Okay. So in Part I we discussed screenwriting. Here’s where we talk fiction.
As I mentioned, screenwriting — while undeniably an art form — is also a job. A job with stringent rules and narrow formats, agreed — but when done just right, it produces something powerful, compact and beautiful, just like haiku.
Fiction, for those of us who have yet to make the launch into the Harper Collins stratosphere, is more of a collage. It’s a safe haven in which to experiment with your voice, tone, structure, choice of topics, etc. It allows you to slap a bunch of (perhaps) contradictory images and textures and messages together to see what they look like, before you can peel them off and slap ’em together in new ways, should you wish — but most importantly, it allows you to do so without people standing over your shoulder, tapping their feet, looking at their watches — before grabbing your efforts away and rejiggering the holy hell out of them, your wishes be damned.
Given the assumption that you don’t have an advance check from a book publisher nestled inside your bank account — and the world is more filled with us than the other kind — the next best thing about fiction is the realization that fiction doesn’t have a deadline. (Unless you set one up for yourself; some people find it easier to accomplish things this way; me, I try to avoid it, as it tends to inflame deep-seated fears of failure and induce panic attacks).
Without a deadline or a paycheck, you are essentially writing in a void.
This fundamental absence of pressure can be either freeing or paralyzing, with your success (where success is defined by your happiness, not moolah) determined by three things:
Personality, discipline, and (this is true) bravery.
When it comes to personality, some people are born Procrastinators, who will find ANYTHING else to do except work on the story they started — either because it feels too big, and they’re intimidated, or it feels too small, and they’re afraid it won’t be worthy, or (fill in the blank with any of the infinite Writers’ neuroses here).
Some folks are Virgin Whores, who have 30 ideas they work on “simultaneously” — which basically means they flit from project to project without ever really finishing anything: hence virgin whores.
On the other side of this spectrum are the Born Worriers, who can’t sleep nights until a sentence/paragraph/chapter/entire novel is finished. These are the guys and gals whose teeth are ground down to painful nerve-nubs and who’ll probably die of a stress-related heart attack before they hit 40.
Some people are what I call Choice Zombies, people who are so afraid of making one wrong literary move, they only shuffle along glassy-eyed and mumbling, until they finally hit on an idea that allows them to write a little bit more, before they… return to shuffling along glassy-eyed and mumbling.
Then there are the NASCAR Egomaniacs, who write at 200 mph without looking back and never once changing a single word of what they’ve written. (In my younger years, I was one of these — until the day I actually reread what I had written and promptly went fetal in mortification.)
So personality not only defines part of who we are as people, but also how we work. I could’ve listed several other types, like the Machinists — who grind and grind and grind until the project is done, but meanwhile take very little joy in the process — but as I’m sure you already know, personalities are almost innumerable, and I only have so much space and time — because, as you might have guessed, at this stage in my life, I reside in Virgin Whore territory, always with a half-dozen projects going at once.
For instance, right now I’m working on this blog, a spec pilot, 2 web series, the development of another pilot (based on a graphic novel), 2 unfinished short stories, 1 unfinished novella, and 1 unfinished novel — though at least I can truthfully claim I do have a history of finishing my projects. Eventually. (So I guess that makes me an Actual Whore.) “My Sister’s Scarf” was once in the mix, as was “Dead Girl,” “Cowface,” “The Blood Room,” “God’s Comic,” “Trade” (spec TV pilot), and “Bedlam” (spec TV pilot) — not to mention all the other shit I got paid for.
In the meantime, every time I finish a certain project, two more arise to take its place, like the heads of a hydra. The only conceivable end to this is either the growth and change of my personality (and as an ex-NASCAR Egomaniac, I know this is possible)… or death. But seeing’s how I’m not quite ready to kick off yet, I suppose until I change, I’ll just have to learn how to hold more and more projects in my brain, as staggering as that prospect feels. (Aaaand…. here comes the panic attack.)
Also, personality almost always influences not only what type of writer you are, but what you choose to write about, and how you write it.
As you may have noticed in my own writing, like a good Virgin (Actual) Whore, I’m rather peripatetic when it comes to topics, and I’m forever including parentheses and tangents, as if somehow I might be able to include mini-projects within the larger ones. At times this can be fun (and even funny, if I do it right) (previous parenthesis? that wasn’t doing it right), but more often than not, it becomes extremely frustrating and time-consuming, as I then have to go back and take out any aside that confuses the main point I’m trying to make at the time.
For as cleanliness is next to godliness in the pantheon of moral virtues, in my opinion, writing cleanly always beats out writing more, no matter how clever or funny you think your asides may be. If the tangent veers too far away from the central topic, it must be sacrificed (see: “Kill your darlings.” in Part I) — UNLESS — and this is the only exception — your story centers on a character who is just as scattershot as your personality, your topic, and the tone of the story you’re writing.
Speaking from my experience with “Cowface” — where the main character “collects” people and their stories the same way she collects random data — I can attest to how difficult this is, because while some tangents may prove necessary to establish the character, and then to maintain tonal continuity, you can guarandamntee that not all of these tangents will work. The most devious trick of it comes in sifting out which tangents you need (i.e., those that add to the character or motion of the story, not distract from them), and which ones you don’t. And sometimes, on your mother’s life, you honestly will not be able to tell.
But my motto? “When in doubt, take it out.”
Next to personality, discipline can determine your success as a fiction writer — and this may be the hardest part, mentally.
Because you have no deadline, no overseer, no editor with expectations, YOU have to be your own taskmaster. For years now I’ve had a Post-It note stuck to my computer monitor that simply reads, “Butt in chair.” If your butt is in the chair, and the file is open on your computer, half the battle is already won. Now, no war has ever been won by half a battle, but at least you’ve declared yourself willing to fight.
But if you’re not willing to devote your butt to your chair (at least) 7 hours a week on a writing project — any writing project, even if you flit back and forth like I do — one measly hour a day, either before or after you get home from work, or in chunks on the weekends — even if it’s only to sit and stare at the screen and totally freak out (a key part of the process; it’s not all in the typing, y’know) — then you might want to find something else that interests you. Like… uh…
(Honestly, I’m not interested in anything else, so I can’t really give you any options here. Maybe alpaca farming? I heard something about that once.)
Because writing is not an easy gig. It is, by nature, a solitary endeavor. It requires commitment, patience, deep thought, self-critical reading, going back again and again to a line, a paragraph, a whole story, writing and rewriting, until you’re ready to shoot yourself in the head. Or set fire to your fucking hard drive. Truthfully, I’ve considered both.
Writing for nothing is like getting yourself through Navy SEALS training… alone.
Or as my trailered friends down home might say: It’s harder’n a lonely redneck in a field full of cows.
And the last — but perhaps most important — aspect of writing for yourself is bravery.
Some people might lump this in with discipline, but bravery — specifically creative bravery — is something else entirely. Sure, you can write your seven hours a week — hell, you can write seventy hours a week — but if you don’t take creative chances along the way, you might as well be writing technical manuals. (No offense to tech manual writers, but I’ve never seen a creatively brave technical manual. Personally, I look forward to the day.)
Because here’s the thing: there are no rules governing fiction.
I know, I know. You’re like, “Jesus fucking Christ, Mere! I just sat here and read all your crap about How To Be Successful at Fiction! How’re you gonna sit there now and tell me there are no rules?”
To which I reply, “Sure. There are rules governing the writing of fiction. But fiction itself? It’s all up for grabs.”
So I’ll say it again, because I really, really want you to hear it:
There are no rules governing fiction.
(And anyone who tells you otherwise is either afraid or mindlessly recalcitrant.)
You can do ANYTHING in fiction. You want a world where the sun rises in the west? Done. Two suns rising in the west? Done. Two suns hula-hooping and slurping down Heinekens while they rise in the west? Done.
No one can tell you “no” in fiction. Absolutely no one. And you know why?
Because in fiction, YOU ARE GOD.
I don’t want you to get all megalomaniacal, but in this case, it’s true.
If you’re a believer, ask yourself: is there anything God can’t do?
If you’re an atheist or agnostic, ask yourself: if there were a god (little g) — and you don’t have to say that there is, only posit in this hypothetical scenario that there might be — if there were a god (little g), would there be anything god (little g) couldn’t do?
The answer, of course, is no. (Unless you’re writing fiction about God or god [little g]. Then, if you wish, the answer can be yes! Isn’t that an absolutely delicious little paradox?) So if God(/god) Created Everything in the Universe (hypothetically) — you can create Everything in your fictional universe. And even go back and erase it, and create it again. And again. And again!
Bobby Sowers didn’t ask you to the 8th grade dance in real life? Guess what? He will now! That time you had to eat shit from your boss for a mistake some other numbnut made? Now it’s the numbnut’s fault, and you get the promotion. Even death holds no power over you! Talk to your great-great-great-great-grandmother, the full-blooded Cherokee Indian who passed away in the 19th century. What, she wasn’t Cherokee? Well, she is now, if you want her to be!
The point I’m belaboring (and yes, I realize I’m belaboring it) is this: fiction is a place where you can take bits and pieces of everything — of anything — real or imaginary — and jam ’em together any way you see fit —
— and NO ONE can tell you you’re wrong.
“Wrong” doesn’t even enter the equation. “Wrong” can’t even be used as an adjective.
Critics can snark and bite at the technical aspects of writing, but they can’t lay a goddamned finger on your ideas. They will want to — isn’t it human nature to want what you can’t have? — but your ideas are YOURS. Yours and nobody’s else’s, ’til the day you die. (And if somebody fucks around with them after you’re gone, I say come back and haunt their treacherous asses.) Your wife can leave you. Your parents or friends could die. Your children may abandon you. You might lose your house, your money, even your own body if you’re hit by a bus or swallowed by a giant squid. Nothing really belongs to you in this world.
But your thoughts? Your ideas? The universes you create?
No one can ever take those from you. Ever. Never ever.
Because they’ll still be your ideas.
So if even death can’t touch you here, be brave in your choices. Be brave in your creation. Be brave enough to take chances. Be brave enough to fuck up, to miss hitting your vision spot-on. Be brave enough to go back and try to hit it again. Be brave in choosing topics no one else would touch. Be brave in creating unlikeable characters. Be brave enough to stand your ground when someone says they don’t like your characters. Be brave in seeing the world through a cracked, warped, or narrow lens. Be brave enough not to apologize for it. Be brave enough to denounce good and elevate evil. Be brave enough to do the opposite (much harder to do while remaining interesting, actually). Be brave in picking the wrong guy or chick for the job. Be brave enough to make up words, to speak a different language. Be brave enough to start over and over and over until you’re happy.
And that’s where the difference between screenwriting and fiction is most plain.
Screenwriting is about making others happy.
Fiction is supposed to make you happy.
Look at Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Several pages in that book… are blank. Just nothin’ on ’em. No words, no pictures. Blank. Depending on context, sometimes this allows you to feel the emptiness the character is feeling, sometimes the wordless anxiety/apprehension of oh no, what’s coming next?, and sometimes the exhilaration that comes purely from being in the middle of nothingness.
Conversely, on a TV show, it’s doubtful the Network would ever allow you to get away with scenes composed entirely of white screen. No characters, no sound, no graphics, no motion? This is so far outside our indoctrinated idea of what TV “should” be that it’d send most Suits shrieking from the room.
“But Mere,” you complain (and dear god, you’re a whiny lot), “blank pages aren’t writing. They’re the opposite of writing. They’re not-writing! They are ex-writing!” (A tip o’ the nib to the Great Monty.)
“However,” I would argue, “did the author choose to put blank pages there? Because if he did – and I have a hard time imagining that the publisher would fuck up so badly to the point where blank pages got randomly inserted into millions of books – if he did choose to put blank pages in there, then they are just as much a part of his idea as the putting-words-on-paper part is.”
So even not-writing can be a part of your fiction. That is to say, a void can become a statement. A nothingness can be part of what you’re intending to convey to your audience. And anything you do with intent is… well, intentional. Your nothing is intentional, and therefore part of your fiction.
And if nothing can be fiction, then anything can be fiction.
This is why I say fiction is like a collage: even the empty spaces can have meaning, and everything else was put there for a reason. The only requirement is intent.
Now, do I think you can hand a publisher 400 pages of blank paper and expect to see it in hardcover? Uh…. good luck with that. (And please let me know if it works, ‘cause that’d make my own efforts a hell of a lot easier.) All I’m trying to say is, there is NOTHING you cannot do in fiction, which is why – when screenwriting starts to feel like foot-binding – I turn to fiction in order to break my bonds.
And should you feel yourself tied up in your work, your family, your routines – the haiku of your life – I encourage you to do the same.
It’s very freeing, being god once in a while.