What do I mean by that? Does it mean you should be writing in the horror genre? Nope.
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.
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:
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?
like a heavy load.
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...
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...
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.