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The Eighth Element

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As you can imagine, I’ve read a lot of manuscripts.  How many?  Many thousands, certainly.  Generally, they are good, just not ready.  Why not?  There are eight common lacks but the last one is the hardest to pin down.  It’s not so much a craft technique as it is a quality.

The missing quality is one that falls somewhere between insouciance and recklessness.  It has aspects of courage and authority.  It’s easier to say what it’s not.  It’s not safe.  It’s not careful.  Few writers believe themselves to be writing timidly but like I say, I’ve read a lot of manuscripts.  Most are quite readable or, looked at another way, unobjectionable.  Not that a novel should offend readers, but neither should it make few ripples in readers’ minds.

In writing fiction, the learning curve is long and the bar to leap over to print publication is high.  It’s understandable that over time many writers bend toward getting their fiction “right”.  Maybe not a slavish fit for a given market sector but at least one that will smoothly please finicky gatekeepers.  Not without art, no-no, and definitely with an original premise and solid craft but, in the reading, a product that dutifully shows high respect for everything from characters’ sensitivities to marketability.

It’s paradoxical, but the very values that would seem to make a manuscript acceptable can be the same values that produce a novel that isn’t particularly memorable.  The quality of being memorable or—let’s be ambitious—timeless, doesn’t come about by writing safe.  I don’t mean breaking rules, although there’s a lot to be said for that.  What I mean is writing without regard to “don’t”.

Timeless stories are written with high authority.  It’s authors who don’t apologize or wonder if they are worthy.  They assume that they are and not only that, they have been appointed to tell us who’s who, what’s what, and to do that in their own quirky way and if you don’t like it then go jump in a lake.  It’s as if those authors don’t care a damn who approves their novels but care like hell about the ache and joy of the human condition.

Proust, Woolf, Faulkner and Vonnegut did not write timidly.  Tolkein did not think small.  Bridget Jones, let’s be honest, is a drunk.  Neil Gaiman doesn’t give a damn if you think he’s borrowing heavily from myth or fairy tale.  Neither J.K. Rowling or Suzanne Collins care if you find their novels of derivative of others’ stuff.  Angie Thomas tells it like it is, so take that.  Mary Gaitskill, by no means alone, has no problem making you blush.  And then there’s that fattest of middle fingers to middle brow literature, Lolita, a jaw dropper first published in 1955.

I’m talking about fearlessness, being recklessly independent of all expectations and at the same time utterly bonded to all of us.  A lot of things get in the way of that, not just the intimidating standards of publishing—whatever those are—but authors’ inhibitions and influences.

Influences?  Wait, aren’t those a good thing?  If by influence you mean inspiration, then yes, but influence is inescapably coupled with constraint.  Constraints can be crippling, inner constraints most of all.  Fearing to err.  Worrying about sounding cocky.  The terror of feeling naked.  To write fearlessly is to risk those things in assurance that to avoid them is to wind up with a story that is no better than acceptable.

Fearlessness shows in everything from arresting premise to mythic characters to moral challenge to wildfire prose.  To make this practical, there are some challenges today just for you:

  • Write a passage that says why—despite what everyone thinks, says, and advocates—love hurts like a bitch.
  • Write a passage in which being lost is not a temporary condition but is a state is as final as tombstone.
  • Write the one sentence that you are absolutely not allowed to write.
  • Rewrite the first page of your WIP knowing that this is the last day of your life.  (How do you know that it’s not?)
  • Write the next paragraph in your WIP as if it is fireworks going off.
  • Write a sex scene like your parents, family and friends will never be allowed to read it.
  • Write the opposite of what you believe and convince me.
  • Write about a feeling that is mean, ugly, small and unfiltered.
  • Write about hopeless generosity or goodness that is stupid.
  • Write something sad about something small or joyfully about a major disaster.
  • Write the moment when your protagonist no longer gives a fuck.
  • Write why the hell this damn mess in your story matters more than anything. 
  • Write what’s going to piss me off but you don’t care.
  • Tell me what’s wrong with things, and so what if I don’t want to hear it?
  • Write into your novel something that will make me scream in protest and/or break my heart.
  • Make your next sentence something better than plain prose.  Make it snap, sing or singe.
  • Write better than your favorite author and/or better than anyone.  Write that way right now.  Who’s telling you that you can’t?

So let me ask you, why are you reading this blog post?  Do you really think that I can tell you how to write something that only you can write?  Sorry.  I can suggest to you plenty of solid craft as I’ve done here for more than ten years.  What I can’t do is light a fire inside you.  Anyway, you don’t need me to do that.  You don’t need me to hand you a match.  You’ve got that already.

Now go burn down this world with your words.  To hell with polite.  Make us listen to you.  That will make me happy.

Do you think your WIP is fearless?  I don’t believe you.  What’s one thing in it that will shock, clobber, dazzle or amaze me?  You think so?  Even one sentence?  Let’s see.

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