Monday, February 25, 2013

A Writer's First Tool is Their Scalpel

I was delighted to discover a blogpost I wrote back in April of 2011. It's about the book that got me an agent. The one I pray will also get me an editor:

Too Close For Comfort – When Art Meets Life
(First posted April 2011)

Have you ever written fiction that is so close to your heart, so much a part of yourself, that it's actually painful to put into words?

In two years I've completed two manuscripts, worked significantly on three more and outlined a handful of others. I always feel for my characters and draw from my own experiences to determine the emotional tone of a scene, or a character's journey. But I'm usually one step removed - the outside observer. The big sister. The advisor. The friend.

Then earlier this week I got inspired and kicked off another manuscript which has me in its grip in a way that hasn't happened since the very first book I wrote.

But this time, it’s personal.

Every word rivets me. Every line is torn from somewhere deep. I feel this book in a way I've never experienced.

And yet, I recoil from it in the same breath. When I read through what I've written, I stare as if at the scene of a deadly car accident: Fascinated and revolted, face averted, but eyes locked on and unable to look away.

I am invigorated and drained. Excited and grieving. Obsessed, yet overcome with a desire to stick my head in the sand and Ostrich for all I'm worth.

This is amazing. And hard. I'm only 8,000 words in and haven't even touched the really hard scenes.

This is fiction!

I am, quite frankly, frightened of what's to come.

I'm still processing everything that's happened since the day I wrote those words. But one idea has stuck in my craw many, many times as I've struggled with addressing the emotional content of this book (for me): Getting real makes good fiction.

Two years later, I won't claim that every time I open this manuscript, it has the same effect. Now, instead of bleeding all over the page, it's more like pointing at hard, pink lines of scar tissue and saying "I earned that!"

I think writing what you know is less about academic expertise, and more about putting your heart on the page. In the immortal words of Walter Wellesley "Red" Smith when asked if writing a daily column was difficult:

"Why, no. You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed."

Is there a book in your head that you're scared to write? I'd encourage you to give it a shot. There's no doubt it's a hard, painful process. But, oh, so rewarding when it's done!

Your Turn: Have you ever written a book that made you "feel" on a personal level? How do you know which of your stories are worth the hard work?


  1. You know, I actually don't like being obsessed with a manuscript. I hate that feeling that leaves me exhausted. I'd rather fall less in love with something I'm writing and manage my time better in a healthy 1000 words a day kind of way.

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  3. I know what you mean, Michael. Though I'd disagree with the implication that writing in an emotional way is "unhealthy".

    I think it's just a technique issue. I know many writers like yourself who are able to write brilliantly without an emotional investment. But personally, my talents don't seem to engage unless I "feel" the characters and events.

    So, perhaps it's a personality thing?

    In any case, I'd encourage writers with a raw story to tell, to take the plunge. As a reader, I most enjoy stories that tear me up on some level - which is, perhaps, why I'm that kind of writer?

  4. I think it depends on the writer, of course, but I happen to love falling in love with whatever WIP I'm writing, putting on my headphones, and just diving into the world. I don't think of it as an "obsession," but a great escape. And I understand what Aimee means by getting involved emotionally. There are some scenes or stories or characters that have changed me, in a way, so they've definitely affected my emotions and what I feel, especially for specific characters. And there are also scenes, stories, and characters I could not have written without getting emotionally involved.

  5. Aimee I can totally relate - sometimes a fictional story really opens up strong personal emotions. And I find when I allow myself to go there - to really go deep - the story has a much greater resonance and depth.

    Like you I agree that we want to be healthy about the way we write, but my experience is sometimes a story really gets hold of me and it's all I can do to stop it distracting me from real life. Fortunately it doesn't go on forever, and at times it can be harrowing - but almost always cathartic.

    Congratulations for going there and obviously writing something powerful enough to get the attention of an agent - here's hoping the editor turns up soon too!