Time to do something about that beast in your backyard. You know the one I’m talking about. You’ve been hiding it for so many years you forgot it was even there — that tired, sorry-looking character you’ve neglected and kept in the shed — you’ve long ago locked the door and thrown away the key. But consider this: That beast is your friend when it comes to writing fiction. If you keep her locked up, you’ll discard your childish way of thinking, feeling, and behaving; all that fresh experience, raw feeling, transparent honesty, and wild imagination that goes with childhood — all gone. So, what are you waiting for? Get it back.
When we were of age and wore training pants, our parents and teachers told us how to behave, so we wouldn’t act like wild animals scurrying around for food and battling each other to get it. We needed to develop social skills and self control to make it in this world. Being civilized is a good thing to have if you want to keep a job, finish high school, and get along with others. Lose your civility and you have chaos. But, if you want to be a writer, you have to connect with your wild, uninhibited self—that childlike part in all of us. If you keep your beast hidden from view, you’ll lose a part of yourself and your writing will suffer; unleash it, and your prose will come alive.
I’ve attended workshops, conferences, and read a lot of books and articles on how to write fiction. They were invaluable resources, but the one thing they couldn’t do for me is teach me how to find my wild side. This came to light when an editor kindly reviewed my writing and commented that my doctor-protagonist seemed too “clinical.” It took awhile for it to register I wasn’t writing fiction, I was writing fact. I’m a doctor, and doctors are clinicians who act professional and detached. We are trained to think objectively, maintain professional distance, and not get too emotional around our patients. It’s part of who I am and what I was conditioned to be. However, it is not what readers want to read. It’s too boring. So I had to come up with a method to make my characters and settings sizzle, even though I was a boring doctor. I had to unleash my beast. Let me show you how:
MAKE FRIENDS WITH YOUR BEAST
Unlock the door.
Try to think over what’s missing in your writing. It’s probably inspiration that’s lacking, characters that feel forced, or dull prose. Have you ever noticed preschoolers at play? They’re never bored. A few blocks, dolls, or miniature cars and their props are complete. Then they’re off to raising families, driving to work, feeding crying babies, and getting in fights, even though they’ve never left the playroom. Creativity comes natural to kids. It hasn’t been censored out of their existence yet, and neither has yours. You just have to find that key and unlock the door.
In my case, I had to engage my imagination and step out of my medical role to entertain readers. A dose of passion was just what my doctor-protagonist needed and made him appear less stuffy. When it comes to writing fiction, discard reality if it doesn’t serve the interest of your readers. Our job is to enable the reader to suspend disbelief, not to lecture on medical minutia and assemble a cast of pedantic characters. Yet, in writing fiction, if you engage your imagination, even dull people can have an edge to exploit. Juxtapose a nerdy, computer-speak individual with a sword swallower and sense the inherent tension and interest it creates. Tension is good; a yawning reader is bad.
Remember when you were a kid and believed in monsters? The abominable snowman? That’s your creative side waiting to be tapped. Don’t get wrapped up in left brain/right brain training and exercises – those are for adults, only. Step out of such conceptions and embrace your third brain. That primal one you used as a child that didn’t bog itself down in mental exercises, but just delivered spontaneously. Let your characters be bold, elated, ruthless, angry, impulsive or irrational. They’ll be much more interesting when you let them do their thing.
NOW TAME YOUR BEAST
Teach her proper manners.
You’ve finished your first draft and you’ve let your imagination soar, your characters sparkle, and your settings have become as real as child’s play. Now, here’s the hard part. You get to become the critical parent. This is where revision takes control: proper grammar, spelling, balanced structure, escalating suspense, believable characters that excite, engaging plot, and locating that choice word. Capture the raw human spirit and child-like imagination, refine it with your critical faculties, then lead the reader into your fictional world.
FREE YOUR BEAST
You can trust her.
So you’ve completed your manuscript and are ready to send it out. Not yet. Let it sit for awhile, a few weeks at least. Then read it and see if you’re engrossed. Mark the parts that seem flat, and then get “in character” to understand your character’s voice and motivations. Do a retake and see if you’d word things differently, or change the point of view or setting. For example, maybe your character is a sourpuss who hates the snow. He’s looking out the window on a cold wintry day somewhere in upstate New York. You write:
It snowed today and the temperature dropped to the low teens. Josh stared out the window.
You conclude it sounds dull, so you rewrite:
A blizzard dropped twelve inches of the white fluffy stuff and blanketed the tree outside Josh’s window. He figured he’d have to brave the cold and shovel the driveway before it turned to ice.
Better, but lukewarm and somewhat off target. Now focus. Get “in character” and become that curmudgeon who hates the snow and cold. Free the beast inside you:
The incessant howl of the blizzard grated on his nerves. He covered his ears and paced around the room. Finally, the wailing and rattling ceased. Josh wiped the frost off the window and squinted to get a better look, then grunted his displeasure. A bleak, white shroud coated his entire driveway, and he was in no mood to shovel it off.
The first example is too distant, objective, and not fully invested in the character Josh. The second is better, but the tone of white fluffy stuff is too light and sounds wrong — not words you’d expect Josh to use in describing something he hates. The last example has Josh grunting his displeasure and a grim-reaper depiction of snow that better suits him. Letting your characters become alive in your imagination helps you feel what they do, convey their moods, speak their words, and see things from their perspective.
Now, put some pixy dust on your prose and let it shine.