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Writing without Fear

Two months into our new home in Central Oregon, Sweetie and I feel like we're finally settling down. We've arranged the furniture, made friends with the neighbors, and learned our way around the area. Last week I went shopping without looking up directions first, and I didn't get lost once!

For the first month we were here, I didn't write a single word of fiction. I spent my evenings and weekends stocking up the new kitchen, sewing curtains, and taking care of lingering moving business. I also did a lot of baking. My new coworkers love to celebrate birthdays and graduations and any other occasion that calls for cake.

Then Sweetie and I celebrated our ninth anniversary on June 21. I asked if I should bake a cake or a cheesecake. He said, "Why not a cheesecake on a cake?"

I said, "Yeah, sure, I'll do that."

He thought we were joking.

This red velvet cheesecake cake didn't taste as good as it looks. While many people love red velvet cake, to me it tastes like it secretly wants to be chocolate, but it doesn't want to admit as much because chocolate is banal. So it tiptoes the line of being chocolate, while insisting that it's different from chocolate and so much more refined, and it ends up being boring and mediocre.

Thus I segue into the title of this post, "Writing without Fear."

Just a few years ago, I was a lot like red velvet cake. I wanted to write sexy romances, but I was afraid people would call me shallow. Deep people don't write sexy romances. Deep people write literary masterpieces. So I wrote romances in fancy literary language, which bored romance lovers and failed to impress literary lovers.

Then I grew out of "sexy" and moved into comedy. I finished Kagemusha, which I'm proud of and consider my first professional quality novel. But Kagemusha has a fatal flaw: I was so determined to be lighthearted and funny that I shied away from any complex emotion. I left the characters and their relationships deliberately underdeveloped because I was afraid of making the story "too serious." I deleted whole chapter outlines and filled the gaps with time skips to avoid any sticky topics.

I ran into the same mental roadblock when I started a cozy mystery last year. I was having a grand old time, and then I slammed on the brakes. "This isn't what cozy mystery readers want," I thought. "Cozy mystery readers want cupcakes with buttercream and sprinkles. They don't want heroines struggling with grief and moral gray areas." I dropped that book because I couldn't bring myself to write about death like it's a pleasantly diverting subject, or pretend that a spunky small-town librarian could stumble across a corpse one day and be perfectly cheerful the next.

Why did I feel I had to write my book that way?

Because many cozy mysteries I see on the shelves are written that way. Because many bloggers insist that a cozy mystery must glaze over death so readers don't feel bad and can get on with the fun of solving the puzzle. Because some literary agents who represent cozies say in interviews that dessert recipes are required for publication today, and a writer who doesn't know that doesn't know her audience.

Because I, like those select bloggers and agents, didn't respect cozy mystery readers.

The assumption underlying these "rules" about cozy mysteries is that readers of the genre can't handle serious topics. They're delicate creatures who read only for the buttercream and sprinkles. Since they don't like graphic violence or sex scenes, their brains must be too dainty to process messy emotions and multifaceted characters.

When I bought into the belief that every page in a cozy mystery has to be light and fluffy, I'd forgotten what I wrote myself last year in this blog post, "What Cozy Mystery Readers Want."

Cozy mystery fans are smart people. They enjoy a good intellectual challenge. They don't read passively, merely tagging along with the heroine while she eats ginger snaps and looks for hidden passages in old houses. They participate actively in the story as if they are the heroine. They're constantly on the lookout for hints, trying to spot holes in alibis and unravel the suspects' carefully guarded secrets.

I'd forgotten that I'm a cozy mystery reader. I like quaint small-town settings. I like to imagine spending every workday surrounded by scrumptious chocolates or fragrant roses or glittering craft supplies. I like quirky characters and cute romances. But that doesn't mean I like stories with no substance.

The formulaic books I felt pressured to emulate—in which the heroine's friends and love interests are perfect 2D angels, her enemies and exes are loathsome 2D jerks, and the killer did it just because she's totally nuts—leave me, as a reader, dissatisfied. Sometimes insulted. I feel like the publisher thought they could dump a novel out of a can and stick a picture of a cat and some knitting needles on top, and us dumb cozy types would lap it up.

I stopped writing because I didn't trust my own taste and intuition. I was afraid agents would tell me, "This is too different from the cozies on the market." Well, what if the cozies on the market don't satisfy readers? What if other genre fans find those cats with knitting needles as insipid as I do? What if they want more meat in their stories, but publishers keep pushing cupcakes at them instead?

A few weeks ago, I dusted off that aborted manuscript. I'd been having trouble getting myself to work on my fantasy trilogy, because it's very long and dark and heavy. But when I read the outline and first chapter of my cozy mystery, I wanted to work on it. I started writing that very day and haven't run out of steam yet. In fact, I enjoy working on it so much that though I started this blog post last week, I didn't finish it until today because I kept getting lured into writing the book instead. I've completed five chapters now.

In my experience, the toughest part of conquering fear is admitting that you are afraid. Writers are intellectual types, and intellectual types will admit to almost anything else before admitting to fear. If a writer can't bring herself to finish a project, she'll say she's "too busy" or "too lazy." She'll blame a mean old English professor for destroying her confidence ten years ago. She'll blame the publishing industry for being too risk-averse, and she'll justify that writing something nobody will read is a waste of time anyway.

But she won't say, "I'm afraid. I'm afraid that mean old English professor was right. I'm afraid if I write down this great story in my head, I'll discover it's not so great after all. I'm afraid agents and editors will tear my work apart, and I'll be forced to admit that I was arrogant and delusional for thinking I have talent."

Fear is like alcoholism; you'll never conquer it if you refuse to admit you have a problem. Even after you admit your fear, getting over it isn't easy. Even if Sweetie assures me my book will be great; even if I find interviews with agents who say the most successful cozies push the boundaries; even if I read over my chapters and know, without a doubt, that readers will enjoy them; I still have that deep-seated fear of rejection.

The only way for me to get over it is to jump headfirst into writing. I have to tell myself in a stern voice, "T. K., you're procrastinating again because you're afraid your WIP isn't perfect. But it doesn't have to be perfect. Just start typing!" Then when I do start typing, I have a blast and forget to be scared.

New Job, New Home

This blog has been on haitus for a few weeks, and will be for another few weeks, because I'm moving! Tomorrow I start my new job at Central Oregon Community College in Bend.

Panoramic photo of Bend, OregonPanoramic photo of Bend, Oregon from Wikimedia Commons

The rental market in the Bend area is ridiculously competitive, so though we started looking for a place to live in March, we didn't land one until the end of April. We signed the lease to our new home on Wednesday and have been frantically packing and driving back and forth every day since.

And that drive is no picnic, because it's three hours through the mountains. These mountains are the territory of mischievous fairies who think it's funny to conjure up thick blankets of fog and sudden blinding blizzards, then watch the mortals plunge to their deaths.

Photo of Mount HoodPhoto of Mount Hood by the Oregon Department of Transportation, from Wikimedia Commons

We know it's all a big fae joke because as soon as we escape from Mount Hood, the snow melts into endless desert. The sun blazes in a cloudless sky and when we look back to glare at the fairies, they blink their big innocent eyes and say, "Blizzard? What blizzard?"

Photo of Mount Hood from Warm SpringsPhoto of Mount Hood from Warm Springs Indian Reservation, from Wikimedia Commons

The photos you see of Oregon, with the lush green forests and hip quirky towns and rainy Gothic cliffs, are all from the west side of the Cascades. Central and Eastern Oregon are rural high desert. It's dry and alternately very hot and very cold.

I'm not looking forward to the "very hot and very cold," but I'm very much looking forward to the "dry." Here's a graph of the monthly cloud cover in Portland. Average in summer: 20% to 30%. Average in winter: 100%.

Graph of cloud cover in Portland

Now here's a graph of the monthly cloud cover in Bend. Average in summer: less than 5%. Average in winter: 30%.

Graph of cloud cover in Bend

My cheerfulness is directly proportional to the amount of blue in the sky, regardless of temperature, so I expect to be 20% happier in summer and 70% happier in winter.

Stage Directions, My Latest Pet Peeve

I recently acquired a new writing pet peeve: stage directions.

In theatre, stage directions are those italicized instructions that tell actors where to stand, who to look at, and how to deliver lines. Here's a short excerpt from Arthur Miller's The Crucible.

PUTNAM: Don't you understand it, sir? There is a murdering witch among us, bound to keep herself in the dark. PARRIS turns to BETTY, a frantic terror rising in him. Let your names make of it what they will, you cannot blink it more.

PARRIS, to ABIGAIL: Then you were conjuring spirits last night.

ABIGAIL, whispering: Not I, sir—Tituba and Ruth.

PARRIS turns now, with new fear, and goes to BETTY, looks down at her, and then, gazing off: Oh, Abigail, what proper payment for my charity! Now I am undone.

These instructions are useful in scripts, because plays are meant to be acted out and watched, not read. But in novels, stage directions fall flatter than a week-old glass of Mountain Dew.

"Don't you understand it, sir?" Putnam demanded. "There is a murdering witch among us, bound to keep herself in the dark. Let your names make of it what they will, you cannot blink it more."

Parris glanced at Betty, a frantic terror rising in him. He said to Abigail, "Then you were conjuring spirits last night?"

Abigail whispered, "Not I, sir—Tituba and Ruth."

Parris turned back to Betty with new fear. He went to her and looked down at her. He gazed off into the distance. "Oh, Abigail, what proper payment for my charity! Now I am undone."

The last paragraph is especially underwhelming. Turning, moving, looking...these things work on the stage and in film, but not in books. In books, stage directions are boring and hard to follow, and they distract from more important information. For example, here's a paragraph I might write during the first draft of a scene.

As Daniel closed the register and wiped down the counter, he heard the bell on the door jingle. He turned and saw Sarah strut in, dressed to the nines in a sequined evening gown.

I'm trying to think from Daniel's perspective, so naturally I describe what he does, what he sees, etc. But in this context, the fact that Daniel hears the bell and sees Sarah enter isn't important. The fact that the bell jingles and Sarah enters is important.

Daniel closed the register and wiped down the counter. The bell on the door jingled. Sarah strutted in, dressed to the nines in a sequined evening gown.

This revision is much cleaner. Because readers are also thinking from Daniel's perspective, they'll hear the bell and see Sarah along with him. I don't need to state that he's turning here or looking there.

On rare occasions, a character turning here or looking there could be important. A character looking down at her shoes could show shame or shyness. A character moving towards another character in an affectionate or threatening way could show the state of their relationship.

But most of the time, stage directions show nothing, and disposing of them will improve readability.

Stage DirectionExampleExample Revision
Move from point A to point B.Todd left his backpack by the door and walked through the living room to the kitchen, where Mom was fixing dinner.Todd left his backpack by the door. In the kitchen, Mom was fixing dinner.
Move towards a character.Brittany waved at him. He waved back and crossed the hallway to join her. "What's up, Brit?"Brittany waved at him. He waved back. "What's up, Brit?"
Turn in a specific direction.He swiveled to the left and removed an old yearbook from the shelf beside his desk.He removed an old yearbook from the shelf beside his desk.
Turn towards a character.The room was in shambles. Todd whirled around to face Stevie. "What did you do?"The room was in shambles. "Stevie, what did you do?"

A writer may have a detailed mental map of every scene, but readers don't. They don't know or care which rooms are between the door and the kitchen, or how the hero is oriented in relation to the furniture.

Think about how people tell stories in real life. Nobody would ever say, "I stopped by Payless Shoes today, and after I walked through the automated doors I headed right, past the sandals on display. When I reached the wall, I saw the cutest pair of panda slippers." They'd instead say, "I stopped by Payless Shoes today, and when I went in I saw the cutest pair of panda slippers." And nobody listening would say, "Hey, wait, exactly how did you get from the entrance to the panda slippers? Because I know the slippers are all the way over on the right wall."

Yet many writers write as if they're afraid readers will complain that Todd appears to have teleported from the front door to the kitchen, or academics will scrutinize the text and argue that Todd couldn't possibly have spoken to Brittany because their lockers are on opposite sides of the hallway. I assure you, neither of these nightmare scenarios will ever come true, so you're free to delete those stage directions with cheerful abandon.

If you remove all the stage directions from a scene and there's little left, you were probably thinking like a playwright. You were trying to convey what the characters think and feel through exaggerated physical actions alone. But novelists don't have to do that. We have the magic of interiority: direct access to characters' thoughts and feelings.

"Don't you understand it, sir?" Putnam demanded. "There is a murdering witch among us, bound to keep herself in the dark. Let your names make of it what they will, you cannot blink it more."

Reverend Parris fought against a rising tide of fear. He remembered Abigail and Betty dancing around the bonfire, and the wild Negro woman gibbering in tongues. If his niece and daughter were really practicing witchcraft...If the parishioners found out...

Abigail stood beside him now with her hands folded demurely, her face as sweet as the first blossoms of spring. The little viper, slithering in and poisoning his hard-earned reputation. Parris grabbed her shoulders. "Then you were conjuring spirits last night?"

When she didn't deny it immediately, Parris battled fresh waves of dread. She was supposed to get angry. She was supposed to protest her innocence, and cry that she would never do such a thing. Why didn't she? Why didn't she?

Abigail pulled at her fingers. "Not I, sir—Tituba and Ruth."

Terror drowned all reason. Parris rushed to Betty's bedside and willed her awake. She must wake up. She must. But no matter how hard he willed it, she lay as still as a porcelain doll. Witchcraft, in his own house! Right under his own nose! How his enemies would crow when they heard. He was ruined. Ruined!

Reverend Parris lifted his face to Heaven and prayed for his salvation. He cursed his foolish niece, and he cursed himself for trusting her. "Oh, Abigail, what proper payment for my charity! Now I am undone!"

This could be done much better, but it was a good exercise for examining the differences between scripts and novels. In novels, most of the action is internal. You can't create tension by moving characters about like chess pieces on a board. You need to get inside the characters' heads, and then pull readers in there with you.

To be honest, rewriting that bit of The Crucible above without any turning or glancing was difficult for me. Writing an entire book without a single superfluous movement would be impossible. Sometimes you just need someone to look at someone else.

But if your characters are constantly spinning like tops, turning here, whirling there, you should evaluate whether those movements are really necessary.