Saturday, February 6, 2010

Before you write: Believe!

Don't touch paper with the nib of your pen until you truly believe what you are about to write.

That seems a pretty obvious bit of advice. I mean, who - other than a forger or some other variant of liar - would write stuff for public consumption that they don't really believe? Why would anyone want to mislead readers by creating an illusion, where non-existent characters are depicted in imaginary settings, carrying out deeds that never occurred?

If you're thinking smugly that as a novelist you're actually supposed to do exactly that kind of thing - write about stuff that never really happened - think again! To write a great story the action has to be real. The people, places and events have to be believable. More than that, they have to be believed in by the creator of the story: me, the writer.

First and foremost, I have to believe in my characters. Again, seems pretty obvious, but sometimes I start writing before I've really gotten to know the key people. Which brings me to an important qualifier when it comes to believing: it's easy to think you're writing with conviction, when in fact you're not...


You can think you're writing with conviction when you accept a lower standard of truth than what is necessary to bring a character to life. If I content myself with insipid, ghostly manifestations of my main characters, I will likely end up with flaccid, predictable story. My characters either won't do anything genuinely surprising, or they'll do surprising things that stretch the bounds of credulity beyond the breaking point.

To know my characters well I have to live in opposition and agreement with them, the same way my shared moments of anger and assent with siblings, friends, lovers and bosses deepens my understanding and appreciation of the real people I know. The moral fiber and will of my characters has to be tested. I have to talk to them and expect answers that come from a source mysteriously external to myself.

I also have to be convinced of my own ability to write the story. If I don't have any doubts at the outset, there's a pretty good chance the story I'm thinking of writing isn't worth the ink, paper and sweat I'll expend on it. if a story idea doesn't challenge the notions of who I am and what I'm capable of as a writer, can I really be excited by it? And if I'm not excited, will any reader be? I don't think so.

The trick for me is to look at the monumental scale of the story I'm embarking on; be truly awed by it, and doubtful of my own ability to pull it off; then to convince myself that I can indeed write the damn thing - in fact, convince myself that I'm the only guy who can.

Then I'll be able to write with conviction.

If all this sounds a little bloated - like the balloon of ego swelling inside your skull - good. That's because, if you're like me, you have to convince yourself that you have a talent which is meant to be shared - that you are, in fact, a writer - and that part of being a writer is doubting, then overcoming doubts with works of fiction that make you a little more than you were before with every written page.

That transformative cycle of self doubt overcome by conviction will always be uncomfortable... and exhilarating.

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