It is daunting to be an unpublished writer amidst the stellar cast of this blog site’s regular contributors. It is even more so when in their actual presence. At the UnConference in Salem I recently had the pleasure of meeting a number of the regular blog contributors, and of hearing their insight, wisdom, and practical guidance for writing good fiction. Each of the sessions was valuable, each had a takeaway, each was enjoyable, and each was top notch. And yet, processing the sum total of all that input proved a challenge I was not quite ready for. By the middle of the conference, the sneaking thought in the back of my mind that had been plaguing me for months was becoming less sneaky. Should I give up trying to be a writer? Would I be better if I stopped?
The first days of the conference were exhilarating. I went to numerous sessions and I left each one jazzed about the new strategies for curing my ailing manuscript. I stole time in the evenings to apply the recommended literary treatments. I reworked the first page, to give it story questions and draw the reader in. I looked for the story underlying the plot as a means of better focusing the scenes. I strengthened the inciting incident in my protagonist’s past, which kept him from getting what he desired in the present. I made sure each page had microtension. I analyzed my deepest fears to find the place where my voice would come from and tried to focus that onto the page.
By the third day of this inundation I went to sleep believing that all I had to do was continue to apply the proper dosage of the various literary ‘treatments’ and my story would soon be glowing in healthiness. My manuscript would be cured. I woke up in the middle of that night and knew, with the absolute terrified certainty that only comes with three a.m., that in fact I wasn’t curing my manuscript. I was treating it, yes, but in a manner that looked only at individual symptoms and not at the bigger picture.
I had become a literary hypochondriac. Any mention of a writing problem, or of a telltale symptom of a larger writing flaw, and I was sure my manuscript had it. I was grasping at every piece of writing advice as the possible cure for an unidentified and undiagnosed ailment.
The problem was not the manuscript. It was also not the sessions, the presenters, or their messages. I was the problem. I had lost my literary way. I didn’t know where I wanted to go with the story. The result–I looked at my manuscript like it held even more literary offenses than Mark Twain recounted in James Fenimore Cooper.
Why is this important to the Writer Unboxed readership? I believe that the danger of literary hypochondria exists for all new and aspiring writers, perhaps more so now than at any other time. With the changing world of publishing and self-publishing, offering saleable products or services to aspiring writers is a large and growing industry. There is a treasure trove of advice for writers on writing available in books, in blogs, in cafes, and in conferences. That treasure trove can be the key to success or it can turn into a quagmire for anyone without a clear sense of what they are writing about or why.
At 3:30 am that troubled morning in Salem, I picked up a book of short stories that had been on my must-read list for a long time–George Saunders’ Tenth of December. I simply hoped that reading a couple stories would help me get my mind off my troubles so that I could fall asleep. Instead, his stories blew me away; they sucked me into an alternate world, sometimes in only a couple pages, and left me raw and scared and shaking and transported, and by God, HAPPY.
Here was the answer, here was what had been missing from my work and how I looked at my work. All stories have characters who struggle through adversity to a new understanding of the world. But the strongest stories, those that have stood out for me, have always been about something more than what happens to characters. They were also about abstract but important deeper themes that made what happened to the characters relevant and powerful. George Saunders’ work was not just about characters in conflict, it was about the texture of fear, the simplicity of altruism, the banality of evil, the self-perpetuation of poverty, the seductiveness of self-delusion. It was a commentary on modern existence as much as it was a collection of gritty stories about people in desperate situations.
Then I had my revelation. All the writerly advice I was getting from books, blogs, articles, and UnConference sessions was a confusing babble if I didn’t have a clear idea of what my writing was about and of why writing mattered to me, and to a potential reader.
I could do that with my work. I could give my characters words and actions that not only impelled them from scene to scene, but were revelatory of issues that have plagued humanity in its struggle to become better for centuries–issues such as poverty, crime, idealism, injustice, freedom. I saw what my story might become, if I could pull that off, and I began to hope again.
But despair was not through with me yet. My work in progress was a fantasy, a genre not exactly known for its literary aspirations or its illumination of the human condition. And more worrisome–what I was hoping to do with my writing would bring my stories dangerously close to pedantry–making them into morality plays rather than tales. Who would read that?
I dragged myself out of bed, got ready for the last day of the Unconference–Donald Maass’s workshop–and found my answer. As he has done in many of his blogs, Maass advocated “Twenty-First Century Fiction” as marked by the blending of commercial and literary fiction writing into a new style–one that has the best elements of both. Action and nuance. Plot and message. The lightbulb finally went off. I could write my adventure stories and still have room for them to be about deeper issues.
Since then, I’ve found my guiding spirit again, and have a clear plan for the book. That clear plan came from assimilating the messages from all of the various sessions, but then fusing them into a strategy that worked for me.
I’m not suggesting that the answers or the strategy will be the same for everyone. I’m suggesting that the only way to navigate through the process of becoming a better writer, and not to get lost in the ocean of writing advice, is to answer the questions for yourself.
What is your writing goal?
What kind of book do you want to write?
Photo Credit: “night sky” by Petr28 at deviantart.com.