There are many aspects of this writing life you should fear. High among them should be an awareness of you don’t know what you don’t know. Huh, you ask. Let me explain.
When I started writing my first manuscript – the one I recently deleted from my hard drive – I followed Hemingway’s old chestnut, “Write what you know.” Unfortunately for that novel, I am the Queen of Mediocrity: I live in the suburbs, my well-traveled road leads to the supermarket, and, thank the merciful gods, there is no real conflict in my life. You can imagine how boring that book truly was. So as arrogant as it may be for me to dispute Hemingway’s advice, here goes: Write what you want to know. If you are interested in the topic, if you find yourself wanting to learn more about the setting, plot, conflict, characters, chances are readers will too.
As a writer you should know to avoid clichés (e.g. soft as a baby’s bottom), but do you know to avoid structural clichés? Lowenstein-Yost agent Rachel Vater has blogged extensively about this. Read the archives. Know not to introduce your character's physical description by having her look in the mirror; know not to open your book by having your protagonist drive/fly/boat and reflect on her life; know not to have your antagonist kick a dog to show he’s the bad guy (thank you Hallie Ephron!). Instead, your book should begin on the day when everything changes for your protagonist and every character, whether she’s a spree killer or devout priest should be nuanced, complicated, with both ugly and endearing traits. You should love all of your characters so your readers can empathize with even the most detestable among them. Strive for complexity.
Do you know your genre? Be honest and ask yourself if you’ve done a thorough read within it. Be brutally honest and ask if your WIP is just another rehash of what’s out there. Are you writing about a woman whose perfect life is suddenly upended when she discovers her husband has been having an affair? The man whose perfect life comes crashing down when he loses his job? Does your middle-grade novel explore the loss of innocence when your protag’s parents get divorced? Sure there’s no such thing as an original storyline, but you had better know how to write it from a fresh perspective. I read the fiction slush pile for a literary journal and the same themes are explored over and over again. The ones that overtake me are the stories that somehow make fresh the tried and true. A perfect example is Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier which found its inspiration from Homer’s The Odyssey.
The one aspect of this writing life you shouldn’t fear, the one that chills the depths of most writers’ hearts, is failure. Your writing will be rejected. You, too, may someday delete an entire novel from your hard drive. You will feel the sting of a harsh critique from your writers’ group or a reviewer. But make no mistake, you haven’t failed. Failure comes only when you no longer strive to learn more about your craft or reflect on your mistakes. The worst failure of all is to give up. That is my greatest fear.
Tuesday, January 30, 2007