04 September 2012

IWSG: Tips for the Terrified Writer

This post is in participation with hundreds of insecure writers who dedicate the first Wednesday of every month to post about insecurities: doubts and fears that we have or have conquered. Check out the Insecure Writer's Support Group for more information and a list of the other participating writers. 

Here is a little list of some things I’ve learned about writing over the years. (That makes me sound quite experienced and wise, which is not at all true, but it certainly sounds impressive, which is important.)

Research. It’s hard to write about a rebellious young cadet in a futuristic military academy if you* (A) don’t know anything about the military, and (B) don’t know the first thing about rebellious young men or, in fact, anybody rebellious whatsoever. Some other things it’s hard to write about when you don’t know a blessed thing about them: tribal tattoos, sparring, sword-making, legal contracts, the complexities involved in ruling a city, the complexities involved in trekking through a tract of mountains, midwifery, cattle branding, and how exactly crop rotation works anyway.
*By "you," I here mean "me when I was sixteen."

Don’t be afraid of looking like an idiot. One of the best things about writing is learning lots of new things, which frequently means finding somebody who knows a lot about a thing and then asking them a lot of questions. Do enough research to know what to ask, and then don’t worry about looking like an idiot.

Give it soul. This mostly applies to fiction, and this part is terrifying because you are worried what some of the characters you create and scenes you imagine might say about who you really are. But after all, J.K. Rowling created Voldemort and she seems okay, so go ahead and pour your soul in because otherwise it will really be quite dull. In nonfiction, “give it soul” mostly consists of getting in there and experiencing things so that you can write about it with some accuracy. Go to the Museum of Menstruation, but probably with a friend for backup. Help prep for the dissection of the washed up dead whale. Try a recipe for sauteed cicadas au buerre. All of these are examples of what people I know in real life tried in order to give a story some soul.

Imagine and Empathize. Lots of people can imagine their personal fears coming true. The real trick is to be able to imagine someone else’s fears -- and then try to convey that person’s fears and situation to people who are not like that person. True of fiction and nonfiction.

Be Honest. If you’re writing an article about something that particularly affects a certain race of people, you ought to mention that. Even if it means you have to talk about race, which maybe makes you a little uncomfortable. If you leave it out, it’s dishonesty by omission. In fiction, this would encompass similar ideas: don’t ignore something that would be an issue, don’t gloss over important things.

Quirks make people interesting. The person who wears a gun in an area where most people don’t carry guns. The carefully-painted toenails of a poverty-stricken woman struggling to care for a brood of children. The artist who is working on a personal art project based on pictures of cancerous cells. The new diamond tie pin glinting on the chest of a businessman claiming that times are hard. All of these things can tell you something deeper about that person, or at least suggest something interesting.

Now You!

What is something important you have learned about writing or storytelling?