, but there is almost always some indefinable way in which you had yearned for more.

So, if you start out aiming for shallow or good enough, you’ll end up with even less. And your readers will know it.

What can I do?

I wish I could be prescriptive or even descriptive, but mostly this consists of being able to be—hidden under covers or in the middle of a forest—honest about your work. Ask yourself questions like: are there moments where I have ducked the real issue? Or have I glossed over a messy bit because it seems too hard or painful to write?

If your aim is to be a better writer, allow yourself to fully immerse in the scene in question—allowing uncomfortable feelings to surface, staying with them rather than pushing away.

I’m not saying it’s easy but it’s the only route I know which ups the possibility that you are writing as truthfully as you can.