Sunday, March 18, 2018

WRITING WHAT SCARES US




Writing fiction doesn’t look scary to anyone else.  Perhaps writing an autobiographical novel with recognizable characters is as  scary as it gets. In that case you might want to decide how much you want to antagonize your family and friends.

I don't do that. I write mysteries. There are recognizable places, bits from my own life no one seems to  spot, puzzles and social issues. Nothing is very violent or very gruesome. I don’t intend to scare my readers, but I do sometimes scare myself. 




A scary thought for the writer is the possibility that the skills are not up to the subject. That is much scarier than any suspenseful scene you could write.  If you don’t challenge yourself then you are writing the same book over and over.  True, there could be a reason for that. It could be laziness but it is likely to be an editor or agent you says, “Give the reader what worked before. Why mess with success?”

For many writers, though, taking a leap in a new book is the way to stay interested.  Stretching those writing muscles is as important as stretching the physical ones.  (Maybe more important) It’s scary. That is good.

For me, just getting the first few books in the Brooklyn series written was enough of a challenge.  My books are about neighborhoods and the people who live there, the history, issues and changes unique to each place. The first, Brooklyn Bones, was about my own neighborhood.  I had it covered. The second, Brooklyn Graves, was about a famous place, not far, and easily researched.  I had that covered too. For Brooklyn Secrets, the third? Ah. Another situation entirely.  I wanted to write about a neighborhood where I used to work. It has a surprising history and I soon realized I could not write it without also writing about the neighborhood in the present. But could I do it?

My time working there was decades ago.  The library where I worked was then closed for renovation, so a visit was not possible. It is, and was, a tough, poor neighborhood, a culture not my own, and not easy to research. Newspaper stories told me it had not changed much from when I worked there, but nothing told me how it felt. I didn’t know if I could do it and it wasn’t worth doing if I could not do it well.  Could I portray a more complex world than outsiders usually see? I grew anxious each time I drove near it on the way to other places. There were some sleepless nights.  I was scared the whole time I was writing it. 



The next book, Brooklyn Wars, was about a famous place, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and it was scary for a different reason. There was so much to tell, the history was so rich, could I select the right pieces to both tell a compelling mystery story and also convey some of the flavor of the place and some of the stories of the people who worked there?  It was a challenge every writing day.

Now I am immersed in a neighborhood with even more history, and it is even harder to line it up into a story.  I know this one, I even lived there many years ago, but there is a religious element added to the usual political issues and it can’t  be ignored. Or at least I can’t ignore it. Can I write it fairly? Honestly? With some complexity?

Doing what scares us is how we get better at this writing game. I will be reminding myself every day until the first draft is done.

10 comments:

Jeffrey Siger said...

BOO! You convinced me Triss!! :)

Sheila York said...

Ah, yes, that little (and sometimes pretty loud) voice in the head that says: you're not up to this.

Mariah Fredericks said...

Wrestling with where to go for the next book and this was the perfect day for me to read this. Thanks!

Triss said...

Jeff, Sheila, and Mariah: Good morning and thanks for the comments.You all get it. And now back to the wrestling mat.

Trish Harrison said...

I'm enjoying an early morning lie-in with coffee in bed and my iPad to entertain me. I just read your latest post and then all the rest of them and it brought up so many thoughts and memories. I think the fear of not being able to accomplish what we set out to do brings all our anxieties to the forefront. It's a hard lesson to learn that with fear comes change and growth and stepping out of our comfort zone. I will procrastinate for days to avoid this. What if I fail and disappoint myself and others but what if I succeed and then more is expected of me going forward. Ackkkk! I think I'll play another game of spider solitaire while I think about this.
I love that the next book will be set in Brooklyn Heights. This gorgeous neighbourhood was my first introduction to Brooklyn and led the way to us buying our brownstone in Prospect Heights five years later.
The blog about snow brought back those mornings in my childhood where we, too, listened to the radio to see if the schools were closed. Being on the other side of the Lake from you this only happened twice in all my years of school. It also reminded me to ask you - fellow history lover - if you have ever read the book by David Laskin called The Children's Blizzard. It details the events of the Blizzard of 1888 which hit the newly settled areas of the Prairies and changed the lives of everyone who lived there forever.

Sharon Ervin said...

"Write your worst nightmare." That was the advice from a multi-published writer. I followed it. It became my eighth manuscript, JUSU AND MOTHER EARTH, the first to garner a contract.

Seventeen years of rejections proved an advantage for me also. Before I sold that first, No. 8, I was working on book #12. Numbers 4, 5, 6 and 7 are among my now-14 published novels. I have sold them all myself to print/royalty publishers. I still refuse to self-publish. I need the validation of editors. Since I couldn't sell for such a long time, I wrote whatever I pleased. If I felt joyful, I wrote happy. If I felt sad, I wrote bleak. My husband and I had a quarrel. He won. I thought, "A man is a wonderful thing, but occasionally, it would be better if he could't speak." So I wrote BODACIOUS. The hero was mute. It was very satisfying. Men and women both like it. Weird.

Donis Casey said...

Every single time I wonder if I am going to be able to pull it off. For me writing is both terrifying and a joy. Sometimes more one than the other...

Triss said...

Trisha, thanks so much for your extremely thoughtful response.What a pleasure to read. I'm sending something to your e-mail.

Triss said...

To Sharon and Donis- I loved hearing from you.

Sharon, so funny that you put the anxiety to such good use. Much admiration! And yes, so true, the compensation for writing in a void, pre-pub, is a certain freedom to do whatever you want.

Donis- yes! so helpful to know we are not alone

Ramona said...

Yes, you can write it fairly, honestly, and with complexity. Knowing that you need to do those three things means you already know what to do.