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Un-Con Redux: Operation Phoenix

First of three posts recreating workshops you may have missed at Un-Con 2019.

Planning this year’s Un-Con, Therese asked me to address the issue of career crashes and stalls.  Every fiction writer has hit a snag or feels stuck.  Pretty much every published fiction writer will at some point face a career crash: writing gone stale, sales stalled out, option book dropped, confidence shot.

At such times what’s helpful is reinvention, a fresh start, a new direction.  The stalled or stuck writer and the derailed author both are writing safe, and that in turn derives from the same underlying condition: fear.

Every manuscript holds back in some way.  WU’s own Barbara O’Neal wrote, “People who read your novels will know about you.”  They will also sense things about you from what you avoid and the things you shy away from.

In my work as agent and as a teacher of fiction craft, I see fear strangling stories in a number of ways:

Reinventing your fiction isn’t so much about writing a different story type as it is about writing in a different way.  To do that means giving yourself permission to go big.  In what ways?  Many.  All.  Go bold and try things that are unsafe but that work—irony alert—when other writers do them.

What we’re talking about is not reinventing your fiction but reinventing you.  The theme of Un-Con is Wu-nder, and the sense of wonder we feel in reading springs from what is personal to you in writing.  It is also true that terrified is exactly how you want to be.  When you’re terrified, you’re not playing it safe.

When you’re terrified you will succeed because, frankly, there is no other choice.  So, here are some approaches to reinventing your fiction by, in part, rediscovering you, identifying your boundaries and breaking through them:

What is the opposite of habitual for you?  What is impossible for you to do?  What, if you did it, would people talk about for years?  If you were able, how would you rage, what would you wreck, whom would you destroy—or nurture, build or love?  What is analogous for your protagonist?

What would drop a bombshell on your story world?  What would change that world’s whole history?  What would reveal the truth of things and force people to reveal who they truly are?  What is analogous in your story world?

What are you thinking about today?  What is the universe trying to tell us?  What is wrong?  What is poisoning us?  What beauty or goodness are we too blind to see?  What is it that we must see, get, understand…because if we don’t, we die?  How can those things become clear in your story?

If you had a megaphone what would you shout in the center of your town?  If you could have a poem on the front page, what lyrical words would you write?  If you could argue before the Supreme Court, what would you say?  If you could deliver the State of the Union address, what would you declaim?  Where can those words go in your manuscript?

What is it that you cannot have?  What is not allowed, not for people like you?  You’re not deserving.  You haven’t earned it.  You’re not that lucky.  You’re so low you’ve even stopped dreaming of it, hoping for it.  There’s no point.  Anyway, you’re grown up now.  You’re a realist.  You can’t have that…what is it?  Why don’t you care anymore, or why does it hurt not to have this?  What is the analogous yearning for your protagonist?

What is the meanest act anyone could possibly do?  What is the deepest hurt that anyone could inflict?  What is the cruelest betrayal or stab in the back?  What is the worst possible personal failure?  What is the worst humiliation you can imagine?  Who is the evilest person you’ve ever encountered?  What is the worst thing that person ever did?  Who can do those things in your novel?  How can you do those things to your protagonist?

What cannot be in this world of ours?  What good thing never happens?  What have you lost that you can never get back?  What is gone for all of us?  What feels lost or impossible?  Where are those things in your story? 

Give yourself five minutes.  Write like your hero or heroine would write.  Write what you most want to write at this moment.  Now give yourself an hour. 

Reinventing your fiction means to be fierce, be dangerous, mean the utmost, cut deep, desire everything, hope for the impossible—then bring it about.  Terrify yourself with the worst things and delight yourself with words.  Reinvention means breaking through your barriers.

To reinvent your fiction, go ahead and give yourself a new story, if that helps, but the truth is that you already have everything you need: your fear, your longing, your wounded heart, your passionate beliefs, your unquenchable hope.  Write those and like the phoenix you can rise.

What barriers do you have around your writing—and what would break through them?  How will you reinvent your fiction today?

About Donald Maass [1]

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [2]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [3], The Fire in Fiction [4], Writing the Breakout Novel [5]and The Career Novelist [6].