Mark Terry

Monday, November 20, 2006

Fear & Arrogance

November 20, 2006
If you remember the movie "Bull Durham," at one point Kevin Costner's character, Crash Davis, tells Tim Robbins' character, Nuke LaLoushe, that "you have to play this game with fear and arrogance."

To which Nuke says, "Fear and ignorance. Got it."

Well, when it comes to the fiction biz, maybe they're both right.

I've often thought it takes a serious kind of arrogance (bordering on megalomania) to think that our daydreams not only would be of interest to other people, but of such interest that they would pay money for the privilege of sharing them. I know I'm supposed to say that there's a fine line between confidence and arrogance, but I actually suspect in this case that there's a wide gray borderland here littered with the corpses of unfinished and unpublished novel manuscripts, lying alongside abandoned dreams and failed writing careers--this is where the artist resides most of the time, and has to for their own protection. If there's anything that can kill a creative project better than fear, I don't know what it is.

I've started working on the 4th Derek Stillwater novel, THE VALLEY OF SHADOWS. I'm not very far into it, maybe 20 pages, and I'm pleased with what I've written so far ... and afraid that I'm kidding myself, that it's not good, that...

I had a great conversation with Kathleen Sharp, the editor of the ITW Report, a newsletter put out by International Thriller Writers, Inc. Kathleen is the author of several nonfiction books, and on that particular day I was suffering what could reasonably be called a crisis of confidence over the nonfiction book-length project I was trying to finish (a confidence meltdown might have been a better description). We got to talking about all the times we've heard novelists talk about how difficult writing a novel is, and I had to argue that compared to nonfiction, writing a novel is a total breeze.

I still think so. But...

The thing that makes novel writing so difficult is it's absolutely impossible to know if you're doing it right (or well). It's almost impossible to be objective about your own work, especially when you're in the middle of it. You may spend weeks or months or years working on something that you think is wonderful only for it to be a piece of crap. Or you may struggle with something you think is a piece of crap, but when you finish it and read it, find that it's just as good as anything else you've written. I know this feeling all too well. Both of them, actually, but luckily I find now that I might think something's not working, but in reality it does. I think this shift comes after writing a million words or so and when your technical expertise is actually in existence, the craft in other words; the problems come not from craft, but from the story itself.

That's fear.

Most novelists I've talked to who are regularly published also have this fear: I'm not going to be able to do it again, I won't get published and I'm going to have to go get some "real" job that I hate.

When really stressed, I have dreams (nightmares) that the writing didn't work out and I had to go back to work at the hospital.

PJ Parrish commented that when she's stressed, she has nightmares about the writing not working out and having to go back to working at Big Boy.

I believe it. I bet Joe Konrath has the occasional nightmare about going back to working as a waiter at the Macaroni Grill and Jeff Abbott has nightmares about going back to work where he worked before the writing worked out--was it an ad agency?

It's a dream job, but it's not all roses. I'm not whining. I'm just pointing out that Crash Davis (or the scriptwriter, whose name eludes me at the moment) was probably right: we play this game with fear and arrogance.

Best,
Mark Terry

25 Comments:

Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I think I mostly write in fear myself. Remember that Mary convinced me we should co-write stories and novels and I've never had any success with fiction myself, though I sold a lot of non-fiction. I had pretty much decided I didn't have much of a knack for fiction (or rather editors had!) and nothing's changed to convince me otherwise but, as half of a witing team I can manage. I am, however, in the habit of writing and probably always will be. I got hooked when I was a kid, and was too ignorant (and arrogant in the way kids are) to wonder whether other people should be interested in my stuff. Long after I've wised up the habit has remained. I can't help myself writing but I wonder if I'm not boring people.

Although the legal writing I do is not fascinating in itself, doing it on a freelance basis is palatable. When I had to do it in a corporate office it was a nightmare and I do indeed have dreams that I'm back at the office. They're not nice dreams either.

9:26 AM  
Blogger Ron Estrada said...

That's a pretty basic life lesson, Mark. In fact, it's straight out of the bible. If we could only impress that on our kids. Fear will keep them from accomplishing anything. In fact, I'd dare say that most people who consider themselves failures are there only because they were afraid to stick their necks out. My wife gets annoyed because she doesn't get to read my work first. The truth is, I'm afraid to open up to someone I'm that close with. It goes through three edits before she sees it. And then I still listen for the sound of her laughing (when it's not supposed to be funny). Fear Not.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Ron,
That's probably a different thing, fear of change. When I was ready to go write full time, I was ready. Leanne commented to my sister once that I should have done it 5 years earlier. Yeah, maybe, but the truth is, I wasn't ready from a psychological perspective or financial--I just didn't have the clients at the time.

On the other hand, I interviewed for several jobs at places closer to home and turned them down out of fear and complacency, and that was probably a mistake. The change might have been good for me.

Moot point now, I'm pretty much doing what I dreamed of doing, but yes, fear keeps a lot of us away from doing what we'd be happier doing.

10:00 AM  
Anonymous spyscribbler said...

About what you said with non-fiction vs. fiction. Dear goodness, you are so right. I have a non-fiction project that is TOTALLY kicking my butt. I thought, naively, that writing is writing. I can write a thousand fiction words in an hour easily. This morning, it took me two hours to squeeze out one hundred non-fiction words.

*whimper* And I LOVE this project! I've never wanted a project so much! I so don't want to screw it up!

About the fear: somewhere along the line, I found a way to turn that fear into something that motivates me. I don't know how or why, or how it could be healthy, but somehow it works well for me. I guess I've convinced myself that the only way to 'save' myself from what I fear is to write faster and better, so I keep pushing like my life depended on it.

It took me eight to ten novellas before I felt like when I sat down and started, I'd be able to finish it. Scary!

11:50 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

The thing about a book-length nonfiction project is just how much information there is in there and it needs to be checked and verified and sourced (or found, in some cases), and that's what was killing me. I was writing about the clinical laboratory industry, and there's nothing like scouring huge databases run by the Federal government to convince you that anarchy might be a viable option. I would spend hours trying to come up with data to fill a single table.

And I'm not sure that fear is a bad thing unless it paralyzes you. It can definitely be motivating.

At Magna cum Murder last year Harlan Coben was the guest of honor and he commented that he thought fear was often left out as a motivator when writers talked about what got them going. As he put it, he wasn't very well equipped to do anything else, and if he were working for a business with the same habits and absent-minded tendencies he brings to writing and touring, he'd be fired.

One of the things I like most about being a writer and things I hated most working for other people, is that in writing it's the end-result that is taken under consideration. Nobody gives a damn if I sleep in late (which I almost never do), take long lunches, go to the gym in the morning, take the afternoon off, or spend half the day checking on blogs as long as I get the work in on time and it's good. How I do it is none of the client's business as long as I get the product they want, and that includes novels.

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Mark, this is why we do the little word scramble thing. Although, the herbal stress relief worked quite well for me. Well, until my parents found the baggie under my bed. Been stressed ever since.

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