Write Your Novel From The Gut
Ari Sheds Cat Hairs of Inspiration On You!
Use your Dirty Laundry!
People go into therapy to "get rid of their dirty laundry."
Novelists wash out their dirty laundry, dry it, sort it, fold it and stack it neatly in the cabinets to use in writing novels.
Everything in life that ever hurt you in any way is going to come washing back up on its own in your novel. This happens to novels and their authors. It's not always on purpose. It's an intuitive process.
When you write from the gut, your story has realism. The events in the story need not actually resemble yours externally. You can shake out the first grade bully whose face in dreams still makes you cringe, grow him up, put him in charge of an interstellar invasion force and have him snatching whole planets away from your sympathetic characters. Or give him a gun and let him go stalking their loved ones rather than just beating up their friends in the playground.
The little girl who lied about you behind your back and got you in trouble so many times can be grown up into a terrifying betrayer... and the gender on either of those characters can change. Should change. Gender, age, religion, culture, everything about the real people in life who had their day when they seemed to have ruined it personally (and often on purpose) can be changed.
Among other things, this will keep your third grade teacher from suing you for defamation of character or slander or libel or whatever the term is that means "It happened but you did them some substantial harm by making it public."
Every disaster you ever feared or worried about that didn't happen can get blown out of proportion and thrown on your character's heads. That's good writing. That's major conflict. What if there was a three-car pileup in the highway and on top of it you had the baby in the car and then this eighteen-wheeler jackknifed?
Your road rage can turn into something like a feud involving swords depending on genre.
Where it gets deep is in characters' internal conflicts.
What do you do when you know someone who's in an abusive relationship? Where you can't help and that person you care about keeps going back to someone who rips their hearts and minds to pieces, may garnish this with physical violence or carry that to the scale where you think they might not survive to get to the hospital... and can't pull themselves out. Won't listen if you tell them that partner is bad news.
Or you remember a relationship that was like that and ruefully remember all the friends who cared but didn't say anything till it broke up because, well, you wouldn't listen anyway and they wanted to keep the friendship.
Or maybe it was an abusive boss and you could not afford to leave that job, which got worse every single day it seemed. More and more unreasonable demands, more work for less pay, more irrational blaming and penalties for things other people did and all that unfair overling's own mistakes dumped on your lap while you watch the scapegoat of the day get chosen for being flung out in the latest downsizing.
Those feelings, those rotten events in life, which the ones I'm mentioning are so common they are nearly generic, hang in memory and come back in nightmares. Things that mattered passionately when you were fifteen, or twenty, or whatever thirtyish age it happened. Dumb things you did for stupid but all too human reasons.
The times you were completely wrong about a person count too. Either kicked someone who didn't deserve it and was actually a good friend in the teeth or found out that former ever so bestest friend was a betrayer setting you up for a major ripoff both tangible and emotional, then laughing at you for going along with it.
The times you were sick and thought you'd die.
The times someone you loved did die either suddenly or with long miserable sickness. The time your pet died -- if you're adult and had pets there was once a being in your life who didn't have a human lifespan and went into the ground long before you did, leaving you forever. Or got run over by a truck on the one time he got out of the dog pen, the way the collie I loved named Rex did when I was five.
Death and betrayal and bullying and loss and heartbreak are in every life. They leave their shadows and their scars. Many lives, far too many lives, already have heartbreaks and traumas far out of scale for ordinary life, events that went beyond what anyone deserves or ought to expect from parents, spouses, life, the world in the happy-happy nice-world that society pretends to sometimes, where bad things only happen to people who deserve it.
In fairy tales, wow, someone could have a bad hair day and wind up destroying an entire kingdom because it made some fairy mad. Ow.
Yeah, that's the overreaction of a drunk turned larger than life and magical in a story. That's an anxiety most people have had to deal with in some situation or another. Don't make him mad. Walk on eggshells. Don't put one word wrong. You get through a day and a day and another day of it and the tension keeps rising and you know the shoe is going to drop huge when it does.
Then when it does it comes out that all the worrying was pointless because it was nastier than anything you could have thought of when you were just fearing and dodging it.
Most people who aren't writers deal with their scars and get past it and leave them behind. Dropping it for some years and not going back there is sometimes a pretty healthy response. Time can heal. Trust can be rebuilt by finding better people to associate with and living in ways that aren't crazyland long enough.
But a novelist has to go back to the bad stuff in order to shine a light on it in the work.
Novels get that drumbeat visceral power if you draw upon everything tragic and rough that you've ever seen. If you stand back and look at it with some compassion and face the pain, write through it, look at it both inside and outside.
That can be healing for the writer. Just as it is when an abused child is questioned by having them tell what happened to Mr. Puppet, what you do to the character can help you resolve old internal conflicts of your own. What looked so unsolvable, so colossal from within it becomes someone else's problem -- the character -- and you're sitting there with the reader going "Well, leave the relationship" or some such obvious simple solution that is so hard for anyone to do when it's real and demands every grain of courage a human being has.
At that point sometimes a bubble pops inside and an old, old fear blows into dust.
Reality intrudes. Some terribly simple thing that a good friend could have said to you to remind you the nameless dread is the scar of a fear, not a real risk in the present, makes sense.
Your third grade teacher can't do one thing to you for publishing a science fiction novel. If she's still alive at all and found out about it, she could... make a nasty comment or two and sound like the pretentious literary snob she was. Or forget she discouraged you and claim "I knew out of all my kids that one was going to be a great writer someday" and go namedropping to the rest of the retirement home that she was your third grade teacher. Or shake her head and go "Naw, couldn't be, just the same name, a coincidence."
Or you meet that nemesis of your first-grade year and find out they don't remember you at all. They were too busy terrorizing anyone to single you out.
Alternately, whatever your present situation, writing the novel works a lot like Mr. Puppet and the change is entirely internal. You look at the risks, scale them down to size, look at the character standing up to their greater fears and maybe getting the courage to start sending your resume sounds pretty minor compared to facing that fleet or escaping literal slavery.
I'm writing this essay from life. My childhood was something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy for various reasons I could not control. Most of the troubles stemmed from undiagnosed physical defects and the rest were from social-philosophical-political conflicts. I was intelligent and a bit precocious. The big conflict -- the one that to me was the biggest -- was whether I ought to be a writer at all.
Literally everyone in my experience was dead set against my becoming a writer, most of all a science fiction writer. Sorting it out in later years, every one of those people had their own reasons for that opinion and at least half were well meant within their own views of life. Blue collar grandparents thought reading books was a waste of time, writing them was wasting an entire life, shutting yourself away from all the important things like socializing and real work that involved standing on your feet and living a normal life like anyone else.
Teachers in the public school after I got out of the Catholic school didn't hate the content of my writing, they encouraged it. Nuns who passionately defended Catholic dogma were facing Protestant ideas in every essay and story, tearing it apart on theme right along with marking down the punctuation -- and finding any excuse to discourage me from becoming a writer. The last thing they wanted was me to succeed at it and further spread those vile ideas that went against everything they believed.
I've spent years taking apart those conflicts and facing them separately to understand what the argument was about, only to find out that in most of the cases, the people who had discouraged my writing had good reasons in their terms for it and the conflicts were unresolvable by anything but "agree to disagree." In a lot of those conflicts I found out that yes, I was right.
I was absolutely right that becoming a writer would be a good occupation for me since it does not involve standing for long periods of time or walking around a lot, or showing up on time to work five or six days a week, or staying awake without getting sick through every workday. Wow. Being a novelist is one of the few occupations that I'm very well suited for physically. It's in reach in a way that most other occupations aren't. Most jobs do involve showing up on time every day, functioning at least to normal every day, not getting sick half the time and then speeding along to get ahead to catch up before the sick days hit.
The grief of realizing I'd never have my parents' approval sabotaged a lot of things in my life. Threw me into real depression at several points when I broke my heart doing things that were ultimately just to try to impress them and make up with them. I haven't been in touch with them for seven years now. The conflicts are irreconcilable, they run too deep and the mind games get too vicious. A distant-adult "cards and annual phone call" relationship wasn't even possible. That blew up in my face one too many times in 2002 and was no longer worth spending three or four months disentangling all the mind games and emotional sabotage-stuff that shut me down after every call.
So I had to deal with that grief. Every year as it nears my birthday I run into that grief, grit my teeth, don't call and get enmeshed again, feel better once the day that I habitually did it for fourteen foolish years of "Try to build a relationship where there wasn't one, get past the generation gap and have a family at least at that nominal level" was. I did that because I had an emotional need for it. I did that because I put every effort into getting along with them.
Given who they are and what they believe in life even now, which isn't as extreme as when I was a child but is extreme enough, it did not work and I gave it enough fair tries to prove that to myself. And to prove that going back every year was just shooting myself in the foot, losing half the year to the mind games.
I changed everything. I wrote a character who's very different from me in a situation I've met so many times -- woman who'd been sexually abused as a little girl coming to terms with it and redefining herself -- and paired her up with a type of gentle romantic partner that a good many women who'd been abused as kids wound up finding in life, the sort of quiet courage that gives a man the patience to marry a woman who has issues around sex and always lets her lead that dance, is sensitive and patient enough to be there when she wants him and not feel rejected when she feels her terrors.
She walked in out of nowhere. I thought she was a bit character. Suddenly she pushed the planned heroine (a fun character who may get into a different book) out before she even got onstage and riveted me with her internal conflicts and her quirky way of handling them.
I thought it went too far. I thought it was off theme. I thought it was too melodramatic. I thought she underreacted in some scenes (sometimes people do). I thought she wasn't realistic. I recognized how realistic she was and remembered friends whose stories chilled my blood.
I watched her fight her way through her scars a week after her eighteenth birthday when the big dramatic change of status freed her -- when an external passage, the legal status of no longer being in custody of her abuser and able to just shut the door on him and live. Then like a writer, kicked it all up one step beyond that and put her conflict beyond reach of courts and protection orders. The abuser died and haunted her.
She stood that down and all of a sudden the magical plot where the magecats were fighting evil spirits and the personal struggles of that one character turned into one conflict, the final conflict hinged on her being able to stand down that ghost and reject him.
Getting stalked is bad enough. Getting stalked by a ghost that you can't exorcise stages it up to where if it happened anyone would go crazy.
I went reeling after writing that one.
Then two nights later I started writing again about a character I first created when I was ten years old and getting flashbacks about my own childhood. Leonora stood down her abuser's ghost and was heroic in an utterly real way that's a song of health for anyone who's let go of any kind of abusive relationship.
I spent one long night talking to a friend and dealing with my past, choking on the book... and on the fear of sending my novels out for publication. What terrible and nightmare dread could happen if I became a successful novelist who earned a good living writing several books a year like all those sensible "Crafter" lifestyle science fiction writers who mentored me in my twenties?
Where did I get all those goofy self-defeating ideas about writing and publishing? Well, gee. Some of it came out of therapists who were paid by people who disapproved and were trying to mold a child's character into someone who'd be compatible with their family. The ideas they had about childhood at that time were that kids didn't even have personality, they were shaped by parents, parents pretty much decided who they were and had a right to mold them. A duty to mold them. Fifties and early sixties, remember?
When did I get depressed, feel defeated and stop following up on it anytime I got a story accepted by a nonpaying publication or sold one to a low paying magazine or self published my novel and saw it pay out without publicity or sold a pro-paid short story or went back and sold another one two years later?
Well, it was after those birthday calls. Every time. That's what came in between actually getting the acceptance letter or royalty check or copy of the free publication -- every success milestone of my life got followed by a birthday. Every birthday contact I got depressed and felt defeated and had to fight through every stupid idea in the history of discouraging writers.
No. They are not going to be impressed and apologize for discouraging me when I prove that yes, I am good at it, by having a tangible paycheck. Deceased blue-collar grandparents might have respected the paycheck somewhat and come to respect it over time provided I earned enough to make a decent living in their standards. They'd always regard it as uncertain compared to a real job and a check from an employer though. And tthey'd still have thought that I was ruining the lives of my readers by distracting them into hiding from other people and just living in books. (They didn't feel this way about movies and acting though. It was weird.)
That hurt. It hurt deep. It took seven years after the last one to come to face it -- no, my getting published or even famous is not going to change their opinion of me by a hair. Or stop the sabotage -- the real first thing they'd say if I got successful might amount to "How can you stand it knowing you might never be able to do anything that well again in your ilfe?"
The attitude of my mentors, science fiction writers with long prolific backlists and proven craft, was all "It's nice when it happens but don't count on getting another bestseller if you do." Comments like "That wasn't the one I thought was the best of my books, it was the one the readers liked" abounded along with a general view among all the successes that their early books ranged from tolerable to embarrassing and their later books substantially better. The craftsmen-attitude mentors were all striving to improve their skills with every book.
The job of Being A Writer isn't something that can go on automatic, be mastered and turn into routine you don't pay attention to. Some skills within it do, like say, typing. Or checking punctuation once you get it. Whole chunks of it can become reflexive to the point that a practiced novelist isn't stumbling over what to do when that turns up any more. The creative part is a lifelong adventure. It's growing like a tree or a crocodile, every year a little, long after you reach adult size.
Not growth > peak > decline.
I'll still be facing internal conflicts at seventy or eighty. I'll still be facing them down and refining them. I'll look at some tragedy in the world whether it was mine or not and it will hurt, and then I'll face it in my novel and tell a story that might help someone get their mind off the day's aggravations and get a good night's sleep.
I have to feel. I don't have the luxury of numbness. I have to grieve what I grieve and some griefs go on for many years, some go for life. Seven years since the last conflict isn't even that long for grieving a family conflict, not one that I invested twice that into trying to mend and broke my heart on the closed door that often.
But that's the Well of Stories.
Because I'm not the only one in the world whose parents rejected him. I'm not the only one who feels a pang of terror at a certain popular holiday and a sting of grief instead of a bit of sentimentality. I'm not the only one who had a friend kill himself in high school. I'm not the only one for any of the things that were troubles in my life, some of them run so common they're almost universal in my times -- to the point that everyone knows one if it wasn't themselves.
Life gets hard.
In my particular rotten childhood, books were a lifeline and authors who by theme and example wouldn't have picked on me or hated me were distant friends. Ray Bradbury sang a song of hope over the years between us and the miles and my never having met him -- that the boy from a broken bitter messed up family could turn to good, that the weirdo wasn't evil, that the bullies were the bad guys and even they could stop doing it and come around. (Some do. I've known some.)
My stories have a little of that warmth to pass on and it's Bradbury that made sure I had a heart, Ellison that gave me a hope of a future far better than my past -- one that keeps coming true decade after decade. Life's better for me now than it ever could have been in those years right after McCarthy and the President whom I voted for is a Martian. (The Martian Chronicles,by Ray Bradbury is a collection of immensely moving stories against racism.)
I have also known people with hearts that deep and sensitive who never suffered in those ways, just knew someone and cared. Opened their eyes to the things that go wrong in life and the world and didn't just say "This can't be happening" or blame the people it happens to when it goes that rough.
So I bleed on the page like many a good writer before me and I'll go on doing it. That's part of the process and it is healing -- each time I write a better, richer, truer novel with something in the story that I needed in order to heal. Each time the scars are a little less limiting. It's a long slog like physical therapy after an accident to get over some kinds of traumas, but wow, doing it that stubbornly can get some great results gradually over time.
So take care of yourself when your novel kicks you in the teeth and rips open something that hurts like blazes when it was comfortably numb. Keep writing and push on through to the end, don't give up on it. That is the sign your novel's going to be a good one. It'll be good for you and it'll make it a lot better to the readers too. Run with it.
That's why this nice safe sit in a squashy armchair job is an adventure as satisfying as being a field paleontologist would've been -- why I wouldn't trade this for that other timeline. I've got innerspace to explore and stories to write. This is tonight's warmup and a weird pep talk for all my fellow Nanowrimos and any novelist who's scared him or herself out of their wits or cried over what just hit the page.
That means it's a good one and you're a good writer doing it for real. Do your own novel. You may need to water it down or let Mary Sue have her head during the rough draft, that gets down something to edit. Like.I haven't done that at least twenty times -- remember 200 words of love scene and 1200 words of costume description afterward? Just writing down any version of it is enough to get to the edits and everyone's process is personal.
When you write from the gut then it does come out good, it has depths to it that aren't there when it's just noodling around. But it'll get ya, some of the time I'm just dancing around on the surface goofing around having fun and some creepy memory-byte will swim up out of the depths and wham, the book takes a left turn into the Twilight Zone. What I thought was the main theme was an opening conflict or subtheme and the book's got layers, the book's rich and good.
Don't delete. Maybe it's all the sabotage-discouragement programming, but the parts I think "OMG that is horrible, it's so over the top, no one's going to believe that/like it/read it" are more often than not the memorable passages where I didn't pull punches. The "Oooo it came out so perfect" passages are as often a quick slide over 1200 words of pretty costume descriptions that weren't needed and drop to the cutting room floor.
I came to see them both as moods, equally likely to be wrong in judgment. So I face it when it hurts and enjoy it when I soar, and the more I do that the more soaring-time I get. This does get to be fun and even the valleys are always followed by incredible highs. It's not a routine. It's a rollercoaster -- and you are the only one in the world who could do it. The one man or woman who could save that world and those characters from nonexistence. The only one who could tell your story. Don't give up on that at the hard parts.