By JT Ellison
I interview writers. I do it here on the Tao, I do it on television. I’m not a professional by any means, I’m just a writer who’s curious about other writer’s process and mindsets.
One of my favorite questions: Are you creatively satisfied?
People interpret the question in different ways, and the answers vary widely.
My own answer has been very elusive for the past few years. I love the work I do. I love my characters. I love being with them, spending time in their heads.
And yet… There’s been something hanging over me. Something holding me back.
I’ve never truly been able to put a finger on it. And I’ve thought about it a lot lately.
For the longest time, I chalked it up to good old-fashioned envy—seeing other authors write stories that look effortless, look like fun. I’ve read outside my genre almost exclusively for the past few years. Fantasy worlds, books that are truly creative and have no basis in actual reality, but are worlds unto themselves, with rules inherent to the culture. Dystopian stories of reluctant heroes. Young adult coming-of-age tales (I especially like ones set in boarding schools. The kids always seem inches away from morphing into Lord of the Flies.)
Crime fiction isn’t what people would call fun. It’s dark and brooding, tears apart the soul in many ways. To examine how and why people do terrible things to one another isn’t a recipe for unicorns and rainbows. After I stopped the Taylor series, and moved away from the darkness, I felt better, but, ironically, that’s when this lingering dissatisfaction started.
The Sam series has been incredibly hard for me. I always thought I was much more like Taylor than I am Sam, because Sam’s books were so much harder to write. Turns out, I poured a lot of my heart into Sam, and it was very cathartic for me. I finally did find a stride, and Sam is a woman I am proud to write about, a woman I think readers can truly identify with.
But I’m a writer with a LOT of ideas. And I have still had that sense of wanting to try something new and different. NO ONE KNOWS was a product of this desire. I love that book. It took forever to write, and I just kept plugging away at it for years, and it finally saw the light of day. I’m proud of it, and I’ve been proud of myself for committing to it and letting it out in the world.
So when I had the option to write another standalone, I jumped at it. I’d been playing with an idea last summer, then had to put it on hold to write Sam and a new Nick and Mike book. Once I finished, I came back to it and sold TEAR ME APART in June. It had about 30,000 words, most of which needed major reworking. I’ve been writing like mad all summer to get it finished.
And it is dark. Probably as dark as anything I’ve ever written. But it’s not dark in a macabre or bloody way. It’s about betrayal. Which is really the darkest crime of all, don’t you think?
Since I was in sort of a hurry to get it done by the end of summer, while I was writing it, I started to take chances. Strange voices came out of the woodwork of my mind. I began utilizing POVs I’ve never tried before in long-form fiction, new settings, new topics. Even so, I saw the wall looming. The wall I approach time and time again, fearing that at the last second, I might flinch, and turn away, instead of crashing into and through it.
Now, I don’t flinch in my work. I go for it, always. Some of the themes and storylines in my Taylor books and Sam books are truly intense. But sometimes I feel like I could do better with the story, better with the resolutions, better with the characters. What I realized is I’ve been approaching all of this intellectually rather than… I don’t even know what the right word is. Spiritually? Organically? Some combination of them both?
When I realized I was holding myself back on this new book, and the wall loomed bigger and thicker than ever before, I made myself a note in my To Do list, and kept it front and center, for the last month of writing. It said:
Be willing to take one more step with TMA.
It’s simple advice. Logical advice. And powerful in ways you can’t imagine.
I discarded everything I knew about writing. All the rules I normally follow, all the little sequences I normally use. I discarded advice from trusted sources. I reshaped the concept, moving away from the proposal. I just went for it. And the result is a book that’s totally and completely different than anything I’ve ever done. New style, new format, new language and pace, everything. It feels very avant garde for me. Very fresh and exciting.
I know nothing’s truly original, and everything’s been done before, blah, blah, blah. Voice is going to make a story your own, yes. But genres have conventions. They have formulas. The stories that seem to be rewarded aren’t necessarily deviating from those tropes, only finding new ways to approach the path. Writers spend a lot of time writing to the market, to the idea of success. It’s a natural thing. Someone writes a kick-ass vampire story, and suddenly, the market is glutted with vampires. Someone writes a kick-ass domestic suspense, and the market becomes a feeding frenzy of people trying to glom on.
I’ve fallen into this thinking, though happily I feel like the stories I’ve told up to now haven’t fallen into convention entirely.
But this one… it feels different to me. I took an extra step. It wasn’t immediately after I typed The End, but when I finished, really finished, I experienced something I haven’t in a very long time.
I realized I was creatively satisfied.
So no matter how it does, how readers feel about it, how sales go… I have that feeling in my gut, the expansiveness and satisfaction of knowing I created something unique unto me. And that’s refilled my well in ways nothing has for years.
And I want the well to stay full. So I’m going to try and do it again. I have another book due in mid-April. I’ve decided it will be another standalone. Sam and Taylor will stay on vacation for the time being, while I run with this new creative flow that I’ve found. Don’t worry, I swear on all that’s holy they will be back. But I’ve started another standalone crime fiction story, and I hope it will bring me the kind of joy TEAR ME APART has.
Thank you for standing by me, and indulging me. Your support makes this possible. I truly, truly appreciate you!
P.S. for my writer friends: I strongly suggest trying this. Do something totally alien to your style, and see what happens!
Via: JT Ellison