Sabotage: How to mess up your own writing

22318363I recently read Dreaming Spies, a lovely mystery novel in Laurie R. King’s series of Sherlock Holmes novels, where she revives the famous detective’s character and pairs him up with Mary Russell, a spunky female sleuth of her own creation. I enjoyed the mystery that made up the plot of the story and its milieu – Japan at the turn of the 20th century – but I was even more fascinated by the author’s spin on Holmes and how she managed to hook up the famously misogynistic detective with a woman. This isn’t unusual in the world of Holmes pastiches, notably with so many modern adaptations trying to embellish the character’s (originally minimal) relationship with Irene Adler. I decided to check out the first book in King’s series to get a look at how she did it.

But I have to confess that my interest is more than just as a reader. I’ve been working on my own homage to Holmes, and pairing him up with my own spunky female character. Every page of Dreaming Spies that I read had me knotted up a little more, examining each characteristic of Mary Russell and her relationship with Holmes, wondering if I’ve inadvertently mimicked something. Will I be accused of being derivative (again**)? Am I just unoriginal? Hell, this new project is post-apocalyptic, no less, and that genre’s totally oversaturated, right? Should I even bother finishing it?


This is an interesting way for a writer to engage in self-sabotage, something akin to writer’s block. Lots of writers get edgy about writer’s block, especially when they get advice from other writers who don’t seem to suffer from it as intensely as they do. But I still think that most if not all cases of writer’s block can be reduced to the same essential problem: you have an idea in your head about what you want, but what you’ve got on the page doesn’t match up with that, and your brain throws up a big wall until you can figure out how to reconcile the two. If you can’t figure it out, you stay stuck. If you really can’t figure it out, your tricky brain starts creating ways to keep yourself stuck. This isn’t to accuse blocked writers of being snivelers who cause their own problems. Brains are tricky, after all, and things operate on a subconscious level. It can take a while to figure out what’s going wrong.

I’ve had this kind of writer’s block on a micro level: a scene that won’t move forward, for example. A lot of the fantasy I was writing ten years ago invariably included a scene with old men in a room talking about the course of history, and these scenes invariably stalled. It would take me a while to cure my old-men-in-a-room-itis and move things along to more interesting locales, to find that balance between what I saw in my head (explanatory conversations) and what the story wanted (more interesting stuff).

But here’s an example of a block on a macro level: the kind of block that keeps writers from finishing what they write and turning it out into the world. It’s driven by fear, of course, something I’ve blogged about before. There’s a reason for me to repeat myself. Fear is a real thing, another defense mechanism of the tricky brain. What I imagine for my book is success. What I see in the world is a lot of potential for failure. My brain has worked out a way to avoid the whole problem: look for reasons why I shouldn’t bother. King’s rendition of Holmes seems to be annoyed when Mary Russell swears – just like my Holmesian character does when his female partner does. Derivative. There you go, might as well scrap the whole project.

If we get started on this, though, no one would ever write anything. We can talk about Jungian story prototypes and all that, and whether or not there are any truly original stories. We can talk about market glut and whether some stories are more valuable than others. (Ahem, 50 Shades.) Or we can just write as well as we can. If we’re sabotaging ourselves, we should probably look at why. Maybe we really are being too derivative, and a project would be improved by giving it a new angle. But at some point writers have to stop analyzing and just write.

What are ways that you might engage in self-sabotage?

**Being derivative: see every review of Confidence Game that includes a reference to my book imitating Kushiel’s Dart, a book that had not yet been published when I was writing Confidence Game. I’d say something about great minds and how they think if I felt I’d achieved a fraction of that greatness.

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