Putting nettles to good use

When the world lost Terry Pratchett not so long ago, The Guardian posted an article from Neil Gaiman titled, “Terry Pratchett isn’t jolly. He’s angry.” The gist of the article is summed up in these two paragraphs:

“There is a fury to Terry Pratchett’s writing: it’s the fury that was the engine that powered Discworld. It’s also the anger at the headmaster who would decide that six-year-old Terry Pratchett would never be smart enough for the 11-plus; anger at pompous critics, and at those who think serious is the opposite of funny; anger at his early American publishers who could not bring his books out successfully. . . .

“Anger is the engine that drives him, but it is the greatness of spirit that deploys that anger on the side of the angels, or better yet for all of us, the orangutans.”

The first time I skimmed through this article, I thought the point was that anger fueled Terry Pratchett’s writing. I thought, “That’s interesting,” and almost moved on.

But then I stopped, reread a little closer, and saw a completely different point: that Terry Pratchett chose to use his anger to fuel his writing. Where he could have let his anger grow and chafe and destroy, he instead directed his anger to create.

It reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from Les Miserables: “With very little trouble, nettles can be put to use; being neglected they become obnoxious and are therefore destroyed. How many men share the fate of the nettle!” (160)

What are we doing with our anger, our nettles, our weaknesses? Are we ashamed of them? Do we feed them hot air and let them fester? Do we use them to destroy?

Or do we harness those things, channel them, focus them, and put them to good use?

One of the most beautiful things I’ve learned as a writer is that you don’t touch your readers with perfect characters. Even the most heroic hero must have flaws to forge a connection with similarly flawed human hearts. Flaws make us human, and overcoming obstacles in spite of those flaws (or even with the help of those flaws) makes us heroic.

Use your weaknesses to create something good in a world that is always looking to destroy. Use your weaknesses to lift and strengthen others. Use your weaknesses to change the world.

You might just find that you’re not as flawed as you once thought.

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Shaking the Slump

As a writer, it’s absurdly easy to go from feeling like you’re writing the next bestseller to feeling like you’re writing something not fit even for rats to consume. Here are a few suggestions to shake yourself out of that writer’s slump:

  • Get feedback from your mom. Or your best friend, or your significant other, or anyone who is obligated to love whatever you write. Even if it’s someone you normally trust to give an honest critique, tell them straight out that you need a shameless ego boost. We all do sometimes.
  • Reread your favorite part of your story. It’s a good way to remind yourself that you enjoy what you write and that you can write well.
  • Get away from your work. Ideally, get outside. It is winter, so going outside may not be an attractive option, but just do something that takes your focus away from how terrible of a writer you think you are. Exercise of some sort is a great option: going for a walk, doing a few crunches, jumping jacks, anything to get your blood and endorphins flowing.
  • Write something else that will remind you how much you love writing. Even if it’s just a goofy one-off scene that will never turn into anything, write it to remember the joy of writing.
  • Evaluate your motivation to write. If you’re writing for fame and money, you’re in the wrong business, pal. Nothing but fire and passion can possibly bring you through the torture of dragging a book from inside your mind and wrestling it to the page word by word. Once you realign your motivation and remember that you’re writing this book because it has to come out, not because the rest of the world has to like it, it’s easier to get past that fear of failure.
  • If you’re still worried about whether people are going to like your book, remember that there are people in this world who hate Harry Potter. Insane, I know, but there you go. It doesn’t matter how good a book is, there are always people whose tastes will not align with it, and that’s okay. Just because someone doesn’t like it doesn’t mean that it’s terrible.
  • Remember that you’re still awesome. Bad writing does not a bad writer make. Even if you just wrote the lamest scene ever to appear on paper (or computer), you’re still an awesome writer because YOU ARE WRITING. Plan to fix it later, let it go, and keep on writing, because that’s the kind of awesome writer you are.

So there are my strategies. What do you do to get yourself out of a slump?

“Everybody has imaginary friends.”

I’m convinced that the only way to write well is to write for yourself. Whenever I start writing something because I think others will like it better this way, my writing plunges to the depths of humiliating awfulness. I never quite understood why, but I knew that was just how it worked.

And then I read “The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy” by Kate Hattemer, and a lightbulb clicked on.

Here’s an abbreviated version of Elizabeth’s rant as she tries to clue Ethan in to life:

“Andrezejczak,” Elizabeth said, “you’re doing it again. ‘I’m singularly unequipped.’ You think you’re the only real person. You think you’re the only one who’s amazed and scared and freaked by how complicated everyone is.”

“You are?”

“Of course I am. . . . Everybody else has unattainable crushes too,” she said. “And imaginary friends. Some part of their mind that they talk to when they can’t deal with talking to real people. You just happen to name yours.” (255–256)

When we look at others, we can only see so much. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that those perky, outgoing, talkative people can share the same fears and insecurities that are so prominent in our own minds. That those successful authors, those Pinterest-perfect mothers, those brilliant artists can ever doubt themselves. That anyone else could possibly have enough in common with us that they will appreciate the stories that come from our hearts.

It’s true that each person is unique, that none are exactly like another. But there is a reason that good stories resonate with people across the world. We all have hopes and doubts and fears and dreams. We are all human.

So if we all share these deep core elements, why does it never work to write something we think others will like, rather than something we like?

When you look at someone, you look through the filter of your own perception. You can’t see everything that person is. You can’t fathom the depths and complications of another’s mind. It’s hard enough to come to grips with your own depths and complications. If you write for the person you see through that filter, you write for someone who doesn’t exist.

But you know your own soul. You know the truths and twists and turns that make up your own being. And if you write something that rings true to your own soul, you’re going to get a lot closer to the core of the rest of the world.

So have faith that everybody else is “amazed and scared and freaked by how complicated everyone is.” Remember that “everybody else has . . . imaginary friends.” Go forward and write your stories for yourself, knowing that that is the only way you can possibly write for others.

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What do you say? Do you ever find yourself writing to please others, instead of yourself? Have you noticed whether it makes a difference in your writing?

Are your characters motivated?

In my first college creative writing class, nearly every piece I turned in came back with the word unbelievable scribbled somewhere in the margins. It got to be so that that was the first thing I would look for when I got my papers back. It was incredibly frustrating. After all, I’m a fantasy writer. Doesn’t fantasy require some suspension of belief?

Well, yes. To a point. But here’s the thing that I didn’t entirely grasp at that point: unbelievable does not equal unrealistic. Fantasy is unrealistic by very nature. However, when you’re reading along in Harry Potter, does it ever occur to you to think it unbelievable that Hermione would conjure a swarm of golden birds to sic on Ron? No! Why? Because believability is based in world rules and character motivations, not similarity to reality.

Okay, that’s all well and good, but I was still pretty put out at my professor’s constant harping on the unbelievability of my characters. After all, I knew they had motivation to act the way they did. I knew exactly what was going on in their minds.

But he didn’t.

And there’s the problem I missed for a very long time. There are certain gaps that readers have to fill: the face of your dashing hero, the sleazy squeak of your villain’s voice, etc. But motivation should never be one of those gaps. No, you don’t have to be entirely truthful about it right away—misleading readers is part of the fun. But what your character does should always be accompanied by a why that is crystal clear to the reader.

This is definitely a point where critique groups come in handy. When your characters have been living inside your head for so long, it may seem painfully obvious to you why your characters are acting in a certain way, but your readers may be reading something completely different. You don’t want your readers to think your character is a murderous maniac when he’s really supposed to be failing miserably at being mean. (Yes, this was a recent point of confusion with one of my characters.)

Happy writing!