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On Writing, Pt. 4: You Know It When You Read It
Last night, I wrote something that made me ugly cry. And that's how I knew it was right.
By joepeacock Posted in Blog, Marlowe Kana, On Writing on May 11, 2018 2 Comments
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Last night, I made myself cry. 

Something like this.

I was writing a chapter of Marlowe Kana Volume 4 that dug into some really deep wounds, both for my characters and for myself. As they say, you write what you know — and in the Marlowe Kana series, I’m bringing a lot of the life stuff I’ve experienced into a world I’ve created to make it human. Some of that stuff is ugly, and some of that stuff hurts.

Without spoiling anything, I can tell you that the main character, Marlowe Kana, was adopted as a child. In the United American State in 2097, non-natively born Americans aren’t allowed in the country, and as such, her adoption by her father and mother was illegal. But because he is a military hero and his wife was a famous singer before her passing, they were able to grease a few wheels and spin the media to make it happen.

The scene I wrote deals with some stuff just about every adopted kid has had to deal with. Abandonment, being treated like a piece of property instead of like a human being, and so on. It touched a personal nerve with me, as my childhood had its fair share of those feelings. And dealing with them hurts each time I do, whether it be in my head or in my writing.

But it wasn’t the hurt that made me cry. It was the way it worked in the story. It made me feel for my character — not because I wrote her, and not because her pain is my pain. But I could relate. In reading it back, I could see and feel clearly what she was experiencing. It clicked. And it made me tear up.

Even Darryl cries.

So far in this series, I’ve only really discussed the feeling of writing. How it feels to start. How it feels to start over. That moment things come together. I haven’t yet gotten into the mechanics of things — how I structure plot, how I form a character arc, how I use a character’s background in the current setting, how I world-build… That will come. I will be writing more about how these things work for me.

But to start the series, I feel like discussing the hardest part — the feelings you face when trying to write — is the most important. Anyone can talk about the mechanics of anything. Go into any gym and you’ll find no shortage of people who can explain how to bench press, or squat, or run on the treadmill. But you’ll be hard-pressed to find people who are open to talk about the days they don’t feel like coming in, or the days they have a fight with their significant other and try to work out and just can’t, or recovering from injury, or any of the other very natural, VERY likely to happen, things that will absolutely affect your time in the gym.

As such, I feel that for most writers, especially starting out, the hardest things in the world to grasp have nothing at all to do with the mechanics. Sure, they are responsible for a lot, if not most, of the confusion and inertia and “I can’t do this!” stuff. But those feelings — the confusion, the inertia, and the feeling that you can’t do this — are the hardest parts to overcome, because they never, ever go away. Not fully. And not ever. I’ve been writing for going on 18 years, and despite moving to a completely new format (fiction, specifically science fiction) that is SO MUCH HARDER to get right than my previous writing, the common threads throughout all 18 of these years are the feelings. They’re what sabotage you in the beginning. And once you get past them, they’re what drive you to finish this work you thought you couldn’t do.

And the hardest thing in the world to do — at least for me — is to make that connection with a person’s feelings. Finding that painful, or happy, or peaceful, or otherwise deep core emotional experience and connecting to it with words on a page… It’s a challenge, to say the very least. It’s hard to do even if you discount how it makes you feel while doing it. You have to craft the words in such a way that they don’t sound like “HEY, so guess what, I’m about to talk about really ugly stuff, you ready? I hope you are, here goes.”

You just have to get in there and root around and make it work. That’s what happened last night. I began working through it, wrote it out, connected to it deeply, and then just let it go.

Hemmingway said it best: “Write hard and clear about what hurts.”

If it were easy, we’d all write like Hemmingway. But Hemmingway is Hemmingway because he did the work it took to get deep in there, find the emotion he wanted to connect to, dissected it, translated it, and then had either the bravery or the stupidity to put it on the page.

Poor Toby… he knows powerful writing when he sees it. Or when his Aunt May dies.

I’m no Hemmingway, that much is for sure. But I feel very good about the work I did last night. It hurt. I cried. But today, I feel as good about it as I have any other piece of writing I’m proud of. Will it connect with you? I have no idea. I do know that a number of people have written me the past year to let me know portions of Marlowe Kana have rang true with them — the connection between Marlowe and her sister Jen, the anger and pain Marlowe felt with her ex, the rage of being blamed for something she did not do, the confusion of the people around her as they watched her go through all of this… These are all things that are unique to all of us, in their own ways, in our own lives. Surely, they’re not universal. But for those who have experienced that stuff, these portions of the story connect with those emotions deep inside them.

Forget sales figures or web traffic. Did I connect with people? Did they get something from the writing that had nothing to do with the plot, and everything to do with how they feel about the character? Did the story connect with them? That’s the stuff I call a win.

As for how I achieve that… That can only be dissected after it’s done, because I cannot tell you how I get there while I’m getting there. I can only tell you how I got there after I’ve arrived. And that stuff’s coming.

For now, the takeaway: if you write something that makes you laugh out loud when you read it back, or tear up, or cringe (not because of the quality of the writing, but because what’s going on in the story genuinely makes you feel like cringing), or shiver in fear… You’ve done something there. That’s the stuff you want to hold on to.

(With one exception: Unless you’re writing recipes on the internet. Then that stuff is annoying. I don’t care about your childhood summers at your aunt’s island villa and the way the sun danced on the golden waves of pudding she made, just tell me how to make the damn dessert, please!)

Biographical long-form essays on making pudding make me cry for entirely different reasons.


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  1. When you’ve reached that moment where characters take on a life of there own, when you can relate to their pain and feel terrible when you’ve put them through even more pain…that’s when you know you’re on the right track.

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