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Devourer of Words 030: Jumping off the Cliff

Marc Bernardin

There will come a time—if you’re lucky, it’ll happen more than once—when you encounter a story that you’re not sure you can write. A story that makes you afraid for any number of reasons. Assuming that the story is a good one—or at least the kernel of a good one—what should you do with it?

First, look at what exactly you’re afraid of.

Reader Response

This is fair. You are working in mass media, which means that it will be seen by, hopefully, the masses. And if you have an audience that comes to your work regularly, they will have formed certain assumptions about what they can reasonably expect. But here’s the thing: No one is going to like everything. But every story has the capacity to be someone’s favorite—and the things people fall in love with are, sometimes, the scary ones.

Critical Reaction

If you are ever worried about what critics, reviewers or the blogosphere will think of your work, it’s time to reevaluate your chosen career path. Yes, they do qualify as readers and you’d think they’d fall into the section above, but not really. I work with critics and have been a critic and will defend their worth as a crucial cog in the pop culture machine—but the things they look for in a piece of work are not goals for you to achieve. They are trying to dissect, while an audience is looking to absorb.

Political Correctness

Much has been said, of late, about writers taking on characters and worlds out of what might be considered by the close-minded their “comfort zone.” Should writers of one race be writing characters of another, set in a world they’ve never lived in, living lives they’ve only seen in screen or on the page? This is a question that no one can answer for anyone else, but I will just say this: If you believe in your characters and believe in your story and are aware of the pressures you’re under to get it right, no one has the right to censor the stories you want to tell. (Of course, a publisher has the right not to publish it, but that’s a whole other thing.)

You’re Not Ready

And here’s the big one. Of the four reasons, this is the only one that should give you pause. Because it’s entirely possible that you’re not. Clint Eastwood famously bought the script for Unforgiven and then put it in a drawer for 10 years because he wasn’t ready to make that movie. Sometimes you need to grow into an idea—you need more life under your belt, your brain needs time to ferment the story, you need to learn how to write better.

I’ve got a story that I’ve been sitting on for years because I knew, when I came up with it, that I wasn’t the writer I needed to be to execute it the way I felt it needed to be executed. I couldn’t deliver it in its best form. So I put it in a drawer, Eastwood-style. Just recently, I decided to dust it off and get back under the hood. Am I ready now? I think so. I hope so. I’ll find out soon enough. But at some point, as the old saying goes, you have to crap or get off the pot.

Being afraid isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The story that scares you is the story that has the capacity to move people.

“When it feels scary to jump, that’s exactly when you jump. Otherwise, you end up staying in the same place your whole life.”—A Most Violent Year

Marc Bernardin’s Devourer of Words appears the third Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!