I could have sworn that I’ve blogged about this before, but I just did a search and nothing turned up, so I guess I haven’t. Or maybe I’m searching wrong. Anyway. (No, I did sort of discuss this before, in this 2007 post, but not with the same focus, so I don’t feel as though I’m repeating myself.)
Here’s the thing. Writing involves making up stories. Perhaps you’re a plotter, one of those bizarre creatures who knows exactly what’s going to happen in the story before you open a shiny new Document and follows your path as tidily as a ballerina with months of rehearsal. (In which case I seriously envy you, despite my snottiness. It’s fond, admiring snottiness, I promise.)
Or maybe you’re a pantser like me, and start with a character or two and a premise, and toss them into the document and see what happens. Maybe like me you have a few vague ideas of where the story will go; I tend to have some sort of idea of what the climactic battle will be like, and maybe a scene or two sort of lurking in the back of my mind waiting to be used.
But either way, you need to make up the story. It’s down to YOU; it’s your responsibility. Quite frankly, a fiction writer who cannot make up a story is not a fiction writer. If writing fiction is what you want to do, you need to learn and absorb the skill of Making Shit Up. Period.
Which is why it drives me insane when I see writers–or those who want to be or claim to be writers–asking people what they should do with their story. Should the hero and heroine get together now? Should the villain do this or that? How old should the characters be? Should the villain die at the end? Should the father be the bad guy?
Then there are the secondary questions, what I refer to as the “unfamiliar” questions. I call them that because the questioner is seemingly unfamiliar with either the genre in which they are writing, or with books in general. (They could also be called the “Is it okay” questions, since they tend to start that way. These are questions like, “Is it okay if the hero cusses? Is it okay if the heroine isn’t a virgin? Is it okay if the heroine kills the bad guy? Is it okay if the hero gets drunk? Is it okay if the hero has a kid?” etc. etc.
I’d say the latter annoy me more, but honestly, they both annoy me equally.
Now, I’m not saying we don’t all have questions from time to time, because of course we do. We all need some brainstorming help from time to time; it’s the nature of the beast. We have a cool character and set-up and plot but we need, say, a scene to get one character to give a specific piece of information, and we want a really dramatic way to do it, so we ask some pals. Or we’re trying to create a world and ask a friend what they think or if they have any ideas how to accomplish X.
What bugs me about the “Shoulds” and the “unfamiliars” is that there’s a sense behind those questions that a story is only written ONE way, or that ONE formula must be followed, or that there are specific rules which must not be broken. It’s not writing as creative outlet; it’s not writing as art and/or craft; it’s not truthtelling.
It implies that there’s nothing to this writing thing except following the formula to the letter, and if you do that you’ll Get Published. It removes the joy of creation, the flight of fancy, and replaces them with Following Directions and Fitting In. It encourages blandness.
I don’t like it. It bothers me. If you want to be a writer of fiction–a storyteller–you need to tell YOUR story. You need to let yourself go and let the story happen. All other things aside, nine times out of ten I’ll bet that the story written by the Shoulder or the Unfamiliar is heavily plot-driven, to the point where the characters do not behave like actual human beings but go through endless mental gymnastics, wild character changes, and silly emotional contortions in order to serve whatever plot contrivances the writer has been Shoulded or Unfamiliared into creating.
Writing requires a certain kind of bravery. It requires a certain amount of limb-stepping. It requires creativity. It requires an understanding of stories and a love of them, and the kind of wide reading experience which those two things bestow.
What it does not require is a set of very safe and careful decisions made because the writer in question thinks someone, somewhere, might not like it if her heroine says “Shit.” And more importantly, is afraid of that.
Do we all want our stories to sell? Of course. Do we want our stories to be liked, enjoyed, even loved? You bet your ass we do. Nobody ever published a book thinking gleefully, “Everyone is going to HATE this shit!” (Okay, sure, maybe somebody did, but I submit that’s rather an odd attitude to have unless you’re Lou Reed making Metal Machine Music in order to get out of a contract you no longer wish to be bound by.) But the vast, vast majority of us don’t write and publish in hopes people will loathe our work and feel sick and shamed after reading it.
But you cannot write effectively if you let that fear make your decisions. And that’s what those questions are, those Shoulds and Unfamiliars. They’re fear. (Well, some of them are ignorance of the genre, which also pisses me off, because why are you writing a book you don’t want to read? There’s a cynicism there that makes me ill, and there’s an arrogance, too; the idea that you’re so much better than the morons who read this sort of shit that of course you can churn some of it out. It’ll be good enough for the likes of them.)
If you want to write fiction–and write it well, and effectively, and have people buy it, read it, and like it–you need to lose those things, whichever you may have, in whatever amounts you have them.
Quit asking other people to do your work for you; writing isn’t something you can delegate. YOU need to do it. You need to think. Come up with your own solutions. Let your characters be the people they want to be. Let the story go where it wants and needs to go. Stop worrying that it won’t work or it won’t be good; writing is a learning process, and there’s always another story, so you need to treat it as a learning process and actually, y’know, LEARN how to create things on your own. Nobody else can do it for you and really, do you want them to?
Stand on your own feet. Lose the fear, and write your own damn story.