I have a really strange fear of forgetting things. Perhaps it’s not that, perhaps it’s a fear of not knowing enough.
Actually it’s probably a fear of not knowing enough.
Sometimes I have thoughts about being quizzed about other people. The image pops into my head of a television studio and the people I’m being asked questions about are all staring at me. I cannot remember one single thing about them.
Things I absolutely do know.
I’m paralysed. I know nothing. In the real world I start to try and quiz myself and panic makes my mind go blank. I don’t know if it’s because I don’t remember facts as well as I remember feelings or images or if I’m just a terrible person but this thought haunts me time and time again.
This fear follows me into my writing. The fear that if I don’t have my world or characters so concretely down before I start writing or talking to anyone at times cripples me.
I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this but I started getting feedback on my writing online through fanfiction. Back when I first started there was a real panic about Mary Sues. If you weren’t worried about accidentally reading and enjoying something with one in, you were worried about writing one. Every rookie creating an OC makes a Mary Sue first, it’s the first hill you have to drag yourself over on the way to creating good solid characters and I was no different.
For those who don’t know a Mary Sue is basically a female character who seems to have no flaws, who everyone loves, who embodies some sort of perfection. She’s smart, beautiful, talented and graceful. The male version is the Gary Stu – someone like Batman.
Now of course there’s debate over the Mary Sue. It only applied to female characters and as the exploration into fanfiction from a scholarly level has grown, the Mary Sue it seems is actually pretty sexist (but that’s a discussion for another time).
The worst possible thing you could write was a Mary Sue because that meant you were writing a self-insert and about yourself. Which actually is probably why the shift on tumblr to simply Reader x Character fics has become so popular…..
Looking back now it’s easy for me to go ‘So fucking what. If someone wants to write a piece of fanfiction where The Doctor (of Doctor Who fame) falls in love with them and takes them on time travelling adventures. Who cares? It doesn’t hurt anybody. They get to write and imagine cool shit.’ At the time though that wasn’t the case. At the time having a character called a Mary Sue was about as bad as being called a bigot. It was a cardinal sin. Punishable by ridicule and exclusion.
The good thing this fear did was teach me pretty quickly how to develop my characters and make them into well rounded people. It also taught me to be solid in my world and characters before starting to write them, which is both a blessing and a curse.
For novels, that solid pre-work is good. It means the story flows much better for me as I’m writing. I have voices, I know how characters would react. I know world lore and have reference places and backstories and yes this instance from when they were five IS why they’re a snarky bastard.
For short stuff though it is a curse.
Even though I know everything I headcanon doesn’t go into the novel I still feel like I need to know it. Just in case. Lest someone ask me a question and I be found out for give conflicting information. That’s a lot of work. Worth it for say an 80,000 word piece though.
Worth it for the less than 5,000 word thing I want to write though? No.
Now don’t get me wrong. Short fiction should still be rich and solid and well written but generally it doesn’t require the same depth to it. You probably aren’t going to be asked about a character from a short pieces favourite cake, or background like you are with something much longer. Probably because the reader doesn’t have as much time to become attached to them.
It’s hard to switch out of that I must know everything and if you don’t know their shoesize their not well rounded enough mindset though. Which makes writing short fiction, flash fiction, bursts of scenes or moments in time between characters seem…. well about as much work as a novel.
Recently I’ve challenged myself to dig in and write a bunch of emotional shorts and share them. Dramatic rain kisses, dying love confessions, the gut punch of betrayal. The moment the hero gets back up to save their friends.
The problem isn’t coming up with the scenes themselves, I can see clearly those two characters sharing a declaration of love, in some big cinematic spectacle.
The problem comes when I sit down to write. I can’t just dive in, people need to know everything, people need to know these characters inside out. You can’t just start with a declaration and then hints at a relationship. You can’t just weave history between the words. No. Not at all. Everyone needs to know where these characters began. They have to see it from the beginning. They need epilogues and the whole story.
Except they don’t.
And that thought pattern is ridiculous.
Some of my absolute favourite stories and relationships have perfectly inferred histories. A well placed line, look, quip or nickname can serve to show an audience how well the characters know each other. All without us having to see the exact moment they met.
In those early writing days of fanfiction that sort of thinking was sacrilege. You can’t just throw in an original character. You have to show us how they met, and they can’t just meet and hit it off right away either. There has to be at least three chapters of small talk before you even get to a flirtatious or friendly thought. At the same time of course nobody wants an info dump.
I know how ridiculous that line of thought is.
My brain knows how stupid this whole thing is.
Yet every time I get a flash of an idea and I sit down to write. I become worried about this exact thing. I can’t just write a short piece of flash fiction with Robin rescuing Marion and have all the history interwoven and inferred in lines between the action of the rescue. That won’t do. The reader needs to see everything, from very first tepid meeting and up because otherwise how can they enjoy the scene?
I have a lot to thank fanfiction/fandom/RPG for in terms of the skills it helped me cultivate.
Now though I have to unlearn some of the more toxic lessons it ingrained in me.
Both fortunately and unfortunately for me, and as with my vulnerability problem, the only way to unlearn these lessons seems to be to push forward and write and share.
Why is the answer always ‘Just shut up and write?’
So, now I need to take my ass away, push past this feeling of anxiety and just write the damn scenes. I mean I’ve definitely done it before – I did it with the letter and that’s one of my favourite things I’ve written. Now I need to stop myself from procrastinating and writing scenes about serial killers or gods taking vengeance (which come pretty easy to me), and just get on with the some flashbangs of emotion.