The Danger of Writing for Others

Happy New Year, everyone! As part of my reflections, I’ve been reviewing some of my writing weaknesses and trying to pinpoint a specific one on which I should work to improve in the new year. Usually the selection is overwhelming, but this year, one particular concept has been tugging at me for some time.

When I sit down to write, I’ve usually got a basic idea of what I intend to put on the screen. I might not know every character that will show up, how to get from point A to point B, or even what the ultimate twist in the story is, but those are all aspects of my narrative that unfold over time, revealed to me as I write and brainstorm. When I’m writing a first draft, my main concern—for the most part—is making sure that the story is coming out in a manner that gives me the possibility of returning to rewrite or edit. The writing of it should be enjoyable, which, to me, is the point of the first draft. The second and all following drafts, however, are meant to be enjoyable to read.

But something sinister occasionally stirs into the mix when I’m working on any draft. Something with the power to stop me mid-word, to drive me away from my desk, to deflate the balloon of excitement and adventure that normally propels me forward. Something that, in short, burns my zeppelin out of the sky.

Expectations.

According to the all-knowing interwebs, Socrates is alleged to have said, “What screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how it’s supposed to be.” While I personally dislike the translation’s choice of words (I just can’t imagine Socrates using the Greek slang equivalent of “screw up,” but I could be wrong), the sentiment expressed has long resonated with me. I’m a planner—not when it comes to the practice of writing; I’m more of a plantser there—that person who has a one-week, one-month, one-year, ten-year plan. Do my plans work out as I want them to? Hardly, and most of the time, that’s for the better. But I rarely grant myself grace in failure. My disappointment is real when I don’t live up to the expectations I have placed upon myself. Not only is it painful, it can have lasting, crippling effects.

Take, for instance, the expectation that I would be published by age eighteen. Or by age twenty-one. Or by age twenty-five. Or at least by now. I put those pressures on myself, and they do nothing to spur me forward—they just make me feel an overwhelming sense of guilt when I’m not working toward them, and ultimately when I fail to meet my self-ascribed deadlines. The pressure makes it hard to write. There is so much riding on every word I include in a manuscript. On occasion, the shame of past failures comes back to haunt me, even when I’m actively doing my best toward publication.

Those are just the expectations that I place on myself. Now consider that others around me have expectations, suppositions, and opinions that might have to do with the rate at which I’m published, but also have to do with the content I publish, the way I write, the ideas I express, the kinds of characters I introduce, the scenes I explore, and all the other myriad little personal nitpicks that can drive a person insane. Normally, I use writing as a way to escape the world, but sometimes, especially when I know I will one day share that writing with the world, I freeze up with fear. Midway through a sentence, I might doubt that what I’m writing is appropriate to share with others. They might get the wrong impression. They might realize they had the wrong idea about me all along. They might recognize that I’m a fraud and that I have no real idea of what I’m doing.

Let’s face it. Writing is a risky business. Sharing your writing—an idea or summary, an excerpt, or the full manuscript—is the ultimate act of vulnerability. It requires a kind of bravery most people don’t ever have to think of using. It’s putting yourself out there, come renown or ridicule or, perhaps worst of all, indifference. It’s an expression of pride subjected to the most humbling reactions. It hurts sometimes.

It’s easy to get lost in the critique and the suggestions, to let doubt invade. That doubt obstructs your ability to do your best, which—at least in my case—can impel me on a downward spiral of despair. I have, for so long, “expected” to be a professional writer… but if certain people don’t like my story, then how can I ever be good enough to make it? My desire to become a bestselling author sometimes morphs into a desperation: I have to be a bestselling author. I have to make money so I can live this lifestyle I’ve envisioned for myself. I have to be well-respected in the writing community, active and well-known, so that I can grasp all the opportunities I’ve long wanted. That’s a lot of pressure to put on someone who has never published before, and even for someone who has!

The point is that people’s opinions—and the bestseller lists—are not things you can control. The only thing you can control is doing the best you can do at what you do. Not in what you think you should be doing. Not what the bestselling author in your genre is doing. Not what you perceive others will want you to do. It has to be distinctly your own; anything else cheapens the effort and often sabotages the writing itself.

Writing for others is dangerous. We are not mind readers, and we cannot predict the fickle market. Writing to please others robs us of the fun of discovering a new world the way we want to. After all, “You can’t please everyone.” We frequently feel an expectation that something has to be a certain way, not because we as the writers want it that way or because the story demands it be that way, but because we perceive the audience wants it to be that way. Our writing suffers as a result, and we churn out something that hardly brushes the limits of our potential.

But if we write for ourselves with the intentions of making our story enjoyable for both us as the writer and us as the reader—without the pressure of having to make money or earn an award or top a list, all things we have relatively little control over—the practice of writing will be more fulfilling as a whole. That’s not to say that you should eschew editors’ or beta readers’ suggestions to fix parts of your story—that’s important, too. But stay sincere and true to your voice, your mode of expression, and your vision, and use them as the framework on which you build your narrative.

This is my goal for myself as a writer this year. I’m committing to sharing my work–no matter what others might think of it–and implementing suggestions and advice without compromising my intentions for my work. I may never make millions, chart on bestseller lists, or find myself at the receiving end of a movie deal, but I will enjoy what I do. I can own it. If I can drop those expectations, if I can free myself of the worry about pleasing others or following their perceptions of what should be, if I stop writing for “them” and start writing for me, I can find peace and joy in writing. And that’s the whole point.

May you have a wordy and fulfilling 2018!

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Caps Lock Days

One of the most beautiful things about being a writer is the ability—well, for me, at least, the need—to create story, to design and get to know characters, to watch and manage how they interact within their environments and their circumstances. The process is surprising, incredible, and depressing in turns, but it’s never boring. Continue reading

Learning from the Masters: 1953 Hugo Award Winner

Winner: The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

The Demolished Man was the 1953 winner of the first Hugo Award. Alfred Bester’s thrilling science fiction tale of trapping a murderer creates a universe populated by characters with questionable intentions as Bester explores what was believed about the psyche in the mid-twentieth century. My personal exposure to what can be called early (very early!) “science fiction” in literature begins and ends with Verne, whose stories did not concentrate, in large part, on the characters’ psychological motivations, reactions, or abilities (unless you consider A Fantasy of Dr Ox as exploring psychology–I highly recommend this book as it’s hilarious). Consequently, I’m not going to attempt a review of The Demolished Man, being otherwise unfamiliar with the literary and scientific conventions of the time.

I’ll do my best not to post anything spoilerish, and my notes are merely that: impressions, techniques and tactics I can quantify and explain. They are by no means comprehensive, and I suggest you attempt to get a copy of the book and read it for yourself. Continue reading

Studying the Masters

With the conclusion of my official education in financial planning, I found myself purposeless. I’m one of those nerds who revels in studying, who grins at the idea of intellectual challenge, who laments the fact that I cannot know all the things I know I do not know, but dang it I’m going to try. So, with studies finished and my time no longer devoured by incessant nosing-to-textbook, the Question became evident: what next? Continue reading

Setting Description in Writing

As I remodel my room at the glacial pace of an AOL dial-up, examining closet doors, crown molding, and the proper plywood to build bookcases from scratch (I’m so excited for this last), I’ve been thinking a lot about description in stories, and how one balances narrative with exposition.

Today’s Daily Post prompt, interior, is related, for in many cases I’m describing the interior of a building. Only so many ways exist to explain what a window looks like or the general configuration of a room or that the ceilings are vaulted before those summaries become white noise in the background of the general plot. I’m in favor of arranging description so that the reader is lost in the action of the story, sucking in visual clues without thinking about them, but unless those descriptions are embedded in the action, they can easily become the focus of a reader’s attention–and therefore lose the reader’s attention.

Writing is a lot like Latin grammar: the exception is the rule. But in my case, unless my purpose is to explore the setting for my own, non-readership use, spending more than a couple of paragraphs detailing a scene–and especially when I’m only detailing a scene–isn’t necessary unless the setting is important to the plot narrative. That can mean that it influences how the characters act, i.e. when my rustic MC enters the Versailles-like royal palace, she is not only awed, but has to overcome a base urge to pocket a gold-gilt clock. The clock isn’t just sitting on a table in the hallway, it’s evoking a response in the MC, one that reveals her inner character, upbringing, or experience.

I tend, however, to get too detail-oriented with my descriptions. I won’t stop with a quick sketch or impression of a setting. Before I know it, I’m explaining the crown molding is as wide as a tree, hand-carved into friezes depicting scenes from the kingdom’s prevailing religion, and brushed along the edges with gold, and then, in a series of several more paragraphs, describing in magnified detail everything else in the room, from the bust of an old diplomat carved from marble to the hand-purled rug imported from the country in the north threatening war, et cetera, et cetera.

These details, couched in narrative (i.e. I picked up a blue-veined marble bust of an indubitably important nobleman with the facial hairstyle of my grandfather and shook it like a discipline stick at Louis. “Don’t get any ideas.”) can work to great effect in evincing a more holistic cultural experience of the story and its environment. Characters should not just move through the story in empty space, but should interact with their surroundings, so that their surroundings become part of the story, or are at least portrayed as being a natural extension of the action. The reader gets a picture in his head without it being included in the wordsketch of a still-life.

But listed as part of a series of articles, one static and generic prop among many others, the details become boring to read about. This, I think, is where point of view comes into play. A reader should experience the setting as a character does. My MC is not going to mentally catalogue every luxurious thing she sees in the palace–that is, unless her intent is to capture the picture as a painting or to spell out the decadence of the place to her less fortunate best friend. If this isn’t immediately noted–and I don’t think even in those cases that we as readers need to know every little piece–I stop paying attention and start scanning for the next dialogue quotation marks.

I have a long way to go before I’ve balanced the pacing of my description, action, and character reflection, but my hope is that identifying my weak areas will save me the trouble of struggling through them too long before I catch them. How do you balance action with description, or narrative with exposition?

A Book You Want to Read

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” –Toni Morrison

Have you ever just really wanted to read a certain book, but it doesn’t exist?

One of the driving forces behind my writing is the fact that my stories intrigue me. I don’t mean just interest me, the way that watching an aerial show or listening to Christmas music during the holidays (and at other times) do. I mean they are ideas that compel me to search online and in bookstores for a version already committed to paper, colored by the ideas and experiences of another author.

Sometimes I find something similar enough to take the edge off my impatience. But sometimes, even if I find something similar, I don’t care for the execution of it, or I would do it differently. Other times, I can’t find anything close enough to temper my desire for such a story.

I’ve discovered that there are a lot of “books” I want to read that don’t exist yet. It’s up to me to write them myself, if I want them to see the light of the world. That’s one of the reasons I’m a huge proponent of the idea of writing for yourself. You have to enjoy your own work before anyone else can (though I can admit, as an artist, I always find room for improvement and am never 100% satisfied with my work). Part of this is innate joy in the subject matter, but sometimes it’s mind-trickery: keeping yourself interested in your own work by adding certain aspects to it or developing characters and plot elements that you know you enjoy.

Some ways that I have accomplished this in the past:

  • Make a list of the things you love. They don’t have to be things you know, things you’ve experienced, or even things you expect in or relate to literature. My list includes mountains, sailing, bicycles, noblesse oblige, myth and mythology, and the click of heels on tile.
  • Inhabit the shoes of your characters. Many readers use fiction as a vehicle for vicarious experiences, and to maintain their interest, a writer should make a character relatable and enjoyable to be around, even when that character is not Miss Sunshine. If you can enjoy living the story with the character, chances are, readers will, too.
  • In a similar vein, give your characters unique–but not annoying–voices. Readers (I’m speaking as one) will love you for it. Become friends with the people populating your story, and readers will follow suit. Take fanfiction, for example: Readers have become attached to the characters and develop more adventures to enjoy with them.
  • Make the story uniquely yours. I have always loved the story of Cinderella. As a reader, this is great. As a writer, this can pose a problem. A story can only be told so many ways, right? Wrong! Make it yours and own it. Feeling a sense of possession and pride in your own idea can help you to focus on the story at hand and enjoy the spin you put on the basic conflict-resolution arc.

The only downside to this, for me, is being inclined to read what I’ve written of the story already just for fun, which precludes further development!

What are some of your favorite elements of a story? How have you made them yours?

“Not My Best”

On the rare times I share a work, whether it’s a story or music or a painting–anything creative–I usually present it with the caveat “it’s not my best.” Sometimes I say that out loud to the person to whom I’m presenting it. Other times, it’s a given in my head, a silent reassurance to myself that I can do better.

But, more often than not, I find myself using it as a defense mechanism.

I preface my presentation of a work with the line because the blow of any subsequent criticism or dislike is cushioned by my personal acknowledgment that, no, it’s not my best, so they’re not really judging the full me or the extent of my skills, just a mediocre or satisfactory part of me. And I’m my own worst critic, so anything they have to say is kitten purrs compared to my own narrow-eyed frustration with my work.

Before learning that I had won honorable mention (fourth prize) in my writing group’s annual short story contest earlier this week, I explained to a fellow writer, while we were talking about the contest, that my submission was “not my best work.” To be fair, it wasn’t. The prompt teased, laughed at, and finally turned its back on me, so that the story I had been trying to manufacture in the two months we had to write it fell apart the day before it was due. After an hour of painful brainstorming and rearrangement, I selected a different story to write, which I submitted about an hour before it was due after only a cursory editing glance. So, not my best.

But my use of the line made me think. What is my best? The works of which I have been somewhat proud have all been critiqued one way or another, always found lacking in something–hey, I’m not perfect, and don’t expect that any of my stories will find a universal audience. Nonetheless, I continue to tell myself, even when these stories are picked (or ripped) apart, it’s not my best effort. I can do better. They just haven’t seen my best yet.

That, consequently, sent me into a spiral of despair. What was this mysterious, elusive “best” piece I had in my portfolio? What shining weapon of cutting prose did I keep in my arsenal? Why was it so good? What made it my best? The answer came to me like a thunderclap: It doesn’t exist yet.

My work will never be “my best” because my best is hiding somewhere in the future, and it may not ever actually be written. My best work is not necessarily my best possible effort–the full potential with which I have been gifted. I may never reach a point when I utilize it in its entirety. And that’s okay, because I’m always improving. With deliberate practice, I work hard to get better. That means that the short story I wrote last year looks ridiculous to me now, because between then and now, I’m a different writer, with new perspectives, aesthetic tastes, and priorities. My interests remain the same, but my approach to them shifts over time as new understandings and new influences alter my writing style.

So, while no work may ever be my “best work” at any given time, I can stop hiding behind that line, which is little more than an excuse for material not up to par. My best work lay out there somewhere. But more importantly, I think, than even my phantom best work is my better work, because each improvement is a step closer to best. The ultimate destination of where “best” lies is up to critics and readers, if ever I make it that far, but I can rest assured knowing that I am and will continue improving. I want to own my work, best or not, with all its faults and failures.

How to Write Cunning, Clever, and Crafty Characters

My NaNoWriMo novels are full of clever characters, which has baldly reminded me just how difficult it is to write crafty people. I can just see my character acting like Tom Sawyer, but I sometimes struggle to envision the actual behaviors that he or she would use to pull off his or her wiles. It’s great to think my character is tricky, but the number one rule in writing is to show, not to tell. I have to give examples of my character being cunning, not just tell the reader he or she is.

As a reader and a writer, I’m drawn to devilishly shrewd characters. There is something compelling about a brain that works two steps, five steps, or even ten steps ahead of its opponents, and you can find such brilliance represented in all sorts of stories: Coyote and Loki the trickster gods; Sherlock Holmes the master of disguise (and his devious, master-of-the-web archnemesis, Moriarty); Nancy Drew, sleuth extraordinaire; Locke Lamora the penultimate thief.

But how does one write such a clever person?

If you’re anything like me, you have an idea of what you want your mischievous character to be like. You can imagine him one-upping his adversaries, laughing at their stupidity in juxtaposition to his or her intelligence—or respecting an evil but equally sharp counterpart. You can even feel the surprise the reader will feel when he or she reads about the trick. But, if you’re anything like me, you have trouble figuring out ways to pull that off.

My struggles have led me to outline eleven different ideas you can use to brainstorm ways to make your character cunning.

clever_characters-copy Continue reading

The Great Balancing Act

Happy Memorial Day, and God bless all those who have served in the American Armed Forces. May we remember with respect and gratitude all that they sacrificed for our freedoms.

I grew up in a city famous for its ties to the circus, and lately I feel like I might actually be a part of a three-ring shebang. Between juggling about a thousand interests, tasks, and obligations and trying to balance on the great tightrope between work life and home life, I could probably at least qualify to be a clown. Continue reading