Timidity

"A writer of fiction," Edwin A. Peeples says in A Professional Storywriters Handbook (1960), is someone who "hurls himself against all odds ... seizing today's exultation or catastrophe and the experience of history, we attempt to forge them into a tale that excites, amuses, instructs, and moves. The work is no career for the timid."

Growing up, I'd always considered myself a brave fellow.

I used to go skiing with a couple of lunatics (whom my father called "bad companions") and we'd shush through a woods, sometimes on trails covered with ice, sometimes at night when you couldn't see the next turn, the next dip in the trail, the next bare spot that could send you flying ass over teakettle. And often did.

In the summer I'd water-ski, standing on somebody's shoulders, right off the lake and up onto the grass in the front yard of our summer home. I'd try anything. Play sandlot tackle football without pads or helmets. Get in fights with my sister, who was a regular Tarzan.

After high school I worked on submarines under construction. You could get burned up, you could get stuff dropped on your head, you could suffocate in a holding tank. I never gave it a thought. What the hell.

When I joined a creative writing workshop for the first time, I was already married and had two kids. By then I was working as an insurance claims adjuster, getting screamed at all day, threatened, occasionally attacked by an irate claimant. But, hey, I had a tough hide, didn't bother me a bit.

But when I'd have to read a five-page short story in my creative-writing workshop, my throat would close up, my mouth would go dry, and I'd tremble all over. Then, while my story was being discussed by the other members of my workshop, I'd feel my stomach tighten up, sweat rolling down my back, my skin turning cold, and little speckles would dance on the insides of my eyelids. Our leader did not, let us say, pull his punches, and each one knocked me a little silly.

I'll give you a small example, a written critique I received once from a workshop instructor:

Dear Mr. Frey:

While I find that this piece of work resembles fiction in that it is constructed of words formed into sentences and is imaginative rather than factual, the only other thing it has in common with a story, as far as I can see, is that it has a beginning and an end. There the resemblance stops. What I want to know first is what's the point of this? So Henry's mother-in-law comes back from the dead and takes up where she left off in her campaign to straighten him up. What impact does it have on him? Why does he do nothing in the whole seventy-five hundred belabored words of this ?????? but lie there and tremble? And why has the mother-in-law bothered to come back? You seem to think, Mr. Frey, that just because you have found what might be an interesting situation full of dark horrors and mysterious happenings you've somehow created a story. You haven't. I know nothing more of Henry after reading this whole dreary piece than I did after his first yelp when the old gal filters in through the wall ...

You get the idea. When you're on the receiving end of that kind of criticism, it's painful. Even the bravest turn to putty.

One member of that workshop later told me that she'd often go to the bathroom and throw up when it was all over with. She's now an award-winning playwright and has sold dozens of short stories to major markets.

Another stormed out, but came back a year later and has since sold a couple dozen novels. Still another said that he never once had a story read in any workshop when he didn't feel as if he was going to pee his pants. He later sold a few novels and made a mountain of moola selling story ideas to TV.

To learn the principles, you have to suffer a little. If the criticism in a workshop is any good, this is the way it is. Your ego is filleted right before your eyes.

It's no wonder that many can't take it. The drop-out rate in a hard-nosed creative writing workshop is often 70 or 80 percent. Why? Because receiving criticism is often painful. It's hard to read something to a group of fellow writers and then listen to them tell you that your prose is limp or muddled or your characters are flat. But it's really the only way to learn.

Timid writers usually end up going from workshop to workshop hoping to find a leader who's not too hard on them. They can't overcome their timidity in the face of honest criticism, so they search out criticism they can take. And they find it. They find it in a "puff" group, where the criticism is soft and infrequent and the praise is profuse. This will doom them.

So what's the solution? It takes guts to be a writer. You've got to overcome your timidity and face up to a solid writers' group. One way to do that is to tough it out. Go to an honest workshop, read one of your stories every chance you get, and just sit there and take it. Soon you will learn that the workshop is discussing your construction, not you, or your ego. Your story is simply a work in progress that you need feedback on to learn how to make it more powerful and effective. If you hang in there, you will learn to cope.

One thing that may help is to learn to joke about it. Another thing is never to get into a discussion about why you wrote it the way you did. If asked, just say something like "I was possessed by the spirit of Annabel Lee," or say you'd prefer the story speak for itself. Never, ever defend or explain your work. Never, ever argue with or disagree with the criticism you receive. Since you asked for it, you've no right to complain. If you don't like it, you can just ignore it. It's your story—you can do what you want with it.

Eventually, as your skills improve, the criticism will get less harsh. There won't be much anyone will have to say except, "Wow!"

A writer can't be timid in his or her work, either.

A writer can't back away from what is strongly dramatic just because the fictional materials may offend someone or produce a lot of tension in the writer during the act of creation. A timid writer is reluctant to put characters to the test.

This often happens when writers attempt to create art from their own situations, trying to solve their problems through the lives of their characters. What usually results is that the characters become frozen, refusing to act. They suffer the same kind of paralysis human beings often experience when trying to solve problems. Makes for pretty bad storytelling.

Another kind of timidity in writing is a reluctance to take risks.

I write thrillers and mysteries. Occasionally I'll come to a place where a villainous character I've created has a sympathetic character just where he wants him, and know what? He's going to do dirty and dastardly things to him. It always amazes me how many of my fellow practitioners tell me I'm making a big mistake, that the readers will rebel against, say, having the protagonist's sidekick cruelly treated, mutilated, or murdered.

Hitchcock did not pull back from having Janet Leigh hacked to death in the shower. If he had, what would have happened to Psycho?

Stephen King never pulls back.

And I'm not just talking about being grisly. Did the heroine have to die at the end of A Farewell to Arms?Did the hero have to die at the end of For Whom the Bell Tolls? No, of course not, but if you want to make an emotional impact on your reader you must produce tragic situations. Tragic, or gory, or horrific, or whatever. You can't pull back. You can't be timid if you aspire to be a damn good novelist.

Don't be timid about trying to achieve new effects.

As an example, say you are embarrassed about writing sex scenes. You might be tempted to write something like this:

She looked into his deep blue eyes and kissed him full on the mouth, feeling the kiss reverberate down to the tips of her toes. He drew back for a moment and, turning his head to the side, said, "You impetuous thing, you. Are you sure? Have you thought of what might happen should your husband come home?"

"My husband's coming home Saturday. Until then, I'm yours. All yours. One hundred percent yours."

"Then let's turn off the lights," he said, reaching for the switch ...

At eight the next morning, she woke to find Mortimer had gone.

This is a sort of truncated version of what might have been a pretty sexy scene.

Often a timid writer runs away from what's tough by going into a flashback. Flashbacks are nice, comfy, warm places where the conflicts and tensions in the "now" of the story have not happened yet, so the writer can retreat there easily to get out of the storm. Running away from conflict is a common course for the timid writer.

Often, novelists are afraid of their emotions. If you have felt, say, an enormous embarrassment in your life at one time and now you are writing a scene in which your protagonist is about to face an embarrassing situation, you may begin to recall your own embarrassment as you write it. This is a good time to explore this fully, to get it all down on paper, no matter how painful it is. Okay, easily said, you say, but not easily done. No, it isn't. But if you want to be a damn good novelist you'll learn to do it.

The first step in overcoming timidity is to learn to realize when you're guilty of it, and to immediately take corrective measures. Sometimes simply asking yourself whether you might be running away from conflict is enough to make yourself turn around and face whatever you were running away from.

Writers run away not only from conflict. They also run away from editors and agents.

Soon after I'd completed my first novel, I received this advice: Go to the bookstore. Find some books similar to yours. Jot down the publishers of these books. Go home and call the publishers and ask for the editorial department. Tell them you want to speak to the editors of the books similar to yours. When the editor comes on the line, tell her or him how much you admire the book. Say that you have written one like it and ask whether they would take a look. Nine times out of ten they'll say yes.

I was horrified. What—call the Olympian gods? On the telephone? Me? James N.—for Nobody—Frey?

It was only later, after having attended a slew of writers' conferences and having met a lot of New York agents and editors, that it began to dawn on me that the reason editors are editors and agents are agents is that most of them are failed writers who haven't the guts to face the blank page and the rejection slip.

They do not have any magic ability. In fact, most of them are work-by-the-numbers kind of people. They put on their pants or pantyhose one leg at a time. If you call them, they will not send hot lightning bolts over the phone lines to turn you into cinders.

In fact, they will respect you for your boldness. They know if a writer believes in himself or herself, chances are the writer is at least a sure-footed one.

While you're at the bookstore, by the way, it might be a good idea to look through the stacks of new arrivals for the bad books that got past the Olympian gods. You'll be amazed to find that half the books are not only bad, but almost unreadable.

Recently Publishers Weekly, the number one magazine of the book trade, said that 30 percent of the hardcover books produced in the United States go directly from the printer to the remainder house. Thirty percent of the books listed in publishers' catalogs do not get enough orders from book buyers to justify keeping the book in the publisher's warehouse. A remainder house buys these books for pennies, then sells them either through catalogs or to supermarkets or places like Woolworth that market them for a fraction of the fifteen to twenty dollars or more they would have retailed for.

Most of these books are handled by an agent, submitted to an editor, purchased, edited, rewritten, copyedited, proofed, and all that. They have nice, often expensive covers and are listed in the publisher's catalog, but for some reason when the salesmen go to the book buyers, there is no interest in these books.

In other words, editors completely goof it 30 percent of the time. They are just people, and they have no crystal ball. Every book they buy is a guess and a gamble. They might as well guess on yours and gamble with it as with anyone else's. They won't even read it, though, unless someone gives them a sell job.

To get an agent to read your manuscript, you will have to give the agent a sell job. If agents scare you to the point that you can't get up the nerve to give them a sell job, your writing career will go nowhere.

There's another kind of writer's timidity. It has to do with promotion.

I've never met a writer who really likes to promote. Writers often like to sit in the cool of their cubbyholes and plunk away at a keyboard, lost in a la-la land of their imagination. They are often painfully introverted, if not out-and-out hermits. The very idea of being behind the microphone of a radio talk show or in front of a TV camera turns their backbones to piddle. But unfortunately in these times a writer must be a self-promoter or be doomed to obscurity.

How does one get over this dreadful fear of being in the public eye?

According to psychologists, the fear of speaking in public ranks higher than the fear of death. How, then, if you're going to get over this obstacle, do you go about it?

Take a traditional public speaking course. That's probably the quickest way. Dale Carnegie courses are available almost everywhere. Evening courses at high schools and colleges can often do the job cheaper. Toastmaster organizations, found in most major cities, have been effective at teaching public speaking.

Another way is to take acting lessons. It's not only effective, but fun, and will help your writing. If these opportunities are not open to you where you live, I suggest you volunteer as a speaker someplace: a church or a school or a public service group.

So much for the first deadly mistake.

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