How Do I Stay Edgy But Keep Readers?

Quoth ANONYMOUS: PHENOMENAL WEBSITE. PHENOMENAL. I WORRY SOMETIMES THAT MY PURSUIT OF THE VIOLENT AND NUMINOUS MYSTERIES OF THE SHADOW-SICK HUMAN HEART MAY ALIENATE MAINSTREAM AUDIENCES. HOW DO I WRITE MORE APPROACHABLY WITHOUT FEEDING PABLUM TO THE MASSES? I’LL TAKE MY ANSWER OFF THE AIR.

Thank you for the insightful question. I think that’s something we all worry about, except maybe the people who sell pablum.

You seem to feel strongly about your artistic vision, which I’m guessing is a largely intuitive one with which you improvise to create stories. You see something, it glimmers at you, and you integrate it in your story because you trust your mind’s eye.

To me, that’s probably the purest way to create art, and I admire it deeply.

For a variety of neurotic reasons, however, I’m someone who is driven to entertain people…which makes me either the worst person to answer your question or the best.

I’m nominally a horror writer in that my work tends to include people with fractured perceptions coping with a universe that seems eerily tuned to their exact emotional weaknesses. My work sometimes includes violence, rarely gory or sexual but usually a more internal kind, a personal kind.

For example, a ghost story to me is the gossip of the dead, and the way a spirit haunts a person’s mind is far more interesting to me than the mechanics of how it’s anchored to an old fucked up house.

Most of my stories are experiments, both on the people living inside the story and the ones reading it. I just…like that. The instrument I’m playing with my fiction is the people, not the phenomena or the objects.

You might start somewhere else, perhaps with visual and auditory imagery. You see a curtain of trees or a crumbled factory, and they hint at something deeper than what they are. Some people might want to define and confine that meaning, to explain it, but I suspect you’re more of the “hey, look at this crazy shit” school of artistic expression.

Moment from Twin Peaks S3, Episode 8 with a creature entering a woman's mouth.
You know, like this guy does.

Which I would never talk you out of. In fact, I could use more of that in my own work; I’m tempted too often to explain the mysterious…which ruins it.

To make your work marginally more approachable without sacrificing your vision, I would suggest creating a lens character: someone with whom we travel through these liminal spaces who can perceive (unreliably, of course) the terrible, wondrous things you are showing us.

I’d make this character somewhat more sensitive than an ordinary person so we can see and feel more of what he or she is experiencing, and I’d provide him or her a deep personal history so there are lots of hooks you can use for making the horrors more directly damaging. I’ve written before that weird is normal and normal is cliché, and this person should have plenty of weird.

I think you’ll do okay with that.

One thing you’ll have to keep in mind, especially as a creator more accustomed to manipulating mood and setting than characters, is that your readers are probably going to like this character. We’re going to feel their hurts more because we’re wired that way in our monkey minds.

That means that whatever you do to this character will have a higher impact on an audience. A muted note of horror will sound like a tuba blast when it happens to them, and that’s worth keeping in mind as you control the tone of your story.

That character is the audience’s raw nerve, and whatever you do with that access should probably be more deliberate than your strictly intuitive approach. You may have to consider a second or third idea for their fate instead of leaping on the first. That’s not compromising your vision…it’s just understanding the tool you’re using to express it.  

Now it’s entirely possible that you want to express the nihilistic emptiness of all existence and the hopelessness of love and the futility of evolution. That’s fine; stomp on that raw nerve, put that character’s arm in a blender, throw them through a windshield, kill them off and damn them to hell.

But accept that the work won’t be “approachable” and be cool with that.

What this all means is that characters aren’t just objects in a story like sofas or forests or bloody hatchets…at least not to readers. They suffer, yes. They don’t all get happy endings. Maybe none of them do, if that’s your model of the universe.

But in a work that’s otherwise subtle, you need to remember the power you wield through them.

For me, that risk is worth the huge benefit of audience sympathy. Not all my stories have happy endings, but I try to make them interesting endings: moments of realization or transformation, even if they’re short-lived and wrong.

I don’t think I feed people pablum, but I try not to feed them flaming aircraft fuel, either.

The good news is that we don’t have to choose one or the other.

I hope that helps!

How Can I Level Up in My Work?

Quoth Anonymous: Sometimes people refer to “turning a corner” in the writing of their fiction, like they’re leveling up. What does that mean and how do I do it on purpose?

Wow, Anonymous, you’ve eerily picked the exact best moment to ask this question because fifteen years ago on this very day, I submitted a story that was the beginning of my OWN turning point.

What a coincidence!

“Turning a corner” is when your skill takes a significant leap forward that feels sudden but almost certainly isn’t. It means that you’ve realized something about how you work and learned to apply it in a way that produces a noticeable increase in “quality,” whatever that means.

Maybe the work is simply better written or easier to follow or more personal or filled with deeper feeling.

With luck, you’ll turn corners several times in your writing career or at the very least, you’ll make a long slow arc toward improving with every new work. But sometimes it feels like it comes suddenly, and that’s what we’re talking about today.

What’s required for a turn? Let me share my experience:

A punch in the face that destroys your creative complacency…

On the first day of critiquing manuscripts at my six-week Clarion experience in 2006, one of my submission stories was among the first we discussed. We hadn’t had time yet to write onsite, so this was one that had gotten me ACCEPTED to Clarion in the first place.

That story received a critical curb-stomping so savage that its broken teeth are still probably lodged in the carpet of that room at Michigan State. I’d like to think it had a little to do with nervous people trying to show their editing chops, but my story may well have been the cosmic affront to all literature as everyone said it was.

Enter the Hexagon! Twenty writers enter…and twenty writers leave, slightly less happy.

After my twenty-one peers had each had their say, all I could do was thank them in a warbling voice and say that I was here at Clarion exactly to write better stories.

That night, I walked around campus embarrassed and angry. For the previous decades, I’d been told by dozens of teachers that I was a good writer, not because I was a good writer but because I was a better writer than their many students who didn’t give a shit about writing. I’d taken their praise literally and managed to learn nothing to improve.

I’d needed more punches in the face and fewer pats on the back.

(Not literally. I got plenty from my father.)

…followed by a dark night of the soul…

This step may be optional if, unlike me, you’re not a neurotic mess trying to justify his existence on the Earth by entertaining other people.

I spent time in the MSU library writing in my journal about whether I was meant to write or whether I should take the hint and go on to something I was better at. Unfortunately, years of caring mostly about writing meant this was probably the best bet I had.

Unsure what to do, I called my friend Jason to give him an update on how Clarion was going. On my way to Michigan, I’d stopped to see him and some other friends in South Carolina and showed them some photos of an abandoned mental asylum I’d broken into earlier in the year. It had been a creepy place.

Yes, that’s an actual picture.

Jason listened to my dilemma and said, “Next time those people give you shit, look around that room and ask yourself which of them has the sack to break into an abandoned fucking mental asylum. Then consider THEIR advice.”

Which, yeah, put some things in context for me. No, not to ignore them…just to remember that I was the one with skin in this game, and I had to choose what I took on as criticism.

Really, this phase of your turn is figuring out if you’re willing to commit to doing what it will take to improve your work.

…and then an honest assessment of what you’re doing badly…

I suspect a lot of new writers get so hung up on whether they’re “good” or “bad” at writing in general that they don’t consider the many gradations between. It’s easier to throw up our hands and say we suck than to look at our work page by page to see exactly how.

Luckily, this guy was around to tell me EXACTLY what was wrong with my work.

When you refocus from yourself as the problem (“I don’t deserve to be a writer”) toward the story as the problem (“What can I fix here?”), that’s when a turn can happen.

For me, the issues my peers detected (and that I agreed with) seemed to be that I was too quick to avoid feelings with humor, my narration was too cold and mean, there wasn’t enough detail to feel like a story, and I couldn’t plot to save my life.

That sounded about right to me.

…and what you’re doing well…

In my journal at the library, I grudgingly allowed that I was pretty good at dialogue and at imitating people’s voices. Oh, and insinuating stories for readers out of fake found documents.

…so you can consciously practice to improve.

I call this stage “Fix It or Fuck It”: are you going to make changes to your technique, or are you going to write around them?

I did a little of both. I began to emphasize emotion, perception, detail, and experience in my stories, and I also experimented with voices that weren’t exactly like mine to tell them idiosyncratically.

Plotting…I let that ship sail. But not immediately, because I wrote four more terrible stories at Clarion where I tried to follow the advice we were getting about structure. For my last story, I just gave up and submitted a fake set of theater reviews for the apocalypse written by Dorothy Parker.

The feeling when I submitted that story was, “Fuck it. I’m going to keep doing what I do, only better each time,” which was Kelly Link’s advice to me during the last two weeks of the workshop.

It helped, too, that I wrote the story for a very specific audience, taking on the empathy to entertain her specifically. That became another principle in my new practice: imagining what an audience would find interesting or pleasurable or scary.

On a thunderstorm-y afternoon, my story was the last for critique…and almost everyone seemed to love it. Perhaps that had less to do with the quality of the story than their relief that I hadn’t wasted six weeks of our time, but I was happy either way.

That was the story that started the turn. I mean “started” very slightly, like maybe 5 degrees. But after that, I sold every story I wrote forever and ever.

No, alas, I didn’t. It took some more experimenting, and eventually there were two other stories as part of that turn toward what a “Will Ludwigsen story” would look and sound like. Some would call that “finding a voice,” which is not a term I like to use because each story has its own voice.

What I say instead is that sooner or later, we each find the kind of story that we can pull off semi-reliably because we’ve found ways to accentuate what we’re good at and to fake what we’re not.

That’s what a turn is: realizing that you can control what you write and then finding the next level of faking how to do it.