Fear and Your Writing Voice

IMG_2217Have you ever sat down with someone younger than you and told them the complex details of something you knew backwards and forwards?

If so, this feeling, this confidence is the cornerstone of your writing voice for fiction.

Talking to this younger, less experienced person, you probably weren’t afraid of getting the details wrong. You weren’t afraid of criticism from a higher realm of expertise. You weren’t self-conscious about your choice of words. You probably had enthusiasm because the topic was important and might have helped the younger person.

In earlier versions of my story, I had my main characters, Johanna and Maxwell, in a hospital setting that made me feel timid. The bottomless pit of details in clinical medicine has always worried me sick.

In the back of my mind I’m worried about how people from work might react if one of my characters says something negative… about a surgeon or a drug, for instance.

This mindset is a straight-jacket.

What if Maxwell wanted to say, “All surgeons are brain-dead.” I couldn’t let him. It would be too politically dangerous for me.

In that earlier version, I felt unsure about the wording of every sentence because I wanted the viewpoint character, a doctor, to sound highly intelligent but not boring.

In that same version of the story there was also a viewpoint characters living in a science fiction type world. When writing his part I felt fearless and authoritative. After all, who could be offended or say I botched an important technical detail in a simple sf world?

A professional author was reading this version of the story and saw glaring problems with the chapters involving the hospital with the MD viewpoint character.

But in the science fiction setting where the viewpoint character was not particularly intelligent, things got better. The author helping me wrote the following in the margin: “For what it’s worth, [your] sentence-level writing seems more assured/less awkward as chapters progress.”

Hey, he didn’t say I was going to set the world on fire, but at least he saw improvement.

It took me awhile to figure out what was going on, but I figured it out.

I need to do anything I can possibly do to be the only expert in the room when I’m writing fiction.

I need to stay out of hospital settings and other settings that make me feel self-conscious and afraid.

I need to be anonymous and use a pen name so the people at work, my friends and family, can’t frighten me out of saying what’s on my mind and in my heart.

I need to pretend that I’m writing to a nice, inexperienced younger person who wants to hear what I have to say and who, by some miracle, knows less about it than I do.

A “strong writing voice,” if you can tolerate the concept, is based on confidence. I suspect it is confidence and nothing more.

M. Talmage Moorehead

Ending a Novel Before Tea

7-20-09 Capilano Suspension Bridge and Stanley Park 017When there’s a cup of tea sitting on my desk, something happens to me. It’s probably my subconscious mind seeing what it really wants – caffeine. Even though I haven’t taken a sip yet, I wake up a little. I feel marginally great about life, just knowing it’s there.

These are valuable moments when natural neurotransmitters and hobgoblins wake up creativity. Later, when you drink the stuff, the caffeine causes vascular constriction which takes creativity down a tad, still above baseline though, for me.

I was in tea-anticipation mode for ten minutes just now and finally, after months of whining, found a decent way to move my hero and villain away from their current friendly relationship towards a closing conflict.

It had to be a natural road from here to there. The outline was flexible, so I didn’t feel hemmed in. All I needed was an idea.

In the outline stage, I knew a lot about my villain, but I hadn’t seen her in action. I hadn’t asked her any questions.

It turned out she was nothing like the outline pictured.

Fortunately, the key was the tea. (And not drinking it.)

After seeing her in action, I knew the answers to some key questions:

Why does she hate her mother and feel guilty about it?

What is the worst thing that she’s ever done? How does she feel about it now vs then?

Is she a good person in her own opinion?

Does she have true human values?

Where are the blind spots in her sense of right and wrong?

What scares her the most, and how does she react to it?

After seeing her answers in the first draft, I was stuck. This was the burning question:

What could my hero do to make my 3-D villain frightened enough or angry enough to destroy her?

After months of working on other parts of the story, letting this question simmer, the answer came to me. It came while I was day-dreaming about the characters, away from the desk, doing something else, not even trying to think of an ending.

The tea was, of course, waiting. Tea anticipation causes the lion’s share of creative breakthroughs.

You think I’m kidding.

M. Talmage Moorehead