The Necessity of Personal Investment

July 28, 2012 at 12:05 am (writing)

I hope nobody reads the title of this and thinks this post is about socking away cash for a rainy day. What I will be talking about has little to do with money, unless you are thinking of a potential story sale. Instead, I’m referring to finding a way of putting something of myself and my own experiences into the tale, rather than just writing a beginning, a denouement and an end, with some element of conflict and resolution.

This is another challenge to writing a good story, and not one I’ve always managed to achieve. I usually find when I get struck by some internal inspiration and write to it, the resulting story is better than one where I’m writing in response to a particular request for submissions. I feel it is much harder to create in response to a particular demand rather than one that plays off of my own whims. I think this is because those from inspiration are already seeded with something personal, whereas I have to find some way of integrating that element into the stories on demand, and it doesn’t always work.

Just to give you an example, several of the last few stories I wrote were on demand, and I just received a rejection back for one of them, from a publisher who usually loves my work (the wonderful folk at MDP). The story was intended for their Spiders anthology and I wrote to the theme, but I don’t think it was some of my best work, which explains the rejection.

The biggest problem is that I just don’t find spiders scary – never have. I don’t find snakes scary either, even though I know there are venomous snakes and spiders out there. There aren’t any in Nova Scotia (not native to the province, anyway) which likely explains part of the lack of fear. I was also raised by a woman who happily handled spiders and snakes in front of me (thanks, Mom), and I think that supported the idea that they weren’t to be feared.

I was all too aware that I couldn’t create a convincing scary spider tale with the main character fearing spiders. It would have come across as campy and insincere. Instead, I tried to approach the horror of the story from a more clinical perceptive, laced with some research into interesting phobia and arachnid facts, the main character experimenting with someone else’s fears. The tale comes across as kind of cruel and cold, I guess, versus scary and while it was somewhat effective, it was missing that touch of personal investment I try to build into my stories. I’m sure that’s why it missed the mark.

Some people may notice that a fair number of my horror stories have some common themes, like bullying and isolation, and that’s likely because they play off of my own personal fears. It’s a great way of seizing on something I can relate to properly, and establishing that sense of catharsis. The more I have to move away from them to match a theme, the less successful the results.

Anyway, to sum it up, I’m not about to stop writing to themes, but what I have learned from this is that I should reconsider any story ideas I have that just don’t seem to offer any personal investment. If I can’t find the scary in it for me, it isn’t likely to do much for the reader, either.

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3 Comments

  1. ajbrown said,

    I think this is a very important topic when it comes to writing. So many writers just write–they don’t actually experience their stories. As a writer, my best stories are the ones that I experience as I write them.

    Though I’ve never been abused in life, I write about it a lot in my stories. I didn’t realize how much I write about this subject until recently. The thing is, I know a lot of folks who have been abused in one way, shape or form in their lives.

    On the flip side of this, I don’t drink, so I don’t generally write about people who drink and smoke in my stories–I can’t relate for the most part. In the one book I just finished, I asked a lot of questions of a lot of folks on how alcohol feels going down, how it sits in the stomach, how it feels to be drunk and the ensuing hangover.

    Though I don’t know or haven’t experienced some of the things I write about, I try to get into my character’s head and i try to experience the abuse, the drunkenness, the highs and lows and it helps me to write better stories.

  2. chantellyb said,

    Sometimes you can use experiences other people have shared with you to connect with your story. My husband is a great resource, as well as some of my closer friends. I just find if I’ve lived something of it, the story is more likely to ring true.

  3. ajbrown said,

    I agree that the experience of life makes stories so much better.

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