Delusions Of Grandeur, Premonitions Of Doom – or, The Ups And Downs Of Writing

seesawThis story is great. No, it’s garbage. Everybody will want to read this. Nobody will get past the first page. I’m going to be rich and famous from this stuff! I might as well give up right now.

Sound familiar? I’m convinced that writing fiction is one of the most manic-depressive jobs in existence. Every single writer I’ve talked to has had to deal with the twin demons of fame and failure, at least at the beginning. Every stage of the writing, rewriting, and editing process is besieged by delusions of grandeur or premonitions of doom, with remarkably little room for anything else. In my own case, these opposing thought forms can switch places daily.

Here’s the secret for you, one that I believe every writer needs to find: they are both wrong.

It starts slowly. A turn of phrase, a delightful metaphor, a paragraph that does its job, shines on the page with that special twinkle. That’s pretty good, I thinks. That’s worthy. People will like this one. They’ll pay money for this. Hell, they’ll even tell their friends. I can do this. It’s easy, in fact! Just string a bunch of these excellent paragraphs together and I’ll be able to find an agent. They will get me a bidding war. I can feel that first advance cheque in my hand already, brimming with big, fat zeros. Then I’ll do it again, piece of cake. I’d better pick up a smoking jacket.

All this time – an hour, a day – my fingers haven’t been moving. My mind has been captured by the fairy of future greatness.

Or the words don’t come. I reread yesterday’s work and it’s tripe. It feels like I’m rubbing the paint off the delete key. I can’t see the story for the inner fog, and it’s no use. I can’t do this stuff. Nobody will like the story anyway, several of them have already said so. That last rejection letter had a coffee stain on it, at least I hope it was coffee. It’s too hard. I might as well give up now. It looks nice outside, where all the normal people are. There’s no story in here anyway, at least not anything interesting. I’m done.

So I leave the keys. The depressive swing of the seesaw has stopped me for days, even weeks.

But I noticed that the two demons were never far away, and they were completely arbitrary. The first time I saw them switch places within the space of three sentences, I actually laughed out loud. Then I kept writing. I’d found the secret – all they are is distraction from the work that needs to be done. All they are, when it comes right down to it, is the writer’s mind doing what the writer’s mind should – making up stories. If it’s doing its job, then your mind will make you believe the unbelievable.

So forget about it. Laugh at the delusions of grandeur, the premonitions of doom. Be entertained by them, even. Just so long as you don’t believe them, and don’t let your fingers stop moving. That’s what a real writer does.

Published in: on December 5, 2014 at 5:35 am  Leave a Comment  
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I Am The King Of The World – or, Following Your Own Rules

130801We can remake the world as we see fit. One of the main joys of writing stories is the ability to rewrite the rules – from giving voice and sensibility to farm animals to reimagining the laws of physics. One minor drawback – we have to follow the new rules we’ve made.

It’s called plausible narrative, or suspension of disbelief, or half a dozen other things, but it all comes down to not losing your reader. Readers love it when a writer comes up with a new take on the world, a subtle or overt twist on reality that allows for all sorts of exciting and impossible possibilities. Strand a boy in a boat with a tiger (Life Of Pi). Have someone go to Nigeria and stick it to the scammers (419). Flatten the world, dose it with everyday magic, and make it look like rural England (the Discworld series). Do whatever the heck you want. Make up any premise, any new rules, go nuts. That’s what creativity is all about.

But it better make sense, down to the last detail.

Aye, there’s the rub. If gravity doesn’t work in your story, don’t have a dropped knife falling down. If the bad guy suddenly breaks down and says he’s sorry at the climax, you’d better have shown some redeeming emotions in him earlier on. Readers catch these things. Readers put books down because of these things. A serious plausibility gaffe can turn a reader off an author forever. So we do not want to do this.

Plausible narratives are built in a few different ways. The first way is through the task of rewriting. Initial drafts are where we build our world, have fun with the new rules, make up the wild, unlikely and interesting combinations of character traits. Rewriting is where we take a sober look at what we’ve done, and ask if it all makes sense. It won’t, but we can fix it. A character’s inexplicable action in chapter 15 can be set up by a few lines about his emotional hot buttons in chapter 3. We can catch many inconsistencies and make them right in retrospect.

First readers are an invaluable resource for catching implausibilities. Quirky rules and situations that we see as fascinating might just be dumb, or hackneyed, or not worthy of the light of day. First readers will catch these for us before the editor or agent inquires after our sanity. Some of our dearest brainchildren need a little reworking in order to prosper. Some premises simply don’t make the cut. Other people have to tell us which is which.

Writing is making stuff up. Rewriting is, in part, making it all make sense. The first part feeds our passion, our wild abandon, our urge to create. The second part is where we cultivate the warm satisfaction of a job well done – both in our own self, and in the reader.

Published in: on August 17, 2014 at 10:42 am  Leave a Comment  
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