A while ago on Litreactor I came across the advice ‘Find a place you’re scared of going and go there.’ I’ve spent years exploring exactly what this can mean, and I don’t have all the answers. But here are a handful of possibilities.
When I read James Clavell’s ‘King Rat,’ I found myself wondering why a man who endured the horrors of being a Shanghi prisoner of war during World War Two would want to effectively re-live it by writing about it, albeit with fictional characters. Why did he write that book? I fancy that one of the answers is that he had to go back to that place to confront it, and doing it through fiction was a good option.
Some authors like JC use real places and situations they were scared of like that. Others create complete fiction from things that have never happened to them, but they’re scary anyway. Stephen King’s Pet Semetary was born in his head after he sprinted to catch his son who was about to run in front of a truck. He caught him. The story started with him asking ‘What if I hadn’t?’ He put it away in his desk, and only published it when after his wife Tabitha told him he should.
I got my Pet Semetary moment with Ghost of the Navigator. I remember warning a family member that there’s a scene in it later that made me think ‘Do I really ever want this shit out there where people can read it?’ When I read that scene now, I wonder why I felt the need to warn anyone about it. I wonder why I got the shakes from writing it. Publishing something like that has this fantastic ring of ‘I’m not afraid of this anymore.’
I sometimes compare publishing stuff like that to something that happened about a month after I published Shadow’s Talent. I was happily drunk on whisky, got up to go pee, and there on the landing between me and the bathroom was a massive spider. I got that lurch all through my chest that big spiders have always given me. Yeah, I know England doesn’t have any poisonous ones. That’s just one of the many reasons I stood there after my initial jump and thought about how ridiculous the fear was.
I was a ranger, for Chrissake. I work outdoors where there are spiders everywhere, and my job involves a whole arsenal of dangerous equipment that could do me damage far more quickly and easily than a spider if I made a serious mistake with it. And I was off my face. So if I couldn’t pick up this little beastie now, I probably wouldn’t ever manage it. So I did. I stood there and held it in my hands, stared at it for a moment as my head swam, and then dropped it out of the bathroom window. I actually went back to my desk and looked at my book stats forgetting I needed to take a piss at all. It was a wonderful moment, and it wasn’t just the liquid confidence that made it. I was chasing a new thrill. Just like every time I dare myself on the page. The price I pay is that moment where I finally have that finished book and I think ‘This has gotta go out there and hell with what anyone might think.’ Then once I do it, I wonder what I worried about.
A bit like when I came out to my family and friends that I’m bisexual leaning towards gay. This isn’t recent news, I did it years ago, and I’ve often mentioned it on posts here before because it’s coloured my writing in many effective ways, and half the reason I finally told everyone was that I was hellbent on publishing my writing, and I knew that as soon as I did so, they’d all guess if they read it.
Walter in Shadow’s Talent is driven by one maddening thing I can’t escape from myself: I almost always fancy guys who are straight. Creating that character out of something that came from me was one of my exercises in facing something I’d been scared to tell people for years. All the straight guys I fancied? I never told them how I felt. I never even told any of them I was that way inclined.
Developing the dynamic I got between Walter and Shadow, a straight character who never returned the same feelings, turned it into something that transcended my own experience and started creating what I knew was good fiction. Walter’s desire for Shadow against all the odds created whole sections of plot and sub-plots that have since become huge. It’s a slight sidetrack, but this is also why I love discovery writing. Planning would never have gotten me this. And it all stemmed from a small exercise in saying ‘I’m not scared of this anymore.’ Or at least, I wasn’t scared of it on the page as fiction. It’s no wonder that people chasing what their hearts desire most and facing their fears to do it is possibly my most commonly recurring idea in fiction.
I’ve gone to town on this kind of thing in Welcome to Sentago, the novel I currently have on the go alongside Deception Crossing (Talent Show Book 3), but details about that book need their own post later (link soon to follow once I’ve done it). Let’s not get sidetracked. We’re on fear. Let’s stay on it.
Nothing terrible has ever happened to me. Sometimes I fancy that I’ve kind of got survivor’s guilt without having survived anything, just because I’ve been pretty damn lucky in life. But let’s go to a time when I wasn’t so lucky.
I did myself a pretty wicked knee injury a couple of years ago doing tree work – the kind that resulted in trouble walking properly for a good eight weeks. I still feel lucky that nowadays I don’t feel any pain there. I waited three days after it happened before admitting I needed to go to the doctor. When I started with ‘I was cutting up a tree with a chainsaw…’ the look on her face said ‘Why the fuck did you not go straight to A&E?’ although to her credit she didn’t say it, or even tell me off at all. I quickly added that it wasn’t the saw that got me – it was part of the tree that swung the wrong way. So don’t worry, I wasn’t going to take my jeans off and show her bloodsoaked bandages and a septic mess around what remained of my kneecap. But I’d been imagining it that way since it happened. A good old morbid ‘What if it had been worse?’ from the mind of a writer.
The day it happened I spent a good two hours lying on my bed trying to pretend I wasn’t in pain and imagining how much worse it could have been, how stupid I was for standing on the wrong side of the tree when I took the saw to it, and all through thinking that, one thought kept coming back to me: why couldn’t this have happened before I Shadow’s Talent? Now I knew what a massive adrenaline dump really felt like, when I was lying on the ground and thinking my leg was broken. Surely not quite as massive as the one Shadow gets during the climatic ‘accident’ scene, but I’d had a taste at last! I knew it was true that the first thing you do after something like that happens is to try and convince yourself you’re okay, when you clearly aren’t.
I workshopped an early draft of that scene on Litreactor, and one fellow author gave me some pointers on what being in an accident like Shadow’s actually felt like, because he’d been there. I felt like I was writing about fear and near death by proxy, and it made me a little uncertain I’d really got it right. That’s half the fun of being a writer: when you haven’t really been there, you have to work it out as best you can. Writing that scene was scary even though I hadn’t been there, and my brush with that tree trunk smashing me off my feet was several months away. What made me feel like I’d gotten that scene right? When the writing finally made me feel like I knew what Shadow was going through even though I had no real life experience to match it.
That kind of moment is pretty awesome when you get it. It’s why writers sometimes go to some pretty unpleasant places. Especially if they’re feeling a little irrational guilt about their comfortable, disaster-free life.
Bottom line in all this: use your fear. Make it more than just you as a writer having a gross-out contest with yourself, or doing that teenage thing of trying to impress your friends with how badass your writing can be. Take it to the next level and make it serve your story, plugging it in to these people who aren’t real and seeing what it does to them. Use it to make your writing feel honest and authentic to you. Your readers will know honesty when they read it. Especially if they’re in tune with scary places of their own.