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Is it better to push yourself in your writing? To attempt bigger and deeper stories than you've done before? K.M. Weiland says so. But then there's this thread (which is talking about music performance, yes), which implies that the only way to perform perfectly is to hold back just a little and do something that's comfortable or easy for you

What is the value of each? Are lasting stories only created when you're writing scared? On the other hand, are you more likely to write a best-seller if you try something within your comfort zone?

EDIT: I should add that there seem to be multiple ways of writing scared:

  • Fear because you are baring your soul and writing past your own defenses.
  • Fear because you don't feel skilled enough - the scene requires more characters than you can juggle, or a more complex plot, or subtler emotions than you've written before.

One is a matter of content, the other of skill level. I'm interested in both.

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    Welcome to Writing.SE icanfathom! If you have a moment, please check out our help center and tour. – White Eagle Mar 29 '18 at 12:54
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    This seems a question too much open to personal opinions. I'm not sure it can be properly answered here. – FraEnrico Mar 29 '18 at 13:23
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    @FraEnrico, the key is my second paragraph. What is the value of each? I'm not exactly asking for the best way to write, just the pros and cons of two different approaches. If answers include personal experiences of what has happened when they wrote one way or the other, I would consider that useful information. – icanfathom Mar 29 '18 at 13:48
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    Keep in mind that performing and practicing music are different. When you perform, you want to play as well as possible, so you play something you're comfortable with. When you practice, you want to expand your comfort zone, so you play harder and harder pieces to get comfortable with those as well. I would, personally, compare writing more to practice than performance, unless you're doing it purely to put food on the table (which there's nothing wrong with -- but in that case you want to stay in your sweet spot, to ensure the most income) – Fund Monica's Lawsuit Mar 29 '18 at 16:08
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    When you perform, you have a live audience. As a wise philosopher once said, "You only get one shot, do not miss your chance..." - when you're writing you go through an iterative process. You can be bolder because if it doesn't work out, you've gained experience and only lost time - you don't have an auditorium of disappointed fans. – corsiKa Mar 29 '18 at 17:16
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Music is a performance art, it takes place in "real time." Writing does not. So while there is an inevitable trade-off between spontaneity and polish for a musician, the same is not true for a writer, whose spontaneity is always an illusion. Your characters can be smarter and wittier than you, if you need them to be, because you can take hours to think of (or research) what they have available at the tip of their tongues.

In a sense, that's all peripheral to your real question: Should you play it safe or take risks? However, it's deceptive to look at this as an "or" question. Great artists of whatever the discipline must take risks, and leave their comfort zone, it's the only way they grow and expand their powers. But their best and most lasting work may not necessarily come directly from these initial experiments, but from the maturity of their mastery of whatever it is. There is no great artist without some ambitious failures hidden in their catalog.

So yes, go ahead and "write scared" if that's what it takes for you. Go out on a limb, take some risks. But don't be distressed if this "risky" book isn't the bestseller you're looking for. You can't be a good writer until you come to terms with the fact that not every word you write is directly for your audience. Sometimes what we write enlivens the final writing, but isn't directly contained in it. To put it another way, sometimes you have to write a lot of dross (or writer's notes, or unpublishable backstory, or failed experiments) to get to that nugget of gold.

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    Every word I write is for the audience. My one and only goal is to entertain the reader, I cut anything I think ruins that flow. I am not writing to reveal myself, or to get something off my chest, or teach or promote a philosophy or world view or anything else. I am writing so the reader can imagine an adventure, and experience being a hero. Every word of it. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Mar 29 '18 at 15:49
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    @Amadeus I think you're misreading me here. If every word you wrote was directly for the audience, you would never edit out anything. I'm talking about the fact that sometimes you have to write a lot of dross --and/or unpublishable backstory --before you get to that nugget of gold. What you're talking about is that every word that makes it past your editing process is for the audience. I'll edit to clarify. – Chris Sunami Mar 29 '18 at 16:12
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    Every word I write IS directly for the audience, whether I delete it or not. When I wrote it, I thought it would be entertaining. Due to the nature of writing, the context of what was in my mind when I wrote it may not have made it to the paper, so after that context is gone (minutes or days), I can judge the entertainment value better, and may delete it. I don't write backstory or world-building tomes or character profiles unless the reader will read it, I am a discovery writer. But I'll leave it at that, you have a right to your belief. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Mar 29 '18 at 17:31
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    @Amadeus My natural inclinations are actually pretty close to yours. But I've come to feel it isn't serving my goals as a writer to demand every word I write be publishable. If what you're doing works for you, then I commend you for that. – Chris Sunami Mar 29 '18 at 19:19
  • "There is no great artist without some ambitious failures hidden in their catalog." Summed it up beautifully. – icanfathom Mar 29 '18 at 21:18
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You should write inspired. You should write in response to vision. Great work is work of great vision, work that sees what we ordinarily miss about human life. Tackling your vision may or may not be scary, but that is beside the point. If you have looked into the abyss, your vision may have terrified you and writing it down may be to relive that terror (though it may also be to expurgate it). If you have looked into heaven, your vision may have delighted and enthralled you, and writing it down may come in a rush of joy (though living in that state can be exhausting, and sometimes those who start that way spend themselves and lose their joy and motivation before they finish).

Write inspired. Don't be afraid to express your vision, whether that vision is of terror or delight.

  • So would you say that writing with vision benefits the writer as much as the reader? – icanfathom Mar 29 '18 at 14:12
  • I would say that a writer with a vision writers with vision. Writers without vision either write to commercial formula (nothing wrong with that) or they write dull stuff. I think writing with vision can be beneficial to the writer as a form of expiation and/or as a means to commercial success. – user16226 Mar 29 '18 at 15:13
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I think this comes down to how you write. I'm what one might call a method writer, so if I'm not feeling the emotions of my characters, I don't know where they are mentally and emotionally, so I can't get them written right in that scene.

For me, 'writing scared' could mean just that. But I think you mean more writing about the things that terrify us. And that too has value.

Look. Things are never as simple as yes and no. Should you keep pushing yourself? Yes. Should you push yourself to talk about a trauma that has you swimming in wave after wave of panic attack? No, that's just not healthy. Not unless you're trying to desensitize yourself, but even then I'd argue you should talk to a therapist first to make sure you aren't doing more harm than good.

I've done it, though. Because my writing is my therapy, so I've written about all the things that bother me, all the things that scare me, all the things that have hurt me. And let me tell you, it brought me to, and saved me from, some dark places.

The advantage? Well, I write fiction, and my characters live and breathe to an extent that people have read and re-read works of mine that are over 500K words. To be able to give your character that level of depth that they jump off the page and take your reader by the hand and take them along on an adventure is absolutely addictive for me to write.

I've written about depression, suicidal ideation, transgender issues, mental health issues, struggling with self-identity, the balance between what our family needs from us and what we need for ourselves, racism, homophobia, transphobia, existential crisis, women's issues, murder, mental and physical trauma, abuses (mental, physical, emotional, verbal, and social). And all of it within a tale that shows the reader how these things play out, not in a vacuum, but within the confines of a person's life.

But that is both a blessing and a curse, because few ever realise just how much of my soul I bare for them. And that level of vulnerability sometimes keeps me up at night. Be careful with that, because you need to function as a human being when you close the book.

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I'd never write scared (of either variety).

I might write something challenging, but not scared.

I would include in the "not scared" category, being unafraid to rewrite, unafraid to cut large passages or multiple scenes, unafraid to make a major revision to the story.

I do not attempt to write above my skill level or technical capability, I don't think that makes a better story, it makes it worse. I get better at writing by experience, when I see how other writers have done something tricky, or when I have a new thought for showing something or a good plot twist. I won't ever force it, I believe that would show in the writing. Greater skill will come when I am ready for it, in the meantime I can write a good publishable story.

I don't think most professional writers agree with Weiland; I read what several have said, when writing about their methods on writing, and most or all write because they enjoy it and the craft. Their stories and style change little over the course of their series. Perhaps it gets a little better, but they aren't challenging themselves to do anything but invent new plots, settings and characters about once a year. None of it seems particularly difficult, just imaginative.

As far as "emotional baring", I don't do it. To the extent I consider writing therapeutic, only as much as a hobby like woodworking or darts or video games. I try to give my characters real and plausible emotions, from hatreds to passionate love, from laughter to grief. But they are not me baring my soul.

My goal in writing is only and always to entertain readers, to help them imagine in a few days what it took me six months to imagine and two or three months to refine.

But I am writing fiction, nothing else, and I don't try to sneak an autobiography in it (although my personal experiences certainly inform my characters), or a political or social philosophy (I do have clear ideas on right and wrong in both, but I also strive to know why people I consider wrong think they are right).

Don't write scared. Write about characters doing interesting things (that you also find interesting), write to explore such characters without fear. Do your research when it is needed: I spent a half day on the Internet once learning how a doctor in the wilderness could successfully accomplish a particular surgery. All for half a page of prose, but I wanted a realistic portrayal. It was fun.

The process of writing, and the writing itself, must be entertaining to me, with the constraint that it will be entertaining to others, which pleases me. I think if I cannot even entertain myself, I won't entertain anybody else.

It cannot be something I worry whether I have the skill to finish, or worry whether it will be any good when I do. I have no aspirations or illusion of winning a Pulitzer, I am happy to tell a good story.

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What K. M. Weiland writes there is complete and utter nonsense.

  1. Fear is a signal to avoid danger. Once the danger is past, fear will subside. If you experience lasting fear, that is pathological (e.g. an anxiety disorder).

  2. Fear causes stress. Your body is put into a state of heightened alertness, so that you can face the threat to your life. If this stress lasts, the constant high level of strain to your organism can cause deseases from heart problems to cancer. You want to avoid that.

  3. Fear is automatic, lower level cognitive processes (flight or fight), but it hampers higher level cognitive processes (e.g. rational thinking, idea generation, creativity).

  4. Fear is the opposite of flow. Fear isn't fun.

  5. You can push your comfort zone without becoming afraid.

  • Those are all great points and exposes that Weiland must be using the word "scared" in a completely different way (which isn't very helpful). – raddevus Mar 29 '18 at 17:12
  • @raddevus It seems to me that Weiland uses the words "fear", "scared", "panic", and "terror" in their common meaning. She even describes the common physiological symptoms: "When you sit down at your desk and extend your hands to your keyboard, a little tremble should shake your fingers. Your heart should be pounding just hard enough that you find it a tad difficult to draw that first (or second or third) breath. A little dryness of mouth, a little dampness of face, a little quiver in the abdominal region—these are the symptoms of sheer, unadulterated panic." [contd.] – user29032 Mar 29 '18 at 17:29
  • [contd.] She describes the rush of "adrenaline", that is typical of fear, and even admits that "being scared isn’t very much fun". The effect on her is the common effect of constant fear: "bloodshot eyes" and an increasing inability to take care of your body ("hair frizzed out on end"). – user29032 Mar 29 '18 at 17:32
  • Well, that is completely and utterly ridiculous. Sounds like Weiland is trying to get attention with that method, because it doesn't sound effective. – raddevus Mar 29 '18 at 17:38
  • The thing is, sometimes I do feel the way she describes. The day I wrote the last page of my first novel was like that. But I don't think it's pure terror; it's more like nervous excitement because I know what has to happen and I'm worried yet excited about getting it there. Perhaps she was melodramatic, but could she still have been right? – icanfathom Mar 29 '18 at 17:44
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Neil Gaiman said "Make good art." In the same speech he says:

The moment that you feel that just possibly you're walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself - that's the moment you may be starting to get it right.

and

The things I've done that worked the best were the things I was the least certain about; the stories I was sure would either work, or more likely be the kind of embarrassing failures that people would gather together and discuss until the end of time.

Which would answer, I think, both aspects of your question. Yes, write past your defences, and yes, stretch your comfort zone. How would you grow as an artist, if you stay forever in the narrow circle of what you've done before, and know you can repeat? How do you expect to touch others with your literature, if you don't let it get past your defences, don't let it touch you?

And finally, don't go looking for "the next bestseller". To quote Neil Gaiman yet again,

Don't write books just for the money. If you don't get the money, then you don't have anything. If you do work you're proud of, and you don't get the money, at least you'd have the work.

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It can be exhausting.

You can bang out a story line and move people around and have them 'do stuff' and still have time to take your dog for a walk. You can do that and the only cost to you is some time.

Or you can do some emotional strip mining and really plumb that scene.

What i find is that the more strong emotion I put into a scene, the more it wears me out. I'm invested in the characters, possibly unlike other writers here and there's no right or wrong to it. I feel my characters come from within my own life experience. The parent in the story is one aspect of my own parenting, and I pull on that. The child has fears, drawn from my own childish fears. The villain is destructive. I think we have all that stuff in us, and that's how we recognize it in stories. But to dig it up to make something authentic means pulling it up, turning it over, putting it into compelling words, constructing something. Doing more than floating along.

It can be cathartic.

Occasionally two characters, presumably two parts of my own experience, engage in dialog that goes somewhere I don't expect - and it hits me like a ton of bricks that what they are saying to each other ... is me talking to me, possibly me talking to the part of me that lives at the bottom of a dark pit, or the me that rallies every day to get the work done that needs to be done. Or whatever.

The two lines below got typed out mindlessly in the middle of a long dialog a few weeks ago, and as soon as they were staring at me they completely undid me. For reasons that won't be clear, but possibly you can relate to something within your own life.

"You did your best."

"It wasn't enough."

I haven't returned to that scene yet, because I think it will be emotional for me to work with it.

Should you write scared?

I'd say you need to know the cost to yourself of writing scared and it may be different at different times. I'd say push yourself as far as you can without it costing you too much.

Hemingway said writing is easy - you just sit at your typewriter and bleed. That might be useful for you to keep in mind.

  • I think I can write emotional scenes, derived from my own experiences, and some of them have made me cry, or made me angry again, even murderous (like when my sibling was murdered). However, I never "write scared," afraid I don't have the skill. If I write a character that does something embarrassing or criminal or socially reviled, I don't fear I exposed a side of myself I should have kept private. Being emotional for a scene is good. I might pick a time when I can get over the emotions, or be private with them, but I would not fear the writing of it. Just try to get it right on the page. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Mar 29 '18 at 20:37
  • @Amadeus I'm certain you can. – DPT Mar 29 '18 at 20:51
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I'm not really a writer, but I argue that in writing, or art, or programming, or any other skill, there is play and there is purpose - and which comes natural (and which doesn't) differs from person to person.

As an example, "To attempt bigger and deeper stories than you've done before" can be done with the attitude of, "Let's see what happens..!" or it can be done with the attitude of, "I will focus on [topic; maybe story complexity?] with the goal of, [being much more complex than before]"

For some, "play" is too loose. There is no goal. Nothing to drive one into motion or give feedback on performance.

For others, "purpose" is too strict. It bleeds out the enjoyment and the final result can end up abused because other factors that are not expressly in the purpose get ignored.

It's a lot more stressful to try and take the attitude that you are not accustomed too, but at the same time sometimes that is the path to growing the most.

I'd advise growing in the way that works best for you most of the time; but if you feel a block and need either new discipline or new passion, to go with the other approach.

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