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Let’s talk about truth in writing. A fellow writer asked me the other day:
Here’s the thing. I’m a good writer. I know the craft stuff, I have the structure, characterization, dialogue, plot. . . what I lack is that spark of truth, theme, life. I write as honestly as I can, but I don’t know how to break through to the next level. How do you connect to yourself? I feel it should be the most basic element of writing, that one must learn the Other stuff, whereas I know the Other stuff and lack being straightforward. Ironic. How do you do it? Where does the connection come from? I feel I am making headway with my latest work because I asked “what am I trying to say here?” . . . I always avoided it because I don’t want to be preachy or gimmicky or too glib, but perhaps I should. I spent my lunch hour in the bookstore looking over writing reference books and my frustration kept growing because it occurred to me that I do know the things they’re trying to teach. It’s the Bones you talked about that I haven’t grasped yet. Help?
First of all, throw the goddamn writing reference books away. We may get metaphysical here in a bit, and that ballast won’t help. We all know how I feel about books on writing–there are two, count them, TWO I recommend out of the vast number of how-tos. Hitting yourself on the head with those books is probably the best use for them, if only because it will feel so good when you stop. Quit trying to look for a magic key in there. If there was one, the entire self-help/writing book industry would tank overnight.
Next, the bad news.
* You ain’t never gonna be happy, honey, ’cause happy ain’t in the deal. No serious professional writer I know is ever completely happy with the work. Well, they are on one level–there’s a great deal of satisfaction in consistently turning out good craft. But writers are inveterate fiddlers. We go back and edit. Relentlessly and constantly. If we’re any good, we’re constantly refining. Even when your books are in print you are going to open them up and reach for your red pen. That’s just how it is–you are always going to see things you could have done better. It’s like life.
* Like ogres, this craft is all about…layers. There is always going to be another level to get to. No writer is so godlike-perfect that they can’t learn a thing or two, or want to get better. Your characters have layers–you can stay on the top and wonder about their motivations, you can sink inside their skins and look out through their eyes. Either will give you different things to write about. But there will always be another layer, another thing to consider, another goddamn thing to learn. Sorry about that.
But there’s good news, and it outweighs the bad.
* You’re probably ready to move forward. One of the “joys” of a writer’s life (like all true miracles, it has teeth) is that creative motion forward is indirect. I’ve often noticed I get itchy and dissatisfied for a while before the craft takes a serious step forward and I’m back to juggling chainsaws again. I call it “plateau-ing” and I’ve seen it in other writers. You might be ready to take that step into the layer of the “bones”. The process–inspiration, gestation, frustration, illumination–repeats itself over and over with the process of being a writer, both in terms of small individual works of art and artistic growth. Don’t rule out the idea that you might be getting ready to take a step forward.
* And you can’t see the forest for the trees. Get used to the idea that you might be too close to your own work to see the “spark” in it. That’s why we have beta readers and editors. If you’re very lucky you might glimpse it once or twice for yourself, but I have to tell you I haven’t seen it yet. My editor tells me it’s there. My beta assures me it’s there. Some readers tell me it’s there. Sometimes I’m pretty sure a work is technically sound, or I love it because it’s mine.
But here’s a secret: I still cannot see this “spark” you talk about. All I see are the mistakes.
Nobody said this was going to be easy. But if you know you’re too close to see it, you may find some comfort in the thought and quit beating yourself up about it. Beating yourself up is wasting time you could be using for writing. Just…consider the notion, okay?
* You’re obviously not going to quit. Believe it or not, this is very important. You know the answer is there and you’re not going to stop until you find it. That stubbornness will stand you in good stead, and I admire it.
So, what the hell should I tell you to do?
All applicable disclaimers here. But you asked my advice, so here it is.
* Get used to being scared. Like it or not, the bone is where the fear is, and the fear is where the power is. You even mention the lack of being straightforward. What are you scared of writing? Is it something your mother would disapprove of? Something you’d be embarrassed to show your friends? Do it anyway. That fear of being shamed if “someone” reads your stuff is an invaluable sign that you’re on the right track. Heart in your mouth and your palms wet? Don’t stop. Keep going, keep writing.
You care what “someone” thinks enough to stop writing? I didn’t think so. Here’s a little secret: most people could care less. You’re no more than a secondary character in the big drama of their life; it’s the curse of being human. If your mom cares that you write hot sex scenes, if Aunt Lucille would be scandalised because she thinks the dingbat old lady in the book is her, if your ex-boyfriend might recognize himself in the dime-store Lothario who gets nailed in the nuts…who cares? The fig leaf of “these events are fictional” in the front of the book is fair warning, so don’t worry about that. Writing someone into a book is a much healthier way to deal with any residual aggression than many others I could name. And your mom will probably be so proud you’re published she won’t even care about the spicy bits.
But it all comes down to this: who are you writing for? Yes, you have a commitment to your readers. But if you are not writing the things that thrill you all the way down to your knickers, you’re falling down both on that commitment to the readers and the commitment to yourself and your art.
* What is the risk here? You might be afraid of your character risking something. Without risk there is no reward. If your character isn’t really running a risk, of course it feels like you’re just phoning it in. Sit down and figure out what your characters are risking. Then, up the ante. Make them pay for it. Get your heart in your mouth. Be unsure whether or not they’re going to make it. Get them dirty and make them deal with consequences. I know you don’t want to–you really don’t want to hurt your characters. But you have to. Otherwise you have a story with no risk, and no reward.
* Whose story is it? As Laura Kalpakian once said, the story belongs to the character that changes the most. Who is changing in your story? If it’s not the hero/ine, you have some thinking to do.
* Why, yes. It IS like taking your clothes off in public. But nobody is going to look. Some people are going to think that everything you write is about You. A character with trauma must be YOUR trauma. They will judge you based on your characters, and how well your characters conform to THEIR expectations. Of course everything you write is personal–writing is a personal art. But you are going to have to learn that feeling of exposure is not necessarily yours. It’s another trick by the Internal Censor trying to get you to back away from Telling The Truth.
Nobody is going to “find you” in your writing, beyond certain values of lit-crit and biography that I wouldn’t worry about, because by the time they become relevant one will most likely be safely dead. Writing is personal, but it does not hold the key to your inner sanctum. Only you do. The fear of exposing oneself is a necessary social function, and it sometimes holds one back from getting the characters dirty or writing about a situation you have intimate knowledge or imagination of. Don’t worry about this while you’re writing. It can always be edited out, either by you or your beta or your editor. Get it all out first, no matter how heart-in-mouth you feel.
* Do not quit. If you have come this far, you are so very close. You have done what a high percentage of people who call themselves “writers” have never done–consistently finished work and taken a look at what it means and what it takes to get published. You are at one of the last hurdles before the world opens up. Don’t stop. Stamp the pedal to the metal and let the engine roar. Go for the horizon, race to beat the Devil, go until your heart burns. Do not stop.
I promise you, if you do not quit, that spark will be there. Whether you can see it or not.
Now go get ’em.
 Stephen King’s On Writing and Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. That’s it.