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

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

Making Your Characters Readers’ Friends

I’m not sure about anyone else, but I’m a plotter. When it comes to stories, the bulk of my brainstorming is devoted not just to “what happens” but the minutia of plot twists, the evolution of cause and effect, and ensuring that the plot is tight without being too predictable (disclaimer: I make no claim that I succeed in these endeavors).

When I was first starting to write serious, novel-length stories (or, at least, stories that were intended to be novel-length) in middle school, the way to accomplish this kind of plot-heavy story was by slapping stereotypical personalities on my characters. My stereotype of choice for the main character was almost always a kick-butt heroine. She would inevitably become the puppet operating within the context of my author-manipulated plots (what can you expect from a twelve-year-old?), a vehicle through which I could vicariously live to experience adventure. She was bland just for this reason. Continue reading

The Right Goal

Happy Presidents Day! I’ve been a bit quieter the last couple of weeks as I work out a better schedule. So far, I’ve been improving when it comes to writing earlier in the evening and not having to stay up late, but I have been slacking off on a few of my other obligations!

As I edit my story, working title Cursed, it is very easy to overthink things. I had written up and considered publishing a blog post about how I had spent so much time considering whether or not I should gear the story more toward mid-grade or YA, how the direction that the story is taking is much better now that it fits with the thematic darkness of YA literature, or how modeling my stories after what is popular in teen fantasy might be a worthy exercise. Then I realized how silly that sounded. Continue reading

The Dreaded Edit

I’ve read a lot of blogs and articles that lament the process of editing. The complaint may touch on the amount of work involved, or the inherent difficulty of the technical compared to the creativity of writing, or the author’s accrued frustration with his or her project, which makes the prospect of spending even more time on it in close quarters, noticing and pointing out all the errors and imperfections, unappealing.

You know, I’ve been there. There are some days when the thought of reviewing everything I’ve written and somehow making sense of the drivel is daunting at best, and other days I despair, fearing nothing of real quality lies beneath those half-formed thoughts scribbled on the screen. Continue reading

Writing for Your Audience

As I review my manuscript and the edits that I’ve already made to it, I am encountering a major issue.

I am not writing to my audience.

For background, my WIP, temporarily titled Cursed, is geared more towards mid-grade readers. When I wrote the story, however, I wrote it for me. That’s fine, and that’s the way I wanted it to be (after all, as the author, I need to enjoy my story before anyone else can). There are several aspects of my “writing for me” writing voice, however, that do not translate well into the mid-grade reading level.

It’s important to make sure that your readers can understand what you’re saying without having to dart to the dictionary (or Google, nowadays) to figure it out. A few words here and there that might throw a reader can be healthy, couched in sufficient context, but a string of them can cause confusion. An example from my current edit in progress:

A few people glanced at me; some celebrants shook their heads, and I heard a bookie quip to a bettor, “That one’s a sure loss.”

At face value, this is not a bad line (even in spite of the semicolon). But how many ten year olds are going to know what a bookie is? Quip might get by, as well as bettor, but it depends on how advanced the reader is, and I don’t think my eleven-year-old niece would be able to tell me what either of them meant (well, she knows what quip means because it’s my dog’s name). Other dubitable words in my first chapter include verdant, accoutered, and demure.

Another aspect of my writing that I have encountered as a potential problem is the relative maturity of the main character. Because I am introspective, my characters tend to be as well, but so far the main character of this particular project has an almost disillusioned sense of the world. That does not fly for someone of her age (15) and with her experience, and especially not for a mid-grade reader.

How does one get around this? I’ve been waffling on the ages for both the main character and my target audience. When I was editing the manuscript without regard for target audience, I was lost. Now that I’ve decided to fix it firmly at a mid-grade level, I know what it is for which I must watch.

Have you struggled with aligning your writing and content to your audience? How did you reconcile them?

The Wishing Tree

Two nights ago, I took my mom to the local botanical conservatory as a birthday gift to view the “Lights in Bloom” festival offered there for the holidays. The gardens, which are no small patch, were lit with Christmas lights in creative interpretations of flora, draped over actual plants (monstrous banyan trees, extensive succulents, lush orchids). The evening was balmy, boasting little breeze, the slight tang of sea salt, and the waft of cinnamon from a snack stand.

In the extreme corner of the property stands a ficus religiosa tree, called the Bo tree (short for Bodhi, which means enlightenment, as it was supposedly under this type of tree that Siddhartha Gautama, known better as Buddha, attained his enlightenment). For the event, the gardens called it the “Wishing Tree.” Visitors could write wishes on provided ribbons and tie them to the tree amid the strands of circling lights.

Because we went to the event on the last day it was open, the tree was covered in hundreds of wishes. There were the funny ones (“I wish I had a magical unicorn,” “I wish I had a Girl Scout Cookie Maker”—it is my opinion that this second wish is perfection). Close to seventy or eighty percent of them, however, had to do with health and happiness, and about forty or fifty concerned prosperity. Children wrote for their families to be happy, people wished for lasting relationships and marriages, the unemployed desired steady work.

This is, in itself, telling of the universality of our dreams, but more powerful were the individual, vulnerable, and sometimes heartrending wishes: “I wish Danny would love us again,” “I wish Kate’s cancer would disappear,” “I wish I could love my parents.”

Why am I writing about this? Because stories are everywhere. They are in every life, in every hope, in every experience. Behind each of the wishes on that tree, from generic to specific, are stories of people’s lives, hopes, dreams, fears, sins, desires, values, and souls. We live and breathe stories. Some of us feel like we have comparatively little to tell, and some of us feel like our stories aren’t worthwhile, that they mean nothing.

They mean everything. Stories are accounts of the human condition; any human can consider his or her life a compelling story precisely because it is his or her story to tell, and no one else’s. Many times, authors (including myself!) get caught up in writing about the plot and tend to neglect the characters, but more often than not, it is the characters—the people—who make the story come alive.

Next time you have encountered writer’s block, whether it concerns a new novel idea or a development in your story, look around you. Talk to who you can, learn what you can, and draw inspiration from the stories that are playing out around you, including in your own life.