Posts Tagged ‘fear’

But it isn’t enough to write a story. There has to be a reader for that story, and it can’t be just you.

“A story is a collaboration between teller and audience, writer and reader. Fiction is not only illusion, but collusion….Without a reader there’s no story. No matter how well written, if it isn’t read it doesn’t exist as a story. The reader makes it happen just as much as the writer does.”

Writer, story, reader: it’s an abstract dance that requires all to participate. If you write a story and stuff it into a drawer when you are finished, without letting others read it, you have slapped words on a page that may or may not have recognizable form or recognizable meaning. To be valued, to be a story, to be a work of art, your baby has to be SEEN. That means letting it out of the hermetically sealed bubble at least a little bit. Being read by others is like oxygen for humans: your story needs read to live.

However, you have to write something someone will read or you haven’t done your job. This means making your story interactive. To be successful, your reader must identify with the situation, characters, and emotion in some fashion. Your reader must be able to follow the plot with all of its twists, turns, and arcs. Your reader must desire the entertainment you attempt to provide. You have to make them desire it more than dinner, and make them go after that extra cup of coffee at the breakfast table because they want those precious extra minutes in your world. You have to engage them, transfer your vision to them, and let their imagination fly. You have to make them willing to suspend their disbelief and soak in the magic you have created.

It all comes down to a matter of trust. You have to trust your gift is sufficient to tell a story, and it won’t fail you at an inopportune moment. You have to trust the story enough to even begin writing it, and then allow it to evolve beyond your initial ideas and plans to develop into that masterpiece everyone wants on their shelves. You have to trust your readers to see your vision, to interact with your story and commune with it. You have to trust your gift and the story to show the reader the looking glass, and trust the reader to want to be led to the other side.

It is hard, this trust. It is hard to overcome the fear of failure, of rejection, of harsh critiques. But the rewards of that trust—in your gift, your story, and the reader—the rewards of overcoming that fear of failure, rejection, and harsh critiques, can set you free, can make you soar.

“A Matter of Trust” in The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. Ursula K. Le Guin. Shambhala Publications, Boston, 2004. ISBN: 978-1-59030-006-0 (or 1-59030-006-8)

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Action, high emotion, and those scenes which are being PITAs (pains in the ass) cause me some writer’s block usually because I want them to be perfect. It is also called stage-fright and over-rehearsing, the bane of every performer. I CAN force my right brain on stage at gunpoint, under the lights, and edit the results later. This is shooting six rolls of film to find one or two gem-quality shots.

But most times, I let the right brain slip its leash by closing my eyes and writing the scene as I see it in my head, like I’m watching a movie. This isn’t a new idea, but it DOES work. Blanket the eyes of the panicked horse, and the horse will trust you to lead it from the burning barn. In other words, what you can’t see (the blank page) can no longer scare you.

With my eyes closed, my imagination and fingers have wings. I word-paint what I see in my mind’s eye: broad strokes, tiny details, and splashes of color; all emotion, and what caused the emotion; action, movement, any words that leap clear and stick in my head. I get the essentials, the bones of the scene.

I open my eyes. It might look like ten miles of mud fence, but it’s a million times easier to edit the ugliest prose I have ever written, than to agonize over a blank page full of nothing but air. And I don’t have to keep this melodramatic drivel. I hit replay and slow it down. I find more details, cut the stuff that doesn’t work, flesh out the bones, layer in what makes the scene live on paper. Right brain. Left brain. Right. Left. It’s slow, but it gets me beyond the block.

I think the worst thing an author can suffer is overweening pride and blindness to new opportunities to learn, which lead to hubris and stagnation. Throughout the essay, Ursula reminds us to keep an open mind, especially in reading others’ works, and learning about our craft. Learn, practice, and hone your craft until it gleams in starlight. There is always more to learn, but don’t let that stop you from writing. You have to practice and show off what you have learned.

“I must trust my gift, and therefore trust the story I write, know that its use, its meaning or beauty, may go far beyond anything I could have planned.”

Trust your gift, trust your story; give both freedom. Freedom to use the skills you have to tell the story, and freedom for the story to express itself through your gift, with or without prior planning. This trust, this freedom, can lead to unexpected surprises, both delightful and troubling, which weren’t in the original synopsis or outline. The delightful ones are seen as immediate improvements. The troubling ones might require more extensive readjustments because you’ve painted yourself into a corner; get paint on your shoes, or build a window. Changes, delightful or troubling, can make your story deeper, more meaningful, the tension and emotion more vibrant, turn it into a prose work of art, simply because you allowed your story room to move.

Again, it boils down to trust. Trust in you, trust in the story.

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But what is this about trusting the story? You’re the one writing it, for pity’s sake, how much more trust is there to give?

“…to trust the story….means being willing not to have full control over the story as you write it. First you have to learn how to write English, and learn how to tell stories in general—techniques, practice, and all that: so that you are in control. And then you have to learn how to relinquish it.”

Relinquish control? Surely she jests. Yet there is light at the end of the tunnel; it isn’t a train.

“Deliberate, conscious control, in the sense of knowing and keeping to the plan, the subject, the gait, and the direction of the work, is invaluable in the planning stage—before writing—and in the revision stage—after the first draft. During the actual composition it seems to be best if conscious intellectual control is relaxed. An insistent consciousness of the intention of the writing may interfere with the process of writing. The writer may get in the way of the story.”

We have to strike a balance between the knowing part of our brains (the left) and the actual act of creation (the right), a balance between the technician and the artist.

“Lack of control over a story, usually arising from ignorance of the craft or from self-indulgence, may lead to slackness of pace, incoherence, sloppy writing, spoiled work. Over-control, usually arising from self-consciousness or a competitive attitude, may lead to tightness, artificiality, self-conscious language, dead work.”

I am a plotter. I spend months or years on set-up work before I start chapter one. I must have a written plan in order to write smoothly and more consistently. I have to remember the only perfect plan is the one not yet implemented; the plan is nothing more than a good suggestion. In the first draft I should primarily create, not dissemble, so I must remember to shut my left brain (planning, editing, logistics) in the dressing room because the right brain needs the whole stage.

I pursue perfection; my left brain escapes the dressing room frequently. I meddle and muddle and masticate; I over-analyze, tweak, add, remove, adjust—all red-sign flags that my left brain needs to be shut in solitary confinement for disturbing the peace. Planning, editing, self-critiquing, self-doubt, procrastination, and fear are ALL left brain activity, and all can be the root of dreaded writer’s block. So, yes, the left brain derails telling the story.

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Ursula K. Le Guin says in her essay, “A Matter of Trust,”

“In order to write a story, you have to trust yourself, you have to trust the story, and you have to trust the reader….Before you start writing, neither the story nor the reader even exists, and the only thing you have to trust is yourself….the only way you can come to trust in yourself as a writer is to write….To read, to write, to practice your trade, to learn your job, until you know something about it, and know you know something about it.”

To write, you must read. Everything you read has value: articles, classics, research material, how-to books, the modern greats in all genres, even the worst piece of fiction a publisher ever had the disgrace to put on the shelf. Great, good, mediocre, and horrid, all that reading shows you what is good writing, what errors to avoid, and clues to how you can improve your writing through literary devices, facts, ideas, and simple common sense in grammar and spelling. Be open to those lessons. Some will sink in by osmosis. Some you’ll have to revisit constantly. The trick is to practice a lot. You’ll learn to apply these lessons, eventually, without overdoing or flubbing.

Ursula comments further that at some point, early on, you may think you are ready for agent and publisher. Don’t be hasty even if you think your first novel will be the best thing since flush toilets. Take a minute. Stand back and reevaluate with a critical eye, talk to a friend, a writing professor, a critique group, other writers. You think it’s good enough, you might even be correct, then again no one wants to believe their story desperately needs a hatchet and an early grave, do they?

However, knowing you don’t know anything can be just as bad as NOT knowing you don’t know anything.

“I know some very good writers who never finish anything, or finish it and then destroy it with over-revising to meet real or imagined criticisms, because they don’t trust themselves as writers, which means they can’t trust their writing. Confidence in yourself as a writer…you earn…by doing, you build it up slowly, by working at it.”

I trust my writing between blinding moments of self-doubt. I am my own worst critic. Then I read a published author’s work, and notice that though they were published, their writing is on par with an eighth grade education, and their editor must have been smoking crack even on the most basic of grammar points. Books like those give me hope, not only because I think that since they were published there is hope for me, but because I KNOW I can do a better job than that published author. I don’t think this is excessive pride; I think it is self-confidence in what I know I know, and in my knowing how much I don’t know still, which is just as important.

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Remember this quote? 

I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.

That was Stephen King, famously, in Danse Macabre. And he’s right, of course. Terror is the finest emotion we could snatch from our readers (at least it is if that’s your goal starting out). But do you know the difference between terror and horror? Recently, I wrote about writing spooky fiction, something, it seems, that a lot of writers have a problem doing, and I base that solely on the fact that there’s very little fiction out there right now that’ll really give you the willies. But is terror, that grand emotion, really even achievable at all? 

Well, because terror is the heart of true fright, I’d say that if you’re writing something for the purposes of being scary or spooky, terror should at least be at the heart of what you’re trying to put to paper (Maybe they should have called the genre “terror,” eh?). But the sad fact is that in fiction, true terror is pretty much impossible to achieve. Unless you manage to make a rusty scalpel leap off the page and give the reader a good nick, that is. Because terror is that primal emotion that we experience when something really, really bad is about to happen to us personally. You just can’t capture that with words, you can’t convey that emotion; sure, you can give somebody a thrill of excitement, you can even make them wary of the dark (if you’re really good), but to achieve terror in a reader is practically impossible.

If that guy with the mask and the chainsaw began walking your way, and you couldn’t get away, the sensation you’d most likely be experiencing is terror. And in a circumstance like that, it’s one of the purest emotions there is. You won’t find anyone’s mind wandering when they’re in the throes of terror, no, they’ll be focused on one thing and one thing only (probably escape). So, bearing that in mind, terror is probably a sensation you’d want to avoid handing to your readers, right? I mean, why would you want anyone to experience a prolonged sensation of what I’ll call Hacking Death Syndrome (without the hacking). And if you did, would there be any chance they’d ever read you again? It actually sounds like the plotline of a horror novel, now that I think of it: A book that the reader cannot put down (literally), in which is written things of such an arcane and bizarre nature that the reader screams himself to death while reading it. (Hm. But that sounds too funny to be horror. Can you imagine someone screaming non-stop while reading a four-hundred page book on the toilet? Hold on, I got the giggles).

So anyway: Terror. Terrorists want us to feel it, right? But did terrorists call themselves terrorists or did some spook in DC come up with the term? I think the latter. Probably a politician. But I don’t see many terrorists crying out about political correctness when we refer to them as terrorists. They seem okay with that moniker, as if, you know, that’s what their job is. But then I don’t really know; it’s not like I have a terrorist focus group handy for a quick Q&A session. But my thoughts are that, as a terrorist wakes up to face the day, his thought process is probably something like:

I think I’ll do some terror this morning, then lunch, and later some more terror. And tonight we make sweet love. Tomorrow is all about the terror again though. Falafel?

If only terrorists had to work their terror schemes on sheets of paper instead of in gunpowder and bombs, it’d be a lot harder to terrorize people. Because even the masters have a hard time of it when it comes to feeding terror to a reader.

In the end, horror, it turns out, is aptly named after all. Some of the scariest fiction I’ve ever read was written by Edgar Allan Poe, but not even that could terrorize me. And let’s not forget Lovecraft. King’s written some pretty scary stuff, too. All I have to do is look at the cover of Cujo and I want to put the book in the freezer (that’s what we do with disturbing books in my house. We leave it there until we’re ready to read it again). But really, it’s not terror at all. It is horror, because we’re looking at it as something that happens to someone else. When fiction scares us, we’re horrified because of what’s happening to those people in the story, who, as circumstance would have it, are experiencing terror. If those things that happen to them in the story were happening to us…then we would understand terror. But you can’t convey that with fiction.  

So, on to horror, which is what we experience when we see someone else’s terror. By writing horror, we’d of course prefer to terrify the reader, difficult as that is, but at the very least we’d want to horrify them. Make them feel the pain of the protagonists experiences, let them inside of the primary fear. If they can somehow come to experience some of that fear themselves on a somewhat personal level, congrats! You’ve just escalated into terror, and you’ve done a Great Job. 

So, in today’s lesson, we’ve learned that the goal is to terrify the reader but, failing that, to at least horrify. Pin pricks and beads of sweat and nervous giggles and diverted glances and creaking doorways and dark corridors and DAMN WAS THAT A BIG FRIKKIN SPIDER…oh. Sorry. <evil grin>I’m happiest when I’m writing spooky stuff</grin>. 

But anything we write can only be false reality. True terror, without that rusty scalpel or big frikkin spider is pretty much impossible to achieve in fiction. Sometimes horror is achievable, especially if you’ve somehow managed to get the reader invested in the words, but terror is what it is for a reason. To be in terror means your life is probably in imminent jeopardy, in which case, you’re probably not reading a book. So, it’s the impossible dream, to write a piece of fiction that’s truly terrifying. You might give me the willies, creep or spook me out, I may feel fear in the pit of my stomach and be horrified at the experiences of the protagonist, but all that really boils down to is…nerves. Tension. If you add a little tension to a story with macabre circumstances, it might be easy for you to make them think they were in terror. That’s where it really gets fun.

In the end, terrorists are terrorists because they inflict pain and fear and horror on people using physical, life-ending methods. So we, as writers of horror fiction, can never truly be terrorists. We are horrorists.

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