The world is in what feels like a constant state of revolution right now. Historically, revolution brings evolution, or at least that is the hope. But in order for that to happen, we have to get real, open our minds, be willing to admit where we've gone wrong, and embrace change, challenge, and honesty.
We need to evolve to survive.
Guess what? I'm not just talking about life. I'm talking about your writing.
Are you writing as your true, authentic self? Or are you afraid to get real?
No one wants to read something that doesn't feel real. Think about the books or movies you've experienced that stir deep emotions within you and leave you talking about them for months, or years. Those writers chose to fill the pages with raw, emotional honesty.
Now consider the stories that left you yawning. My gut is those writers held back, or maybe wrote something you've seen a million times before, with no originality or authenticity. Writing stories like that may feel "safe," but they aren't going to get you an agent or manager.
Say something that makes me feel.
I can't help but think about the lyrics to Christina Aguilera's song "Say Something."
When you hold your emotions back in your writing, you hold your story back. You lose fans. You lose potential champions in the industry. When you don't say something that provokes emotions, whether shocking, joyful, funny or heart-wrenching, I'm giving up on you.
We are writers. Timidness has no place in a writer's room. Imagine brainstorming story ideas while biting your lips. It's simply not possible. Whether you're in a writer's room or in your own writing space, toss ideas out and see where they lead. Even ideas that feel "stupid" can lead to something genius, once said out loud.
Let's look at this from another angle...
What is the benefit for a writer to overprotect their stories?
Safety. That's really it. If you protect your story, you have some sense of control over your safety and the safety of your characters. You're safe from "cancel culture," you're safe from picking at your own emotional wounds, and you're safe from stirring any feeling of discomfort in your readers.
According to Wikipedia, "Safety is the state of being "safe" (from French sauf), the condition of being protected from harm or other non-desirable outcomes. Safety can also refer to the control of recognized hazards in order to achieve an acceptable level of risk."
As I often say, "How's that working for you?"
Is stifling your writing voice getting your scripts attention? Is protecting your protagonist making your story better? Is keeping your conflicts less controversial and daring helping you to execute your story in a unique way?
Yeah, I didn't think so.
What if ... you dared to lead a revolution?
I'm not talking about marching in the streets, though you certainly could. I'm talking about a writing revolution within your own mind and stories.
I've witnessed many people do things during this pandemic and time of social unrest that I never imagined they would do. Some people have gone flat-out crazy, but others have found power in their voice, stepping out of their safety net for the first time in their lives. Capture that essence and transfer it to your writing.
What if ... you made your character do something that scares the hell out of them? Challenge them to revolt against their own life—confront their bully, or look in the mirror to face their inner wounds, or quit the job that makes them feel dead inside, or rob that bank because they are so desperate for money to pay the medical bills for their dying child. Those characters, I would follow. I wouldn't give up on a character who faced their fears, head on. I'd root for them.
But don't stop there. Keep pushing.
What if... you finally wrote that story that would emotionally rip you apart? Man, that is the story I want to read. The one that's inspired by the worst thing that ever happened to you that left you on the bathroom floor, broken. THAT STORY, is one only YOU can write!
I'm thinking that's the story a rep would jump at, too. So, why aren't you writing it?
Maybe this is why...
One of the most life-altering books I read as a writer was Stephen King's On Writing.
There you have it, fellow scribes. "Criticize." The magic word. The word we all fear. If we are raw, real, honest, and open, someone might not like us. We might offend someone. We might be seen as a real human being with real emotions, daring to explore those emotions with honesty.
It's time to grow up. We aren't in high school anymore. (Or maybe you are, which is amazing that you're in high school and writing! Keep doing it!) My point is, you can't worry about being "liked" and also be an artist. Our most important job is to move people with our words and stories. You can't do that if you won't write with honesty. It's simply not possible.
Bring life lessons to your writing.
Write what you know. That doesn't mean to write about going to the supermarket and buying milk, nor does it mean that you can only write about life experiences you have actually had. Wild guess here, but I'm pretty sure George Lucas has never met a Wookiee in real life. Or taken a ride on the Death Star. But I don't think it's a wild guess that he has experienced some of the emotions and fears of Luke Skywalker. He tapped into his own emotions to create Luke, and in doing so, created one of the most successful franchises ever.
Maybe an sci-fi film isn't the best example, so let's take Terms of Endearment, The Color Purple, Schindler's List, Sophie's Choice, or Moonlight. Those excruciating topics required bravery and honesty as a writer. It paid off. Can you imagine any of those films succeeding had the writer not pushed the viewer out of their comfort zone?
If you were Sophie, played by the great Meryl Streep, would you have had the courage to write your story down for the world? What if she left out that scene of "the choice" because it hurt too much to write?
I think you know the answer.
Just do it.
Maybe think of it as the difference between being an employee and being an entrepreneur. You can play it safe as an employee and let your boss take all the risks. But with those risks, an entrepreneur gets huge rewards. That's what happens when you start treating your writing like a business. What does that business need to do to succeed? Take risks! Do something no one else is doing. Find the niche they can thrive in. Give the public a product they want. In stories, the public wants to consume content that entertains them instead of bores them.
2020 has been a tough year for a lot of people. Truth has indeed been stranger than fiction, which will probably be this year's tag line. Try taking some control over your life by taking control of your writing. Put all of those emotions on the page, challenge your characters, and nurture your writing voice by being honest and writing the things that scare the crap out of you. Stop sugarcoating and playing it safe. Sugar makes donuts delicious, not stories.
We. Are. Writers. We are supposed to be daring, push boundaries, and bleed on the page! Every time we create, we should rip open our wounds and hand our readers the salt shaker. That may seem masochistic to some, but when I am in the zone, fingers dancing on the keyboard with the door shut and no care about being criticized, I know I have hit the sweet spot. Then, I go for my own jugular. I keep pushing myself off that cliff until I land in a pool of honesty. That push into reckless abandon hurts so much that it feels good. Because it's honest. It's me. Something only I could write. My own revolution into evolution.
If we are not exploring real emotions, what is the point? What are your stories trying to say? If you hold back, you're yielding to the status quo, adding nothing to the conversation. Nothing to the world of art. The world doesn't need another boring story. I know I don't.
If you still need help starting a writing revolution, watch this video I filmed a few years back. I share how I gave up fear. It works.