I’ve worked with a lot of young writers. I’ve been one myself for a long time. And the big question people ask me all the time–or at least, they probably would if anybody actually asked me questions about writing, instead of acting all awkward as if I’m going to put everything they say into a book–is this: What’s the most common mistake you see young writers make?
It’s a mistake that comes from fear. I’ve talked a little before about how harmful fear is to a writer. Maybe not enough, but a little. It can lead to big mistakes. Exhibit A?
This is a mistake I’ve seen young writers make time and time again. It’s something I’ve made many times, and sometimes, continue to make myself. It’s a mistake I see everybody, not just artists, make. It’s the fear of being brutally honest.
Let’s be specific. What I’m talking about is writers who write about a world that’s so pristine and perfect that it can’t be the imperfect world we actually live in. I’m also talking about the writers who write about a world that’s way too dark to be the world we actually live in.
There’s certainly a market for both. One the one side we have cozies and romances, and on the other we have thrillers and horror. These are all genres that thrive on a lopsided perspective of the world spun for effect, not honesty.
If you’ve read my blog before, you’ll have heard me say this many times: it’s about balance. Like everything else in writing and in life there’s a balance to be found here.
Let’s get into this.
The World Isn’t Perfect
Life isn’t all sunshine and daisies. Even if you’ve lived a privileged, sheltered life (which I’m blessed enough to say I have), you know the world is still a hard and terrible place.
Bad things happen. People do bad things and bad things happen to people. People lie and steal and rape and kill. People are selfish, arrogant, prejudiced, greedy, promiscuous; they want what they want and they’ll do a lot to get it. The world is full of pain and hate.
People do unspeakable things, and depending on your belief system, there are certain taboos you think should be left unspoken. But most of the above things aren’t among them. You’ll make more people queasy with profanity and sex than with violence. I like the way George R.R. Martin puts it:
“I can describe an axe entering a human skull in great explicit detail and no one will blink twice at it. I provide a similar description, just as detailed, of a [let’s just say a sexual act; honesty has its place, and we’re getting to that. – Caleb], and I get letters about it and people swearing off. To my mind this is kind of frustrating, it’s madness.” – George R.R. Martin
Cut off heads, limbs, kill and kill and kill, fill your pages with all the blood and gore you want, but sex, that’s a no-no. Why is this? Similarly, why is a man in his underwear funny, but a woman showing too much skin has everybody up in arms? (I’m not touching these, not with a fifty foot pole; I’ll leave them to you. These are some heady questions and I hope you find some good answers.)
People want to avoid the uncomfortable and the controversial. As a writer sometimes it’s natural to want to do the same. Plenty of writers try too hard to sugarcoat the world.
That’s because we want a perfect world; reading about a perfect world makes reading an escape. Readers want to be transported to somewhere happier than the life they’re stuck with. But it’s just a lie.
The World Isn’t All Sh*t
On the other hand, some writers fill every page with gory violence, explicit sex, and profanity after profanity. And you know why? It sells–movies, television, and books of course, it’s everywhere now. Because it sells. This is the stuff we were told was wrong when we were young. We were forbidden to see it. It’s what our culture tried to sweep under the rug, and that feeling of getting what we shouldn’t have is a wonderful feeling. “Guilty pleasures” are all pleasure; there’s no guilt, that’s just excitement.
It’s sensational. Because these things are taboo, we feel like we’re doing something wrong when nobody’s looking. That’s thrilling.
On the one hand, it’s still a form of escapism; it’s not painting a perfect world, it’s painting a world that indulges all our darkest and most chaotic impulses.
On the other hand, you get the world that’s so dark and twisted and disgustingly wrong that it makes readers feel better about their own world. Readers like to be transported somewhere more miserable than the world they live in so they can feel better about it. “Maybe I hate my job or I’m lonely, but at least I didn’t lose my arm and my city didn’t blow up and my family didn’t die and I didn’t find the charred remains of my wife’s–oh holy **** that’s just wrong. I feel so good now.”
It’s like masochism I guess. And once again, it’s a lie.
So here I think we’ve divined the secret: The best writers are the ones who aren’t afraid to get dirty in the process of doing their job properly, but they’re just as relieved as their readers when they can get home and take a nice clean shower. That’s the balance.
The best writers are honest. That has to be the one thing a writer is most concerned with. They have to deal with themselves, their characters, and their world honestly. They owe it to the reader to tell the truth–well, sort of. It’s still fiction, a made-up story; but the best made-up worlds connect to the real world in an honest way that reveals some kind of truth.
“The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.” That was Shakespeare who said that. Because life isn’t heaven and it’s not hell. It’s a balance. The good. The bad. The best. The worst. Readers want perfect worlds and messed up worlds alternatively, because that’s what life is like. Sometimes it’s perfect and sometimes it’s messed up.
Just to Clarify
I said already: Some people can be entirely successful writing about a lopsided world. Middle Earth sure didn’t look much like home. You can bet Lewis Caroll never used profanity. And Stephen King didn’t achieve success by writing about sunshine and daisies. And you don’t win a Pulitzer unless you write a pretty lifelike story that takes the bad with the good to make something great.
Point is, every writer is different. We all have certain strengths and certain weaknesses. Some writers are better at writing something more sugarcoated while some are better at cursing. Writers like me might do an especially good job writing cozies and children’s fantasy, but for heaven’s sake pray we never try to try our hands at horror.
However, I will also say this: I think any writer can be brutally honest if they train themselves to overcome the fear of telling it straight. We all have something to hide. And we can all learn to let it out frankly; that’s when we’ll have something great on our hands, friends.
What about you? What do you struggle to write about honestly? Open up!