(…in which I get a little personal, as I tend to do. Also, I had a book release yesterday so I’m feeling extra sentimental.)
I actually hate writing “writing craft” posts for the same reason I hated giving violin lessons. With music, I felt like the root reason for making music is to play, and it’s not fun if you have a teacher telling you what to do. Some people enjoy learning with a teacher, but I never did…and so I quit giving violin lessons because I felt like a fraud.
When I was a teenager, I wrote simply to please myself. I didn’t let people read my words and I was happy that way. But a lot of people told me I should write nonfiction. “Why would you waste such a gift with words on fiction?” they would say. It caused me to want to hide my infatuation with stories even more, to be somewhat embarrassed that “all I write is fiction”. It seemed everyone I knew — even people who didn’t know me well — had ideas about what I should write.
“You should be a journalist.”
“You should write letters to the editor about political issues.”
“You should chronicle your switch from pampered suburbia to sustainable rural living.”
“You should write women’s literary fiction and change the world. Be the next young voice for feminism and be an example to your generation.”
And on. And on. Writing fantasy –of all things — would be the height of frivolousness to my high-minded friends. Why, why, why would you ever want to write such a useless thing?!
Most of this was not really that traumatic for me. I laughed at it. I buried it. I forgot about it. I didn’t dredge it up until I was ready to publish my first fantasy novel at age 23 and realized I was having the hardest time ever admitting to people that I’d even written something that was pure fantasy. “It’s uh, an action/adventure story. It has some sword fights. Nothing too bloody.”
“No…but, but(!) I based it on historical societies, mainly Tsarist Russia.”
“Ah, political fiction! Is it full of ideals that will be an excellent example to my children?”
“Is there romance in it?”
“Um, yes…it’s kind of dysfunctional, though.”
“Dysfunctional? Is the woman a strong woman?”
“Well, sometimes, but she has her weak moments, just like any man would…”
Yeah. I was really bad at pitching it. Thus my self-reflection started. Why can’t I have faith in my own story? Something must be really wrong with me, because I know I love this story. Am I trying to walk too much of a tight rope? Trying to impress too many people who will never be impressed even if my feminist manifesto is on the bestseller stand at Borders (back when there was Borders)? Somewhat, yes. All these expectations had turned into something ugly: deeply rooted inhibitions that made me fault my characters for things like simple human nature. Even if I had portrayed accurately what my characters felt and did, I was wracked with guilt over it. Time to strip it down to the basics. What did I love about my story? Why did I love it? Was it truly me speaking, or could I do better?
It was me. It was good. But I could do better. I could do better by letting my characters show their emotion on the page in its full depth. By not letting them feel like someone was glaring over their shoulder, questioning their every motive. By asking, is this really what this character would do? instead of is this really what I want this character to do? Forget what I wanted them to do. I was telling their story. David did murder Uriah because he got Bathsheba pregnant. And I’m sure the writer of II Samuel was all, “Don’t ever read about this heroic giant slayer, because he turned into a murdering punk later.” Um, nope. He told David’s story, in all its glory and its ugliness. Stories are freaking important. Stories rock.
This is the state of mind I finally allowed myself to be in when I wrote Knights of Rilch. That story isn’t what you might call pretty. It’s desperate and tragic and only sometimes reflective. But it’s what happened, and it’s as raw and real and as deep into my character’s minds as they would let me go.
I’m sure I’m still holding on to a few inhibitions in here, and they’ll be something new to search and destroy with my third novel. But I just had to share this with you guys, in case there’s something holding you back, making you afraid to write that sucker. Write the stories you have inside you. Don’t let anybody tell you that you don’t have the capacity to write what you need to write, and don’t let anybody tell you that you should be writing something different. Ask advice from people you trust, from writers who can help, from agents and editors who support and polish…not from your critics. Above all, ask yourself to be as honest and real as you can be on the page. Make your art. Yours.