As much as I both love and hate Laurell K. Hamilton (love her for bringing to life the amazing character I once fell in love with, Anita Blake, and hate her for manhandling said character into things that go so extremely against Blake’s nature), I do think that she’s written some of the more useful advice on writing I’ve found, either in interviews or on her blog. She recently began guest-blogging for the Borders sci-fi blog, and one post in particular resonated with me (“The Great White Emptiness”).
She writes, “In the beginning, there is the blank sheet of paper. Most writers fear that white empty space…” I don’t happen to have this problem, but she blogged some great advice for dealing with this, which I think you can apply to any part of the writing process (in the warped form of a weird double-metaphor where she equates “trusting your writing muse” to “love”…because just talking about how writers have trouble trusting themselves isn’t direct enough apparently).
Love is like a cliff. Some people are cliff jumpers, throwing themselves off into empty air…in the utter conviction that the person they love will love them back and catch them. Then there are those that go to the edge of the cliff and peer over the edge and think, “Wow, that’s a long way down. It doesn’t look safe; I better not.” They draw back from the possibility of love and let it escape for fear of falling. Some would-be writers are like that. They have a great idea, but they don’t trust it. They don’t have faith in themselves and their own muse enough to follow that bright, shiny idea over the edge and into the abyss. They don’t believe that their imagination will catch them, and they’re too frightened to jump. Their new idea escapes, and is dead before it ever has a chance…
Then you have the people in the middle. The ones that sidle up to the cliff, look over, see it’s a long way down, and then get their safety gear, helmet, rope, and tie themselves off at the top and start climbing down. They’re taking a chance, but they want a safety backup, and there’s nothing wrong with being careful, but . . . Sometimes while they’re climbing carefully down the side, trying to see the bottom, and find that idea, and follow it all the way down, it gets so far ahead of them that they lose the thread of it. The idea slips away for lack of trust. Sometimes it’s lack of conviction in the idea itself, but usually it’s more like this: what if the idea isn’t big enough to be a book, or it sounds like it would take too much research and I don’t know anything about X or Y, so how could I do a whole book on it, or I bet it’s been done before, or . . . It’s not really lack of faith in the idea, it’s lack of faith in themselves that stops a lot of writers before they ever really begin.
And this metaphor for the metaphor, which is hardly a unique one and which I’ve heard many times over, was phrased in that “just right” way that you sometimes have to hear it before it clicks. I get it now. As I was reading her rambling metaphor2, I found myself thinking that the middle-ground people actually had it the worst of all—the fearless writers just go for it (ideal) and the timid writers don’t but they COULD if they just stop hanging around and get on with it already! (less ideal but they have the POTENTIAL to be fearless). But the middle-ground folks start off well, only to get hung up in a position that’s almost too far down to go no-guts-no-glory on their idea because either the idea’s gone or they’ve psyched themselves out too much to continue.
Then I realized that was me and I got a little depressed.
That mantra LKH describes about “what if the idea isn’t big enough to be a book, … or I bet it’s been done before…” is my inner critic almost verbatim. Only mine tacks on an extra, “and just what makes you think you’re writer enough to handle that awesome idea, loser?” because he’s a bastard. I usually wind up listening to that critic and look all embarrassed at my feet and let myself get cowed: “Yeah…*pouts and shuffles feet* You’re probably right. It was a stupid idea anyway…”
It suddenly hit me that this was exactly what I was starting to do with my latest story. I’m about 16K words and 26 pages in, and the plot’s basic events are STILL being developed and it’s making me sad. My story’s like a drunk whose friends left it to wander the streets downtown because it got belligerent, and even though it KINDA knows the way home, it doesn’t remember exactly where it parked the car and it’s too sloshed to even THINK of hailing a cab and so it heads in the right direction, but keeps getting sidetracked down wrong streets and alleyways and sometimes stops to puke in the gutter. I’d kinda resolved myself to the fact that I was just going to have to wait for it to sober up in order for it to get anywhere productive, but that kind of waiting can get really depressing when you WANT to write but realize your story’s not getting anywhere.
I now understand that I’m not jumping off a cliff with it. If I passively try to let it find its own way, it may NEVER get the imagination momentum it needs to go somewhere great, somewhere I’m pretty sure it has the potential to be. I’ve got to be direct and aggressive, and if it doesn’t want to bungee jump off that cliff, then I’m just going to have to drag it after me, screaming and flailing the whole way down. I have to remind myself of this regularly–several times a day even–, but it’s helped me start to build the momentum I was lacking before. Those plot holes and sticky spots are no longer the sinkholes or quicksand traps they were a week ago. My story is developing a sense for its own impetus. Angry drunk that it is.
But if it pukes on my favorite shirt, God help me, I am going to punch it right in the mouth. Because I love my story and LKH tells me that’s what love is like.
Or something like that.