Letting Your Freak Flag Fly

First, congratulations to Naomi! Such terrific news!

Alex is away at RT this weekend (and I’ll bet having a blast) and asked me to post today, and what’s been on my mind lately regarding writing is how much (or how little) we push ourselves to push our own limits. Or the limits of the genre.

Many times when you hear or read advice to new writers, the old cliché write what you know is generally hanging in there, tenacious. It’s not bad advice—it’s just that it skims across the surface of the issue, creating tiny ripples atop the flat expanse of what’s possible instead of plunging in, fishing the deep.

Taking the risk.

Exposing ourselves, being vulnerable in front of the world.

Not necessarily because the characters think or do what we’d think or do, but because we’ve pushed some internal boundary we have, we’ve flown in the face of convention, or we’ve reached for some level of writing and maybe we didn’t quite make it (and we’re waiting for the world to agree). And sometimes, we have to push past our own comfort level to grow and that’s difficult, I think, because we’re flying our freak flag and people are going to see. It requires a lot of bravery, this thing we do.

Maybe the better advice is to mine what you’re afraid of; write not only what you know, but what you fear.

There is an attraction to sticking with what we know, feeling comfortable in the world we create, feeling comfortable with whatever level of ability we have, because if we’ve done it well at all at least once, maybe we can stay there and not embarrass ourselves. The problem, of course, is that staying in one place digs a rut, and we’re not surprising ourselves anymore, and in all likelihood, we’re not surprising the reader.

I was thinking about that recently as I wrapped up the first draft of the second book in the series, and I wondered just what in the hell I’d gotten myself into. I write capers. Comedy. Have you ever had one of those weeks where everything just goes all to hell and back, absolutely nothing works, Karma is not only putting out the banana peel, but greasing the floor for extra measure? And when you’re flat on your back, you hit a point of incredulity where it’s just damned funny, this absurd thing we call life. Yeah, that’s the kind of comedy I write. (We are so not going to get into comparisons between my life and my character’s. Thank you.) But to write that kind of comedy, I have to push the characters emotionally into hard places, bad moments, and the comedy has to be organic. There has to be real fear or heartache or worse underneath the comic actions, beneath the laughter, or it would all just be slapstick. Surface. And ultimately, common.

The problem with this is carrying it forward in book 2—pushing that suffering. Making the choices the characters have to make more heartbreaking, and still finding the absurd, keeping the reader laughing. I found myself hedging on a particular emotional point because it was not only difficult, it’s stretching the boundary of that particular genre. It’s saying, “yeah, caper books can be funny, but sometimes, they can also make you ache.” If I pull it off. I’m not convinced on this draft I have, yet. Part of me wanted to pull back a little, make it a little easier on myself, because seriously, I have set myself up for a fall with this one if I can’t make it work. I know it. I feel it. I see where I’m heading into book 3 and I know I could have made my life a lot more sane with a simpler emotional choice. I could cheat that choice and have something happen to one of the characters to where the choice becomes slightly simpler. It would still resonate, it would make sense, it would still have a gut-punch. And since I write caper, it wouldn’t pull the story too far off-track, tonally.

But it would be the coward’s way out.

Damnit.

So I’m trying to push there, find the way to make that choice heart-rending because, I hope, by that point, you really care about that character and the choice she’s facing and you realize, she’s never ever ever had this sort of moment in her life and she does not have a clue how to make this choice. Or how to live with it, once done. And there are ramifications for that. Meanwhile, I’ve got to watch it, tonally, and make it work within the genre. Or throw over the conventions a bit and say screw it, this is the story and I’m sticking to it. Somehow, figure out the balance, while still flying the freak flag.

What are you afraid of?

What have you read lately which feels like it pushes the genre? Reaches for something and accomplishes it? Takes a risk and makes it work?

5 thoughts on “Letting Your Freak Flag Fly

  1. Louise Ure

    I think Jess Walter’s THE ZERO did much of what you describe. It was a parody, a satire, a mystery, gut-thumpingly sad in places, and yet also held comedic moments I’ll never forget.

    You’ve asked yourself to do a high wire act, Toni. Comedy is tough for me at all, let alone comedy with pathos.

    Reply
  2. toni mcgee causey

    Louise, yeah, that’s it exactly. I don’t know why I had to go this route. Just that I wanted to write ‘funny’ but knew I wouldn’t be satisfied without digging in deeper and exposing the sadness, too. Book 1 is much more about the lighter side, though. I’m not completely insane. (Close, though.)

    Reply
  3. Mike MacLean

    “…write not only what you know, but what you fear.”

    Great advice. If I wrote only what I knew, it would get pretty boring, for me and the reader.

    In terms of style, I think Murderati’s own Ken Bruen’s work pushes the genre. Not a plug, just the facts.

    Reply
  4. pari

    I’m with Mike on this. Ken does push . . . and hard.

    Here’s something I put on my handout for the workshop today: “Don’t write what you, because what you know is boring. Write what you don’t know.” — Ken Kesey. The longer I’m in this biz, the more sound I think that advice truly iz.

    Reply
  5. billie

    Toni, I enjoyed this post and wish I had been here to respond – hauled daughter and pony to a cross-country eventing clinic and was too exhausted to think by the time we got home.

    I’m looking forward to more of your posts here!

    Reply

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