Every once in a while I talk about cutting 60,000 words from a manuscript I wrote sometime back. I rarely discuss actual content, but something happened to me within the last few months that confirmed for me a thematic element I had a slight belief I was bullshitting. Recently I found this untrue; not only did I truly trust this philosophy, I had experienced it time and time again. In order for you to make sense out of it, I guess I need to start with the theme itself.
Let me explain in the least convoluted manner I can:
I’m a very logical writer. That doesn’t mean I organize or write anything down, but I do tend to get most of my ideas from, “If I want this to be true, then this must be true first.”
I also really like proper plot structure. Mostly because I’m lazy enough to want arbitrary rules instead of actually thinking, and spiteful enough for guidelines for me to appropriately screw with them.
I am usually fairly conscious of whatever “theme” I have going on. It helps answer questions for me, like, “How should this end?” (Well, if my point is “Cats rock,” the cat needs to tear the villain’s face off. Clearly.)
So the monster-of-a-novel started with some vague notion about fear—I don’t bother to be too specific early on.
So... that being said, it might not surprise you that I wasn’t really sure of what the plot was for… oh… forty pages. But hey! Captain Criticism! You could say that it was because of this floundering about that made me capable of cutting out a third of the novel.
(You could also say that it was because of this floundering that I needed to cut out a third of the novel, but I guarantee I won’t be listening at that point.)
In any case, per my own process, to determine what plot-based conflict was appropriate, I looked back to what my point was. My point was… something about fear. Thrilling. So that’s when I know I need to be more specific.
But there was one thing I know about fear, having experienced it in far too much abundance; whenever you stick out your chest, suck it up, and barrel forward, you get slapped in the face by whatever you were afraid of. I mean, I don’t care how unlikely it is, you’re irrationally afraid of something happening? The moment you try to overcome it, that shit will happen.
Afraid of shop clerks being assholes? Well, sure, you know that it’s unlikely—it’s their job to be nice to you. So you overcome that bone-crippling shyness, go to their counter and… BAM. In the most ridiculous turn of events he spins around screams, “FUCK YOU.”
I’m not even kidding.
Okay. I’m kind of kidding. I’m exaggerating anyway. But it happens. Whenever you manage to face your fears, you end up facing exactly what you were afraid. And you’re surprised. You knew you were being ridiculous… you managed to talk yourself into getting on the plane because it was so unlikely that it was going to crash. So when you happen to have booked the most hectic, back-assward flight anyone has ever seen, with the plane’s take-off delayed because there’s a “crack in the engine,” then horrible turbulence, then a white-out that forces you to go back to Denver, and you just have to go, “What the goddamn hell?”
Because not only are you back at square one. It’s worse. Before you had some solace in thinking you were crazy. If you could just face your fears… just once, you would be able to realize how ridiculous it was. But, as it turns out, it wasn’t that ridiculous after all. Maybe you still shouldn’t care, but you suddenly realize there are things to be afraid of.
I knew what conflict and stakes would take place in my book. The character—a brainwashed young girl from a religious cult ventures out into a dried-husk of a barren planet—is terrified of the unknown and leaving her comfort zone. The book, in the beginning, gives a sense that the narrator disagrees with her, that she is, in fact, “just wrong.” Those who’ve read it consistently assume her paranoia is just paranoia, that her religion is incorrect, and the exiles are actually the good people. By the point that the protagonist starts to grow comfortable and enjoy the beauty of the world, the readers are like, “Good, girl! It’s not so bad, is it?”
The readers’ shock at her fears happening made a pivotal point in the story possible. When the audience sees her fear isn’t so ridiculous, it is possible, then it makes them question their assumption that the cult was wrong, and question whether or not Libra, the protagonist, was wrong to believe in it. Throughout the first half of the story, no one likes a man name John—they know his intentions were bad from the start, they knew he was completely capable of hurting the protagonist—the readers just never believed he actually would hurt her. And neither did she.
And that, right there, is my point about fear.
But in all irony, as much as I knew there was the possibility of this philosophy being true—that when you face your fears, you’re opening yourself up to experiencing the worst—I guess I didn’t really believe it. So I a few months ago I opened myself up to my biggest fear. I took a risk, I tried to trust someone, to stop being so paranoid, anti-commitment, and shy, and I immediately found my expectations were abruptly met.
This isn’t about writing, but it could be. I don’t focus on querying, I don’t focus on self-promotion, I don’t put myself out there… for anything. I am so afraid with being honest with what I want that I stay cooped up where it’s safe. But then, one day, I get sick of it. I get sick of being defensive and having walls up and I stand up and say, “I’m going for what I want!”
The truth is I have always been afraid of my emotions. I have always been afraid of revealing what I want, asking for what I need, or depending on others. I have also always believed this was ridiculous, and that the pain of being afraid was far worse than the pain of embarrassment or disappointment.
I was able to open up because I just had no idea how much pain I could be in.
Point is, a story reveals the author’s deep down beliefs, no matter how little he realizes it or even believes it. Nothing says more about you than what you write. Sometimes, it’s important to pay attention. It doesn’t mean that it can change anything, but maybe it’ll take away some of the shock.