how to give yourself permission to write remarkable fiction
Call up a picture of your Ideal Reader in your head.
Write to (and for) that person and that person only.
Maybe your Ideal Reader is someone you know personally. Maybe your Ideal Reader is a person you compose from the materials of your imagination. Maybe your Ideal Reader is a mirror version of you.
So much of writing is about finding ways to give ourselves the permission that we need in order to write the book we want to write….not the book we feel we should write.
Write the book you want to write.
No matter how good a writer you are or will become, not everyone is going to like your stuff. Some people won’t ‘get it’ and others might actively hate it. In fact, the more fascinating your work (and your author-brand) is, the more likely it will polarize people.
Sally Hogshead observes that fascinating people (including writers) “get under our skin and into our conversations. They challenge and move us….change us in some way.” One of the hallmarks of a fascinating “message” (or novel) is that it provokes “strong and immediate emotional reactions”, a “love it or hate it response”. Which flows naturally into another hallmark: the message creates advocates, a percentage of followers who “become passionately dedicated to the attraction, or even consumed by it”.
These advocates become your tribe, your True Fans, and enable your career.
To have a chance at success in today’s extremely cluttered and competitive marketplace, you need to be the most remarkable writer you’re capable of becoming (with some sales and marketing savvy to boot).
One quality that a good writer requires that doesn’t get discussed in how-to-write-fiction articles has to do with self-awareness, self-knowledge, an ability to dig deep into the darker, private regions of the self — or, as we keep saying in my workshop, to “go there”. Fiction that doesn’t “go there” sits on the surface. It fails to engage the reader’s emotions, to grab her heart and shake up her soul.
The most powerful fiction puts its characters through a “crucible” – an intense and transformative experience. Whatever the external stakes of the story might be, the character’s very psychological framework is under threat. It doesn’t matter what the genre is. Would SILENCE OF THE LAMBS have been such a transcendent thriller if it was just about Clarice Starling’s search for a serial killer? No. The heart of that book is Clarice’s relationship with Hannibal Lector and the impact it has on her (and him). It’s Clarice’s revelation about a life-forming childhood experience – from which the book draws its title – and Hannibal’s ability to draw it out of her that gives the book such weight and power, that makes the story so unique. The author was “going there”.
We bring all of our selves to our work. In order to develop as a writer, you must know yourself, learn yourself, smash your inner boundaries, venture out to all your edges and write the view from there.
You have to give yourself permission to take risks….and also to play, to romp around with style and language and story, to experiment, see what works and what doesn’t (and if it doesn’t, so what — that’s what revision is for).
It’s easy to do this when we’re kids, but as we grow up we learn to be self-conscious. We learn to worry about what other people will think of us. We become apologetic about our abilities and wounded by senseless criticism.
We learn to hedge and to hide.
For our creativity to flourish, we need to create a mental atmosphere of trust and safety in which we can play out our writer’s obsessions and explore those deep-seated, personal truths that move our fiction, that we uncover through our fiction.
Trying to write for everybody isn’t safe. It isn’t even possible, and we compromise ourselves and our work in the attempt. It can also lead to creative paralysis, a mental stage fright.
You don’t want to write to the masses. You want to write to your True Fans, present or future, who love your work, love you, ‘get’ you, think you’re brilliant, follow you across the Web and read everything you write. Holding that image of the True Fan in your head can reframe your entire approach to your creative life. Sure, people will judge your work and many will reject it, but who cares? You write to deepen your connection with your Ideal Reader. Your work is a personal letter to them, and them only.
Your work is a gift of love.
That is your goal and your mission.
Who is your Ideal Reader? Are you as adventurous in your creative work as you could be? As you want to be? Why or why not?