It's been a while since I wrote a post on the art and craft of writing. Usually, my posts of this nature focus on the tricks and techniques I've learned over the course of writing eight novels and seventy short stories. If you do something long enough, you get good at it, and it's easy to build up a long list of reasons why you're good at it. You develop formulas for success: Character with trait X plus setting with trait Y plus obstacles with trait Z=Publishable Story.
It's easy to get into a comfort zone once you've found your formula. Editors buy your stuff and readers respond to it. You've probably spend years, if not decades polishing your techniques. When you are a novice, experimentation is a useful tool for growth. Once you are established, however, experimentation is more likely to produce failure than success. You've created expectations for your work, and deviating from these expectations to try something new carries the risk that you will write stories you can't sell, or, if they do sell, stories that will disappoint your existing fan base.
But there's a competing truth: It's seldom a compliment to call a work of art "formulaic." If you rely on formula to produce your fiction, you may produce technically flawless stories completely devoid of passion or heart.
I've written and sold stories based on formula rather than passion. I'm not going to single them out; I doubt that the casual reader of my work could spot which of my stories were labors of love versus which ones I built from my insta-fiction toolkit. That's another danger that awaits artists: Your audience may not be able to tell the difference between work you are passionate about versus work you simply got paid for. Why bother with the passion if it adds no economic value?
I would argue that its this very same logic that leads some people into becoming prostitutes.
So, how do you keep the passion in your writing? How do you approach the tenth book you write with the same intensity as the first book you write?
First, you must diligently strive to become aware of your formulas. I've spent a lot of time analyzing my work, figuring out what people respond to, and what falls flat. Pretty much any story I write now, I sell, because I know how to make the plot line logical and satisfying. However, it's only by being aware of my most successful formulas that I can purposefully twist and tweak my tales to keep them fresh.
Second, if you're not a little worried about your story, you probably aren't writing the right story. My most recent sale, "Return to Sender," was a fairly stressful undertaking because it's the first time I've ever written a first person female narration. I've written female POV before, notably the Jandra chapters of my Bitterwood novels, but all first person narration I've ever tried has been male. Now, if I wrote from the first person POV of, say, a dragon, I probably wouldn't be too worried about a dragon reading the story and saying, "This doesn't sound like a dragon!" On the other hand, plenty of women are going to read "Return to Sender," and I do worry that some of them are going to spot little clues in the narration that reveal the artifice of the voice. I could have side-stepped this anxiety by switching to third person narration, or by switching to a male protagonist. The plot formula I followed could have worked either way. But, if I'd played it safe, I suspect I would have produced a story that didn't have the same resonance. After selling over a dozen stories with male protagonists and mostly third person narration, I tried something different, and feel good about the outcome.
Third, continuing with the "worry" idea, it's not just tinkering with structure or form that can take you out of your comfort zone and put you into a new place artistically. You can also tackle new themes and viewpoints. If you're an atheist, you can make a real attempt at writing a religious character who you respect and admire. If you're conservative, you can try a story from the world view of a liberal. Note that if you're just ridiculing or mocking those you don't agree with, you're going to produce, at best, satire. The true artistic challenge is to try to find the beauty and honesty of a world-view that isn't your own.
Fourth, the most important way to keep your writing fresh, to make sure you're always a little out of your comfort zone, is to write naked. I don't mean physically naked; I mean that to continue producing fresh art, you need to be willing to reveal to the world things inside your head that you wouldn't tell your own mother. If your characters are to pass as human, they will need to possess not only virtues like honesty, faith, and courage, but also base traits like shame, prejudice, greed, lust, and rage. It's possible to write about these things on a purely surface level. If I want convey that my character Bitterwood hates dragons, I need only write, "Bitterwood hated dragons." Hopefully, I managed to go a bit deeper than this in the actual books. But to understand Bitterwood's hatred, I had to feel and understand my own hatred. People say all they time that they hate stuff: They hate country music or raw onions or Democrats. But genuine, raw, truthful hating is a much scarier thing. Before I could write about Bitterwood's hatred, I had to open doors in my head to allow my own deep-seated hatred to come out for a while so I could take a good look at it. Bitterwood's dark nature is my dark nature. I knew as I was placing this darkness onto the page that it carried the risk that someone would read the book and think, "Wow, this James Maxey guy has some sick crap rattling around in his skull." And, it's true. So be it. You can't write fiction if you're afraid of telling truth.
As I write Greatshadow, my eighth novel, there's a lot of stuff that's familiar to me. I have my formulas to carry me from scene to scene. But, within these scenes, I'm keeping the passion alive by daring to show my feelings. There's grief here, taken straight from the grief that burned into my heart when Laura died. There's shame here, fictionalized yet genuine confessions of my own failures and weaknesses. There are people who feel trapped by bad decisions they made years before, a refection of my own doubts and second guesses. And, perhaps most daring of all, there's a love story. Writing confessionally of genuine love is as difficult and tricky as writing of genuine hate. Maybe more so, given the sheer weight of literature that has already tackled the subject. Finding something new to say seems like an impossible challenge; yet, I'm going to tell the world what I know about love despite the risk that what I have to say is banal or absurd or flat-out crazy.
Sure, I've written about love before, and hate, and fear. But every time I open the doors in my head to let these emotions out, I always discover some new insight that I need to put onto paper. Because the subjects are so vast, perhaps it's inevitable that all my previous attempts to explore these emotions are going to fail to convey everything I meant to say. It's because I'll never exhaust these topics that I can approach every story with something fresh to say. In effect, every story becomes my first story as I try, for the first time, to get the world onto the page just right.
Welcome to my worlds!
I'm James Maxey, author of fantasy and science fiction. My novels include the science fantasy Bitterwood Saga (4 books) the Dragon Apocalypse Saga (4 books), numerous superhero novels including Nobody Gets the Girl and the Lawless series, the steampunk Oz sequel Bad Wizard, and my short story collections, There is No Wheel and Jagged Gate. This website is focused exclusively on writing. At my second blog, Jawbone of an Ass, I ramble through any random topic that springs to mind, occasionally touching on religion and politics and other subjects polite people are sensible enough not to discuss in public. If you'd like to get monthly updates on new releases, as well as preview chapters and free short stories, join my newsletter!
Saturday, December 5, 2009
Every Story Can Be Your First Story
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