Writing Close to the Bone

Writing Close to the Bone

I know, I know. I’ve already lectured you about emotional truth, being naked on the page, and going for broke. You might understandably be saying, “Yeah, yeah. Got it.”

But like all hard and important things, ‘getting it’ is an iterative process. You read about it once and think, “Yes, I must keep that in mind.” You read it a second time: “Right, I meant to do that.” And a third: “How come I can’t remember?”

It’s hard to recall it because it’s hard to do and outside almost everyone’ comfort zone. It takes a concerted effort. Which sometimes works and the result is a joy. And sometimes doesn’t.

So, because I think this issue is so critical to truly bringing yourself to the page, I’m going to give it another kick at the cat. But this time from when I have yearned to be able to do it.

Yearning to be close to the bone

In my journal or other times when I ‘should’ be writing, I have often whined about how hard it is to reach that spot all writers covet.

I keep watching Inside The Actors’ Studio to get another jolt like Meryl Streep’s one true thing. That she can play any character if she can find in her the one thing that is true for her and true for the character. That I can create any character if I can find that one thing that is true for her and true for me.

But it’s been dry pickings lately.

Although Dustin Hoffman. He cried. He cried almost as soon as he sat down. About his father, I think. But no matter. How close to the surface the passion. How easily it slipped out. How much I envy that—the pick ax and drill nature of my passion. So carefully concealed, so appropriately expressed. White gloves for shopping still on.  


I let myself wander away from that which would be fearless. Like the nakedness would be as unattractive as my body without clothes. Like it would confirm what we all suspected—she has an overweight soul. That passion is a garment held together by safety pins of technique. That the clever turn of phrase can be the sleight of hand, to dazzle, to distract, to confuse and ultimately, to change the subject.

Writing as a chronic condition

I know that every writer despairs sometimes of sinking deep down into who they are. I guess there might be some who don’t but I’m not sure that I’d want to hang out with them. It is unfortunately, the natural state of writers.  To doubt, to fail in courage, to have moments when they know that the world would continue to spin happily on its axis if they never wrote again.

But writing is a chronic condition. It will not be denied. You write because you must.

And it will work

As my final word on this from my journal.

Not quite drivel, not quite story. But from that place that has been absent for a while, missed and yet proceeding forward, like the impolite guest for whom you no longer hold dinner. Even though he provides the light and the laughter and the meaning.

Finales that Aren’t


Finales that Aren’t

Recently, I did a post on knowing when you’re finished your novel and I know that this post sounds like it might be a repeat but it isn’t. There is a difference between finished and finales.

There seems to be a fashion now for trilogies and other multi-book sagas. Whether this urge is driven by readers who want more or authors who have more to say, I don’t know. Personally, I shudder at the idea. If I go for broke in writing a novel, it doesn’t feel as if there is much left for a sequel. Much as I am sorry to say good-bye to my characters when I finish, I don’t usually have any urge to delve back into their lives.

But for those who feel that generational sagas are for them, one word (or more) of advice.

Finales have to be satisfying

You are nearing the end of the first volume of your trilogy and have a good idea of where the next one is going. And you want the end of the first novel on a real cliff-hanger to encourage readers to rush to read the next.

All well and good. However, it’s important to remember that the ending of the novel has to be more than an advert for the next. It needs to be a satisfying ending in and of itself.

What does satisfying mean? Relax, doesn’t have to be a happy ending, nor do all the strands need to be tied up neatly. Your main character may not even triumph. His failure might be a very satisfying ending. The right one, not the happy one.

But it does need to at least provide a resolution—perhaps not the final—but an answer to the goal your protagonist set out to achieve and has motivated him to action.

If you don’t, the end of the novel will feel as if you’ve kind of stopped in mid-sentence. It will annoy the reader who will feel, perhaps rightly, that she’s been vaguely cheated. And will not encourage the purchase of the next book of the trilogy.

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins is a good example of getting this right. The first volume, The Hunger Games, ends (spoiler alert) with the two main characters Katniss and Peeta, deciding to die together rather than give the authoritarian regime what it wants—a clear victor to the Games. The two are both declared victors and so the novel reaches a satisfying conclusion.

However, the kernels of the next novel are sewn in that Katniss is seen as a dangerous enemy because she engineered this perceived defeat of the government. How she becomes a symbol of the resistance is depicted in the second book of the series, Catching Fire.

Here is an example of planting the seeds of the next book while effectively providing a fulfilling finish to this story.

So, make sure that the reader is happy because there is plot closure even if with a continuing story. It’s one way to up the chances that your next novel will be eagerly anticipated.

Going For Broke

brokeGoing For Broke

I think every writer, consciously or not, decides how much of themselves, or their history, or their great ideas they want to reveal in a particular piece of work. That is, we don’t often go for broke.

This is what I wrote in my journal when I was starting a new project.

What if I put everything in one basket and went for it? All out, everything I’ve got on one story—rather than eking out the thoughts, rationing the imagination so it will last for the rainy day when the magic is a sodden as the clouds. What if I thought it was a river not a reservoir? What if I trusted myself? God, there’s a concept. Go get the laundry.

I don’t know if the passage makes as much sense now as it did then, but I felt that I was holding back, tiptoeing in rather than jumping into the deep end of the novel. By which I mean, allowing any semi-deep insight or crazy idea or scary revelation to just flow onto the page. To open the dam and see what comes out.

Why was I holding back?

Well, I think it comes down to trusting yourself, or at least it did for me. If I threw everything I cared about, everything I feared or hungered for or dreamed on a silly night, what would I have left? Nothing, I feared. I’d pour my whole self into this one novel and then I’d have no more to give. I’d be emptying myself, at least the writing self.

Yes, and of course, there were the ancillary concerns that I don’t technically know how to do what I want to produce, or that doing it will reveal too much of me, that I will offend, that people will think I’m crazy/callous/sentimental/boring.

But fundamentally, it came down to: was I going for broke or not?

So I took a deep breath and jumped in. Frankly, it was scary. However, when I finished, I was pleased with the result. The no-holds-barred seemed to produce a piece that had more life and depth.

Good result but didn’t address the concern—was I going to be able to write anything else?

Well, of course I was. I might feel empty after finishing a piece but the hopper got refilled shortly thereafter. With that comfort, I try always to go for broke when I write. Doesn’t always work, sometimes I chicken out or get distracted. But I have adopted it as my mindset.

What if it gets broke?

You may feel differently—that you tried it and you were emptied. I admit that sometimes it feels as if it has happened.

But I would say, pretty emphatically, it doesn’t really. You haven’t stopped thinking, have you? Or living? Or changing, for ill or good. There will always be ideas and thoughts and insights which can be turned into story.

Still disagree? I firmly believe what you are experiencing is due to other circumstances. Like writer’s block or self-censoring  or fear of appearing naked on the page, or being stuck .

My advice—go take a nap, reread the novel that made you want to write, walk away for a bit (a bit, not forever), get on with real life. From which river, you can catch your next insight, event, or feeling. Which you write about.

I Can’t Write Until I Have Something Deep To Say


 I Can’t Write Until I Have Something Deep To Say

I think people sometimes believe that writers must have deep and important thoughts before they start writing. Shakespeare had all the poetry in his head, just bursting to get out. Jane Austen already knew the intricacies of the social dramas she so brilliantly portrayed.

Okay, obviously I can’t check with these guys to be sure, but that’s not my experience nor that of any writer I know or have heard speak of the writing process.

Bad news: can’t do deep to order

Setting out to be ‘deep’ seems a dubious way to start.

First, and importantly, it may stop you from writing at all because you haven’t yet acquired the ‘depth’ that you think you need to write.

Secondly, and equally important, the final product is almost guaranteed to be pretty boring. Earnest and worthy, perhaps. But not good reading.

This approach ups the chances that your characters are representations of your ideas (sincerity, truthfulness, whatever) rather than living breathing entities who can be both inspiring and despicable. In short, human.

Also, novels with an a priori message are prone to long passages where they figuratively hit the reader over the head with “this is my message—get it?” Most readers don’t like being preached at from a fiction pulpit.

Good news: don’t need to

But the good news is that a message is not required before starting to write.

With my first book, I realized what the book was about only near the end of the writing that . But I didn’t have time to redo it as I was committed to a publisher’s deadline. With the second book, I built in enough time to do a redraft which allowed the threads to become clearer. I would have liked to have done another draft to refine it but again, I needed to respect the publisher’s deadline.

What I am trying to say is that whatever depth I was able to demonstrate on the page was as a result of refining, elaborating, streamlining, and sometimes chopping. It did not appear as whole cloth the first time through.

The act of writing prompts the thinking and reflection. One idea flows to another and another. The thinking and writing grows from what it feeds on. And then you rewrite and rewrite to get it right.

So when you consider a book you admire for its insights and depth, recognize that you are seeing the result of the unseen struggles of the author to make his message clearer, more nuanced, and insightful. Don’t compare what you turn out the first time with the author’s finished product. It really is apples and oranges.

You do have something worth saying but you have to work at bringing out. The depth will come with the writing, rethinking, and rewriting.

How do I do it?

Rather than starting out with the intention of writing something deep and important, start out with a situation, or a character, or a moment in time, which feels as if it has meaning for you. A terrible injustice, a generous person, the bravery of a group.

Whatever it is, write the scene which renders that feeling without using the terms I just used (i.e. terrible, generous, bravery). Show the actions of the characters which will prompt in the reader the same feeling that you had/have without naming it. Then rewrite until the message comes across in a satisfying way.

So you can do deep—you just have to work at it.

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.