Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Write Scared

Do you write scared?

What do I mean by that? Does it mean you should be writing in the horror genre? Nope.

Write Scared.

This is the absolute best advice I have ever received. And the person who gave me this golden rule makes it a point to pass this knowledge on, and so I'd like to pass it on to my fellow writers.

Many writers border on psychosis. In fact, at least half of the writers I know have struggled with depression or even mental illness. The other forty-eight person have dealt with some pretty heavy stuff in their lives. Life is hard. And it's full of adversity.

When you're writing, don't be afraid to go THERE. Don't be afraid to make your writing go to the very edge, and then give it a nice shove over the cliff.

Write Scared.

Go to the very depths of hell. Of despair. Of fury. Of darkness. Push your characters to the very limits, and then push it more.

Damnit, cross that line.

Was it American playwright Augustus Thomas that said you should get your hero up a tree and throw stones at him? That's great advice. But go further than that. What does that kind of bullying do to our helpless hero...eventually?

I want you to read a short, but profound poem by Langston Hughes. A Dream Deferred:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Share that hero's rage and desperation with each stone that hits him in the face, or the gut, or the balls.  Let him wallow in fear and frustration. Then let it churn...and become something else. Let it fester like an infected sore. Let the blood and the puss spew from that wound. Let it build and build and build...

Write Scared.

Maybe the hero gets sick of being picked on. He jumps down from the tree and bashes the stone thrower's head in with a hammer. Oh snap. Did that just happen? Allow yourself to be possessed while you write, and let the characters come to life. And if they go beyond what you planned or expected, let them go. For Godssakes, let them go. Let them show you the depths of wherever it is they're going. Let them surprise the hell out of you.

This is what engages your readers. This is what makes your characters real and meaningful. This is what makes us give a damn about your story and the people in it. Your writing will enter another dimension if you do one thing...

Write Scared.

Footnote: I received this advice from a fellow writer and blogger, Riann Colton. We've been visiting each others's blogs for going on eight years now. I constantly wrote with restraint, and some of my post pivotal moments in my books lacked weight and impact...until she told me to write scared. And I had an epiphany.

I saw the face of Elvis in the desert kind of epiphany.

So now when I feel my logical and protective side trying to interfere with my writing (because damnit, I love my characters), I "let slip the dogs of war." And I write scared.

Thanks Riann. You know I love ya.


Sheena-kay Graham said...

Going over the brink sparks creativity. Or makes you nuts, whichever happens.

Brinda said...

This is sort of an intense post. I hear "kill your darlings" all the time, but I like how you've prompted writers to do more. Don't just kill them. Take your time and make them suffer and work for an ending!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

It's smart advice - push your characters and your story beyond the edge, not just to the edge.
If I do ever write another book, the story I have in mind will need that sort of pushing to be more than just another straightforward space opera.
And is there a one percent of writers who aren't any of those things? Because that would be me...

Veronica Sicoe said...

That's very good advice, Jay.

Particularly scenes of intense conflict and high stakes are best written when our hands are shaking and our pupils are dilated. We need to feel before we make others feel. :)

jaybird said...

This post/advice is awesome Jay!

My neurotic personality makes Woody Allen's look calm, cool and collected in comparison...lol- and a lot of the artists and writers I know are a lot like me.

I am always afraid, yet I force myself to share my work and make myself do it anyway!

Jay Noel said...

SK: Probably both!

Brinda: No need to kill them...but maybe make it more of a figurative death. The death of the old them, and the new one emerges. Your hero must still overcome, but it usually comes at a cost.

Alex: You're one of the lucky few - the non-tortured souls that learn about pain and hell through observation or maybe helping others overcome.

Veronica: You are exactly right!

jaybird: I'm afraid often too. I second guess myself all the time with thinking, "Gee, is this too much???" That's when it's best to step away from the keyboard and just let it simmer.

ilima said...

Great advice. I heard this same thing at a recent conference. I need to write it down so I remember it as I write. Thanks!

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

For awhile, I was practicing too much restraint with my characters and with the plots themselves. I was afraid to go "there" - meaning too far into the darkness, too far over the edge, etc. At a writing conference, one of the exercises asked questions like, "What is the worst thing that can happen to your protagonist? Make that happen." It was like all of a sudden I had permission to write the way I wanted to. I don't know why I felt I needed that permission, but ever since, my writing has gotten better. Darker and twistier maybe but better. :)

Laura Eno said...

I so needed this. I mean, I already know this but...
I need to tame my logical side. When asked "What is the worst thing that could happen?" my mind always goes to "They die." LOL I need to reword it for my own benefit, I guess. "What is the worst thing they could live through?"

Julie Luek said...

I also think this means to push our selves to the edge-- write so that you feel vulnerable and exposed, so that your own emotions are on the edge. Dare to reveal ideas, feelings, thoughts that you keep buried and deep-- dare to expose. This can be very frightening, but it also can produce some of the best writing for your readers-- whether fiction or nonfiction. Yes. Be a little scared.

Elise Fallson said...

Excellent advice, all the way around.

Jay Noel said...

ilima: I need to post it up on the wall of my office.

Madeline: Ohhhh, I love that question. That's a great prompt. What's the worst? And make it so.

Laura: Make it so that dying is one of the best things that can happen to them.

Julie: Yes, that's exactly right. I think writing scared is scary because WE expose ourselves. So very true.

Elise: Thanks so much Elise!

D.G. Hudson said...

A different perspective on putting our heroes through their paces, Jay. Emotions up the ante.

Thanks for sharing this advice.

celeste holloway said...

Awesome post! This may be the best advice I've ever read! From this day forward, I vow to writer scared!!!! Thank you! :)

Pk Hrezo said...

Well said! And I totally agree. Those stories that move us are cuz the author dug deep and exposed themselves (or their characters) on the page.

Dana said...

This is great advice! The Hughes poem really says it all.

DEZMOND said...

some horror to produce horror :)

Emily R. King said...

Awesome advice. I read a book last week that had me up at night it scared me so bad. I'm guessing the writer wrote scared too.

Anonymous said...

Aww I love you too.

Wow. Eight years. On our tenth anniversary my laptop and I are showing up at your koi pond.

At the beginning of the month I attended a writing workshop by Donald Maass...Guess what he said? Write scared!!!

I wish I remember the original giver of this advice. I do. Because it was such a huge pivotal moment for me as a writer.

Michael Offutt, "Johnny on the Spot" said...

I had a suspicion that writers are in fact, insane. This just validates what I already suspected about myself.

Jay Noel said...

DG: Gotta get past the surface.

celeste: It's the best advice I ever received too!

Pk: Just keep digging...just keep digging...

Dana: It really does. And I love the play Raisin in the Sun. It exemplifies the poem so well.

Dez: Sometimes, we have to hit bottom before we bounce back to the top!

Jay Noel said...

Emily: They must have struck a nerve!

Riann: That would be awesome! Whoever came up with that advice is a genius. And I appreciate you giving it to me.

Michael: We all must be. Look what we put ourselves through.

Julia Hones said...

Powerful post, Jay. I've been thinking of this lately. As writers we need to be daring. This means stepping out of our comfort zone.

Jeff Hargett said...

Good advice there. It's easy to write conserved and restrained and logical. Going to (or over) the edge offers a boatload of possibilities.

Jay Noel said...

Julia: And your characters too. Extraordinary circumstances often times require your characters to grow and go beyond what even they thought was their limits.

Jeff: Being safe is easy. It's when the writers gets possessed, stops to reread what they've written and think, "Holy hell, where did that come from?" That's the best!

Maurice Mitchell said...

I can see this is true in a lot of great fiction Jay. You can feel when the author isn't playing it safe and that tension just makes it better.

Tammy Theriault said...

that poem grossed me out!! yuck jay! great advice though.

Lynda R Young said...

My stories tend to be world breakers... is that pushing my characters too far? ;)

Great advice!

Matthew MacNish said...

Great advice! I like to say: dig deeper. All the way down to your soul.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic advice I plan on putting to use during tonight's writing session. I think to often we like the comfortable, when great drama needs just the opposite. Great post.

Julie Dao said...

GREAT post, Jay. I recently just finished another book and definitely wrote scared the whole way through the last couple of chapters. Some freaky things happened that I hadn't planned on. Pushing characters to their limits is definitely scary... but worthwhile, I think.

mooderino said...

Good advice. Thanks for the tip.


M Pax said...

It's good advice. I've been using lately to be bolder and unapologetic. It's taking me down a path and I can't help but go.

Jay Noel said...

Maurice: Right...when you know the author might go off the deep end and you can't but the book down to see what happens.

Tammy: I've got a funny story about that poem. It's from when I was a high school English teacher. Remind me to tell you about it.

Lynda: It's never too far!

Matthew: Right on, brother!

tony: Fiction is melodrama, even though we say we hate melodrama. Now we don't want cheesy, but an unexpected turn that goes way further than we expected is a good thing.

Julie: That's the best feeling, isn't it?

Moody: Thanks so much!

Mary: Be VERY unapologetic. I'm known for killing main characters.

Eve said...

Hey Jay, what a fantastic piece. It"s so true, many writers I think have been through hell in their lives, or are prone to any number of mental conditions. We've all heard the stories of the mad creative geniuses. Highly intelligent and highly creative people seem to be prone to that sort of thing.
I love the advice to write scared. Throwing stones at your character when they're up a tree is, I think, harder than it seems, but worth it if we are to develop our craft and be the best writers we can be. Great article!

David List said...

I dig it. One of the best things about writing is that the characters can do stuff we can't or shouldn't. I just finished a series where the characters continuously surprised me, making me either go WHAT!? or just laugh out loud. (sometimes lying in bed next to sleeping wife)
Good advice.

The Desert Rocks said...

Good comment and something I get told often but somehow I hold back....

Cynthia said...

I think some of this goes along the lines of something I heard an industry professional say once about not being too overprotective of our characters, that we should expose them to challenges in order to give them opportunities to grow.

Phats said...

Scary books are my favorite :)

Milo James Fowler said...

Good advice. I heard a radio personality recently advise the class of 2013 with something similar: when you're faced with a decision in life, take the route that scares you. Later on, you'll be glad you did.
In Medias Res

Jay Noel said...

Eve: Thanks so much!

David: You're illustrating just why so many people think we're crazy.

Eve: Don't hold back!!!!

Cynthia: Very true. Expose them - and you'll be surprised by what happens.

Phats: Written by a scared author!

Milo: That's some fantastic advice.

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