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Peter Cox

The Year of Writing Dangerously

Are you being too careful with your writing?

The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli

Words have power. This power works for good or ill but what else is fiction for, if not to tap that power in the service of connecting with the reader? That is the Holy Grail of fiction writing, and anything less is a wasted opportunity.

What is a story for but to make us feel something? Readers bring something of their own to any story, but they don’t take from a story what was never put in because the writer was afraid of the power of their own words, and bottled it.

A book, once published, is birthed. The writer no longer controls or owns it. Legally, they may do so, holding copyright but the story is now an entity in its own right, roaming wild and free as a wildebeest.

This is a scary prospect. No writer wants to hear their baby is ugly, if it is ever published, and that is a big ‘if’, while it is only natural to wonder what might result from their efforts, investing scores or even hundreds of hours working on a poem or short story, while a novel demands many months or even years. Keri Hulme spent twelve years writing her award-winning first novel The Bone People. Michael Crichton worked eight years on researching and writing Jurassic Park….eight years from the commercial as well as literary point of view, brilliantly well-spent, but this is so easily said with the benefit of hindsight.

But while it is only natural to wonder, it’s self-sabotage, trying to get that first draft down while already worrying who is going to publish this novel, or what readers or reviewers are going to say about it, or think about us, the writer, as a person.

It can so easily become fear, control- freakery; and this will paralyse your writing.

So what is the advice? What is the antidote?

There is natural writing talent – yes there is such a thing- and then there is the discipline of skill or craft, and it is this discipline which liberates the expression of talent. Singers have a voice already, so does the writer, but learning to use that voice for maximum effect is about craft. It demands practice. Singers do exercises. They warm up. Writers do the same by not looking too far ahead, developing their confidence while building their writing muscles.

But who is interested in anything you have to say? Who wants to hear it? Who wants to read it? They will, if they feel there is anything in it for them, if they can find meaning in it because the writer was not afraid to tell the truth of whatever they had got to say.

People don’t just want stories in all their many forms. They need stories, adults and children alike. Humanity is hard-wired that way, for its psychical health and the reasons are many; for entertainment, for escape, to feel something, learn something new, and also for companionship and a sense of belonging, to feel less alone with a problem, making new sense of things.

The job of a story- teller, the grail of fiction writing, is to reach out, in reaching within.

Take risks with your writing. Fill the cup to overflowing. Being too careful is like painting by numbers, fearfully tip-toeing. If your writing’s boring you, why won’t it bore the pants off everyone else? Rather than forcing the rhubarb, beating yourself up; why not give yourself a break? A breath of fresh air, a change of scene, working on something else, and you’ll come back with a fresh new take on the work in progress.

Someone’s boring me,’ Dylan Thomas once said, ‘I think it’s me.’

No-one is immune, but if there is only one rule in writing, could that be it? Don’t let it be boring. It won’t be, if your writing comes from you, but it’s not about you.

We jump for joy. We take leaps of faith. Writers have to leap.

Go ahead, leap, and scare yourself silly. You should be scared. The work demands respect. Just don’t let it stop you.

Think big. Be bold. This is a grail quest. Use it up and pour it out.

Take risks with your writing!