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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.


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