WARNING: This is a no-edit zone…
Writers are human, and being human they experience the same things emotionally that others experience. It is their ability to relate these common or universal emotions in a way that readers see glimpses of themselves in what is written that makes the writer a storyteller.
That’s a gift, and while you might be able to assume some storytelling traits, you can’t assume and sustain them through an entire novel much less through a career of novels.
In writing a novel, we often start out with the germ of an idea. One that meets specific criteria that determines whether or not the idea is viable to sustain the demands of a novel. (If you’re a writer and unfamiliar with testing an idea, see my library article on the subject.)
That germ of an idea can take many forms. It can be a mental glimpse of a character, a situation, an event. Many writers take news items that end badly and create a novel around the idea or the crime and then alter the outcome. It gives us a little sense of control in a world that on that specific case seems to have gone mad. 🙂
Ideas come in all forms and shapes and from all sources. But eventually the writer winds around to the aspect of human emotion we hope to tap into in the story. That’s significant because tapping into that universal emotion–which is an emotion most of us can identify with–is how we create that critical bond between character and reader that is essential to the reader investing in the story.
And it is on this path (as well as the career path, which is the subject of an entirely different post) that many writers get mired down or lost.
If we can determine why writers get lost, maybe we can help avoid that significant challenge.
During the course of thirty odd novels written, I’ve discovered a few insights on getting lost. (Read that, I’ve tromped through my share of mud puddles and trudged through sludge on this.) Here are a couple of them that seem most dominate:
1. The subject matter, or the emotions it arouses, hits too close to home. For example, if you’re an abuse victim, or a former abuse victim who has resolved the issue, you likely carry remnant feelings toward abuse that impact you emotionally on a deep level. This can be an asset, in that you can write realistically on the subject and with insight and authority that non-victims can’t. But in doing the writing, most writers relive the abuse. Mentally revisiting it, I mean. And that can have a potent impact on emotions. If the writer can channel that constructively into the book, it can add depth and dimension that is explosive and powerful. But if it impacts the writer in a manner that is destructive, well, the writer is going to suffer and shun. S/he is going to shelter and shield, and in doing so, the work seems lackluster and frigid. The end result is a frustrated writer who feels lost.
Often just knowing what is happening and why can help the writer resolve the problem and aid him/her in finding their way.
There are times, however, when the writer is too close, the emotions too tumultuous to tackle. Then it’s best to set the project aside and work on resolving the issue itself. Once you have, then you can return to the project with a constructive perspective that very often proves beneficial to readers suffering those same challenges.
2. Reluctant revelation. The writer can write the story and wants to and yet there is an underlying need to protect themselves and/or their privacy. It isn’t mentally reliving the emotional turmoil that’s the challenge, it’s revealing that they’ve had the emotional turmoil. The writer starts to write and suddenly just can’t. S/he’s lost.
The writer, consciously or subconsciously, is opting to protect him or herself. From what? Judgment of others. And that is his/her personal preference–both the protection and the decision on what stories to write.
Some will say that avoiding these type books is coping out, selling out the art, hiding from oneself, but that’s not only judgmental it’s shortsighted. Note only rational, logical, well-balanced and mentally healthy people read. Some twisted crazies do, too. And among them, one isn’t always as easily distinguished from the other as you might think.
Some writers endure life-threatening challenges to write the stories they write. Some find themselves alienated from family, former friends, colleagues, associates, and others. Some become targets for direct attacks and for covert attacks.
True, with advances in technology and law, these individuals are becoming much easier to locate and prosecute, but that’s another subject, too. The point here is that when the writer writes, s/he doesn’t know for fact what reactions will be.
Most rational human beings don’t air their challenges in public. Most don’t want to relive past traumas and challenges. They want to look ahead to what they’re building in their lives and not to what they or others destroyed or attempted to destroy. That’s human nature, just as emotions are human nature.
Writers, however, draw from the well of their experiences and from the experiences of others to relate stories that tap into those emotions and express a view on a given matter. It’s what storytelling is all about. And it’s also why most write all that conflict that strikes too close to the bone, or cuts deep into remembered pain.
It takes stamina to write at all, but it takes even more to write stories. It takes the courage to face your worst, and expose it.
Once you have, it can create challenges, yes. But it can also help you find your feet on solid ground. There is liberation in openness. There is freedom in being blatantly honest.
That doesn’t mean that others have the right to discuss the writer’s private matters, or to insinuate themselves into what a writer chooses to disclose. That’s the writer’s choice, just as it is his/her responsibility to respect the privacy of others.
And yet too often, writers are violated in this way. And when they are, they resent it. They feel frustrated and betrayed–and they have been betrayed so eventually that too leads to the writer feeling lost. S/he has lost. Privacy and whatever relationship existed with the betrayer.
A few years ago, a writer came to me who had been held as a female slave in a foreign country. Her release had been purchased and she was now in the U.S. and free–and felt guilty because she knew others were still in bondage. She wanted to write a story about her experiences and use the money to buy others’ freedoms.
She had suffered a great deal and writing this story was a horrendous experience in and of itself. Often during the writing, she would become so immersed in memories that she’d call me to get grounded in her new life again. To remind herself that she wasn’t there in that place now.
Without those grounding conversations, she feared she’d be lost.
I feared it, too.
So if you’re tackling a story with that kind of emotion tied to it, get yourself a safety net. Someone, preferably a writer you trust totally to retain your confidences, and call on them to help keep you grounded.
What I most respect about this individual is that she didn’t turn away because it was hard. Because she had great fear of losing herself in it. She found a constructive solution; a way around the problem that didn’t debilitate her or prohibit her from doing what she felt she must do.
And that’s the biggest key to not getting lost on the writing front, and to finding your way if you’ve become lost. Recognize the challenge and find a constructive solution that works for you so you can write the stories you want to write. The stories you were born to write in a way only you can write them.
You might be lost. On occasion, we’re all lost. But you don’t have to stay lost. You don’t have to give in or up. You can find a constructive solution. I know for fact it’s been done. And if someone else can do it, so can you.