Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Be afraid

(just re-posted here so all the old links in will work)


What is your biggest fear?

Rejection? Death? The unknown? Loss? Is your main character facing down that fear?

Why not?

I don't know where I read or heard this first: Robert McKee, maybe, or quite possibly Donald Maass, in his Surrey master classes. The advice: Find your fear, and dump it on the page. Make your character deal with it in just the way you've always dreaded.

It's hard. I've done it, stared at the screen thinking "No, I can't talk about that. Even thinking about that scares me silly. How can I possibly live every day with that ache, that trickle of fear, for months?" You can. You should. It brings a vividness to your book that will otherwise be missing, that will become the vague, undefined lack earning you "I just didn't love this" comments by the bucketful.

However, if you truthfully portray your fear, and your characters react to it honestly, your book will resonate with readers. See, the trick is you're not the only one with that particular fear. If it's cathartic for you to deal with it on the page and come through the other side, it's cathartic for readers as well. They'll recognize the truth, connect with the powerful emotions. Rip through the pages to see if your MC will overcome it. Cheer for her when she does.

Like everybody, I've got several fears that underlie everything, that can rise to the surface with one word. One is rejection.

I'm not talking about book rejection—that's just a step in the process, in my opinion. I'm talking about when your best friend for years starts going cold. Stops calling you. Tells you one day, in front of all the people you most want to impress, that she can't believe she was ever friends with you in the first place, you're such a loser.

Yes, that happened to me.

Or when your boyfriend, or husband, starts spending long hours away from you. Turns away when you try to kiss him, or worse, pretends. But you can tell. It's different. It's over, you just haven't admitted it yet.

Or when you're a kid, and one of your parents leaves, for reasons that are perfectly valid from a grown-up's perspective, but to a kid just means they've failed somehow.

Jenna dealt with that fear. Natalie's facing it too, in a different way from a different source. But I think it's a common anxiety, and important. And very, very real to me.

Another one I didn't even realize until I wrote Jenna was the fear of losing control. I hadn't realized the true terror of that moment when—because of medical reasons, or because you're just a kid—decisions about your life are taken out of your hands, and you no longer have a choice. I did that to Jenna. Of course she took control back, but she had to lose it first. I had to, to understand it.

Don't hold back. Don't sugar-coat issues, to make them safe. Face your fears. Make your characters go through those particular layers of hell. And then, at the end, let them win.

5 comments:

Kelly Gay said...

This is awesome writing advice. I never really wrote a book with my fears in mind, but they always end up with a strong variation of the things that scare me the most.

Lottery Girl said...

Really terrific advice!

Did you ever hear Michael Slade talk about fear at Surrey? He's done a variation of that talk several times, and I've loved it.

I can't hardly think of two creepy crawly creatures without getting crazed. I've been afraid of these guys since I was a small child because they were a threat where I lived. (Notice I don't name them?)

I also think that most of the fears that we adults have are rooted in our childhoods.

MM said...

WoW!!!

That was amazing writing advice. I'm so glad I found this site.

Authormom said...

Thats awesome advice. I'm going to do that right now.

Story of my Life said...

This was amazing advice and I'm going to keep this in mind next time I'm writing. Thanks!