Friday, December 19, 2014

Graspable Challenges

Today's reader question is: "Do you think novice writers should attempt 'bigger' complex novels in the early years of their writing to grow their experiences, or try pursuing simpler, more straightforward projects that have more potential for success?"

Great question! And one requiring a fairly complex answer.

Let me put forth the disclaimer right now that I don't pretend to be a guru of all writing knowledge. So please don't take this post featuring my opinions as me trying to preach gospel truth. These are simply my opinions based on my experiences, and while I do believe there is value and truth to be had from my words, I also believe this is a big issue that deserves to be researched and considered from many angles.

So, that being said . . . let me move on to stating my opinions and experiences!

For starters, I think my title for this post is a pretty good description of my opinion: Graspable Challenges. Writers need to challenge themselves. Every book a writer tackles--be they new writers or experienced--needs to be a challenge. You cannot expect to grow in your abilities if you never step outside your comfort zone.

That being said, there is little point in tackling a challenge that is truly beyond your reach.

Personal experience: When I was in high school, I began developing the idea for what eventually became the book Dragonwitch. However, when I was in high school I was sheltered, immature, inexperienced, naive. I had never suffered heartbreak. I had never suffered a major disappoint or the destruction of a dream. I had little to no personal experience with people who had suffered heartbreak, disappointment, or the destruction of a dream. I was well-read and well-grounded in all the theory of human sin and human foibles. But my own experiences were so limited, so small, that I could not write a story like Dragonwitch with any authenticity. With any heart.

When I tried to write it, the character of the Dragonwitch herself was evil. Nothing but pure evil. She was two-dimensional. She was scary but really not all that scary because she was generic. She was based on theoretical ideas. She was not based on experience.

But fast-forward approximately ten years . . . and by then I had experienced heartbreak. I had experienced devastation. I had experienced the destruction of dreams, betrayal, disillusionment. I had experienced true anger at God, the pain of feeling abandoned. I had experienced grace, renewal, revival. I had learned about brokenness that doesn't fully heal but that can be made into something new and powerful. In ten years, my range of experiences was so drastically changed. And not just personal experiences! I had also spent time getting to know and love people with much deeper scars, who had suffered deeper hurt. I had learned what makes them tick, what drives, influences, and motivates them.

I learned about the commonality of sin--not in theory but in truth.Yes, I had been raised with the knowledge that "all of have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." I understood it intellectually. But I had to experience it personally before it could become a truth I could write with authenticity.

All that to say, I could not have written Dragonwitch without first gaining life experience. I could not have written any one of my published novels, for that matter!

But what does that mean as far as finding graspable challenges?

Readers of my work will often note the differences between a book like Dragonwitch and my debut novel, Heartless. By comparison, Heartless is a very simple story. It was also a story which, at the age of 21,  I had the experience and ability to actually write, as opposed to Dragonwitch . . . even though I had been wanting to write Dragonwitch for many years, while Heartless was a brand new idea.

Heartless has its own level of authenticity and complexity, but it was a graspable challenge for me at the time. I had written novels before but never anything professional. Heartless taught me how to write professionally. I cut my teeth on that manuscript. It was challenging enough to force me to grow--and full of enough personal experience to ring with authenticity--but it wasn't too complex.

And after I wrote Heartless, I moved on to something more difficult in Veiled Rose. Then I took a few more steps up with Moonblood. Each book I have written has been bigger, harder, more complex; but each book, from Heartless on, begins with a foundation of authenticity.

This is what I think should be the goal of aspiring young novelists--authenticity. Write what you can write with truth. If your experiences are limited, that's all right! You can still write authentically based on the experiences you have. When I was in high school, my most successful writing projects were not the epic fantasies that eventually turned into Goldstone Wood . . . they were the simpler stories (none of them publishable!) dealing with things that I could write with truth: like insecurity, self-doubt, jealousy, family issues, future aspirations.

Now does this mean I am advocating the "write what you know" maxim? Not really. I mean, yes, I do think writers should write what they know, but that doesn't mean you can only write about characters who live in circumstances exactly like yours. Tackle exciting new settings and genres! But make them real. Write real people who live in space, or on the Western frontier, or who sail the seven seas, or who battle dragons. You'll be surprised how much more vivid and real and alive your stories will be if you people them with characters you can write truthfully. Even if that means, temporarily at least, that your stories are "simpler" than you originally intended.

So what are your thoughts on this topic? Anything you'd like to add? Have you ever tackled a story that was too far beyond your abilities?


Hannah said...

How true, how true! Time and experience adds so much richness to the conviction of a tale. I always try to place myself in my character's shoes, but I can feel it becoming more authentic as I grow older. My current project is in grasp I think, but I'm still strengthening my grip. As for other novels on my heart...yes, some of those definitely have to wait!

Arielle Melody Bailey said...

Thank you, Anne Elisabeth for this brilliant post.

I had already learned some of this through personal experience, but it's always good to be reminded of it and assured that yes, I will eventually mature enough to be able to properly write the larger, more complex book series for which I have ideas and plans. Your description of 'graspable challenges' is encouraging and something I will definitely remember.

Kessie said...

All very good points! I ran into the same problems. As a teen, I wanted to write a romance. But I'd never even had a boyfriend. Like you said, it was all theoretical. So I wrote everything BUT romance. Then once I'd gotten married, I was able to write about the heartache and realities of day to day love.

Really complex stories--those are a go. Multiple plotlines, lots of characters--anything's a go for the newbie writer. Just finishing is the hardest part!

Emily said...

Authenticity has never really been a problem for me. Part of that could be that I tend to observe people...a lot. Another thing that makes it a little easier for me, is that my characters/plots are all based off of the people I know well and situations that they have actually been in. Truth is, after all, sometimes farr stranger than fiction. :)

Unknown said...

Thank you for this post, Anne Elisabeth! I think that it will be extremely helpful, especially as I get back to writing!

And I have a somewhat random question that isn't tied to this post in any way, shape, or form... Are you ever going to post anything to the "Chronicles of the Evil One"?

Tracey Dyck said...

In the novel that I've been working on throughout my teen years, I've noticed that certain elements have deepened as I've matured.
And I love your take on the 'write what you know' advice! :)

Anne Elisabeth Stengl said...

@Natasha: I think you might have found the TEST version of that blog . . . which I thought I deleted long ago! There is a real version to be found here:

Minerva used to keep that blog fairly regularly . . . but she has run out of time in her busy schedule as household Feline Dictator, so she hasn't updated in a while. (I'm sure she'll blame her lack of posts on me.) Hope you'll enjoy reading her former antics!

Unknown said...

Haha, OK, thanks, Anne Elisabeth! I'll go check it out! :-)

Unknown said...

Thank you for the encouragement! I've had several story ideas that I loved, but later realized that I couldn't write them the way I wanted because of my lack of life experience. It's hard to let them go and wait until I can do them justice but meanwhile I'll keep writing 'graspable challenges'. :) Thank you again for your helpful thoughts!

Soulfiremage said...

Thank you for writing this; I'm trying to build my own little world and get a first proper book together. One or two characters are easier to see and write about than the others.

Now I see it's because I don't have enough of the experiences that both male leads are supposed to have had. As for the living star ships themselves, I've dreamt about someone like them for years and years.