There are many bits of common writerly wisdom that I tweet on a regular basis using the #writetip hashtag. Some of these nuggets are mine and others are parroting the masters. Most are widely held to be axiomatic, but some are confusing or enigmatic. Such is the limitation of 140 characters.
One of the more confusing writetips deals with honesty in writing.
Above all else, be honest in your writing. Readers sense fakes a mile away. #writetip
Whenever this one comes up in the rotation, I get a flood of questions. I get some heated, sarcastic answers as well, but that’s to be expected from time to time. In general, there’s an overwhelming confusion among aspiring authors about just what it means to “be honest” in one’s writing. I understand this confusion. I once shared it.
It is at once the most simple and most elusive quality to attain. But attaining it is a must! For once you have it, you’ll write with a confidence you’ve never known before. Take this quote from Mark Twain:
You’ve heard this before, I’m sure, in many contexts. But I’m betting you’ve never considered its application to writing.
Disclaimers And Caveats
This is a very complex topic. Make no mistake about it. I’m convinced that any attempt to address this head-on will come across as nothing more than a cartoon picture of the truth. In the realm of the subjective, one person’s truth is quite often another person’s bullshit. I believe the best we can hope to achieve is a set of concepts that, once synthesized, put us in the ballpark of what “honesty in writing” actually means.
Don’t take this as some sort of pontifical, exhaustive, canonical list of items. Instead, use each of these (or the whole) as a launching point to spark thoughts of what “truth in writing” means to you.
Ok, let’s give it a good, old-fashioned college try, shall we?
What Honesty Isn’t
There’s one thing I want to clear up right from the beginning. When I coach writers to be honest, I’m not talking about factual information. I’m not talking about getting your research correct. I’m not talking about making sure your dates are accurate, or your grammar is perfect. I’m not talking about selecting the proper usage of words.
So what am I talking about?
In my reflection on this topic, I’ve uncovered at least seven concepts that I think play into what being honest in your writing means.
Let’s start with you the writer.
I believe to my core that you’ll never be capable of honesty…not really…until you know yourself. Everything else I say about honesty in writing from this point forward is going to need a heavy dose of self-knowledge. In fact, I want to go out on a limb here and say something I haven’t heard uttered on writing blogs or in the craft books I’ve read. At least not explicitly. If you’re not accustomed to periodic reflection, your writing isn’t as good as it could be.
I don’t see a possibility for success in writing unless you cultivate the ability to turn within and evaluate yourself and your experiences. You must have the ability to process your inner life and place it in context if you’re going to successfully convey the inner lives of your fictional characters. Because, after all, your characters are nothing if not an extension of yourself. I strongly suspect this is why many writing teachers recommend journaling. I’m not saying you need to journal. I’m actually not much of a journaler, but I do spend an inordinate amount of time in my own head. I’m pretty sure I picked this up during my Philosophy degree, and it’s been both a blessing and a curse throughout my life. But I can say this with certainty: my writing would be a shadow of what it is now if I wasn’t a reflective person.
Embrace your inner philosopher. Remember the words of Socrates: “The life which is unexamined is not worth living.”
[*Update 6/16/2020: Since writing this article back in 2014, I’ve actually embraced the practice of personal journaling as well as journaling my reflections and meditations. I can now say I, too, strongly recommend the practice.]
Going Too Far
Like everything else on this topic (as you’ll see), going too far can take many forms. One form is something I like to call kitchen sink syndrome. Most writers starting out in genre fiction learn about something called the Try/Fail Cycle. [Aside: How have I NOT written an article about the Try/Fail Cycle Yet?!?] The Try/Fail cycle is pretty much what it sounds like. The short version: after you pull your lead character(s) through the first plot point (the point of no return), you set him/her on a series of tasks that they typically fail at, until they reach another turning point and start into the home stretch.
When new writers learn about the Try/Fail Cycle, they’re like a carpenter with a new hammer: every problem is a nail. Every minute goal of every minor character has a try/fail cycle. At this point, they’re no longer being true to the story. Instead, they’re often padding for word count.
But plot is just one area where there’s a danger of going too far. You can also go too far with characterization, profanity, sex, violence, you name it. No, literally. That’s not a cop-out. Name literally any element of the craft, and you can go too far with it if you don’t know yourself and your story well enough. And there’s no easy-cheesy graph I can show you that depicts the proper amount of any one of these elements! Too much sex for a Fantasy novel is probably not enough for Erotica. Not enough profanity for gritty, adult Fantasy is probably too much for YA.
If you’re going too far, it’s because you either lack the confidence of subtlety, or it’s because you don’t know your story/genre well enough. Either way, it’s a form of being dishonest in your writing. In the former, you’re not being true to yourself. In the latter, you’re not being true to your audience.
Not Going Far Enough
I’m sure you’ve read books that just sort of fell flat, and it infuriated you because the underlying concept or story seed was so good. You feel as if the author squandered their own assets! I experienced this watching the first season of Dominion. First off, I want to be clear: I LOVE that show! I mean, come on! Metaphysical Fantasy is my jam! Archangels! Demons! Heroes with mystical tattoos! I’m feelin’ it!
But one question kept going through my mind: “You mean to tell me you have access to an archangel. In fact, some would say the archangel, and you never once think to ask a single theological question?” Not once in season one of the show does the main character think to ask Michael the Archangel something along the lines of “So…this God dude….um…yeah…WHAT’S HE LIKE?” I mean…give me SOMETHING, for Pete’s sake!
This is a trite example. Like I said, the show is great, and I think it’s incredibly well-written. But the concept is this: your story and your characters will compel certain directions, a certain depth, a certain tone. If you pull back because you’re afraid of what you’ll discover…perhaps about yourself…then you’re not being honest in your writing. If you pull back because you haven’t done your homework on the subject matter, the reader is going to know. And they’ll call you on it.
Avoiding Inconvenient Characterizations
What do I mean by inconvenient? Frankly, I mean avoiding certain characterizations for personal reasons. You may be a devoutly religious person, and writing a slimy character makes you feel slimy. Or, it may scare you because you know your character is a small extension of yourself, and that gives you some existential angst. Yet your story demands it, and you refuse to give.
In other words, your character, within the context of the story, demands to go a certain direction…a direction you’re entirely uncomfortable with for [insert whatever reason you can imagine here]. Your response is to change the story so that you simply don’t have to “go there”. Like it or not, this is a form of dishonesty in your writing.
For example: If you have a strong personal aversion to profanity, yet you insist on writing dialogue-heavy stories involving gang members doing drug deals, people familiar with the speech patterns of gangstas are going to see right through your facade. You’ll be out of your depth, and it will show. Until you wrestle with your own inhibitions, and convince yourself that it’s OK to write about a subject you consider dark…and do it justice in the process…any attempt to cover that subject is going to come across as shallow and ham-fisted.
Again, it’s not the specifics of profanity in fiction that are under examination here. It’s the idea of grappling with a subject you’re uncomfortable with and allowing your personal inhibitions to keep your work from being its best. If you tap dance around a subject that your story is screaming to be dealt with directly, your readers will call you on it.
Jumping On The Bandwagon
This one is fairly straightforward. If you truly have a “Twilight” or “Hunger Games” within, then please write that story! The world does, in fact, need to hear your take on the genre. The problem isn’t the existence of commercially successful novels! The problem is when we writers come along and think “hmmm…there’s a lot of money to be made on teenage vampires. Guess I need to write a book with teenage vampires.”
Nothing wrong on the surface of that…if you truly have a teenage vampire novel inside you. I’ve said before that I may be an artist, but I’m not allergic to money. However, if you don’t really have one of these novels in you, you’re going to be forcing tripe onto the page because you think (in a misguided way) that the mere presence of teenage vampires (or name your poison) is going to make it a commercial success.
There’s a difference between “writing something that’s trendy” and “chasing a trend”. If you’re being true to your story, the former is out of your control. The latter, however, is completely within your control. And, as I’ve said on Twitter from time to time, it’s misguided because by the time you recognize the trend, it’s too late to exploit anyway.
Honesty In Your Voice
This is a tricky one for most new writers, because it’s rare to find your voice right out of the gate. It takes time to develop, and it’s a living, breathing entity unto itself! A writer’s voice rarely stays the same, because the writer rarely stays the same. New writers often mimic what they’ve read, or what they think their writing should sound like. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing! We learn in large part through imitation. However, it’s often done poorly. Instead of assimilating the conceptual knowledge we glean from other writers, we often start by copying their choice of words, or their rhythm and patterns. The end result is that we create something that sounds writerly instead of something that truly represents our natural voice.
As I’ve mentioned above, if you’re not really being yourself, then you’re being dishonest in your writing. By being yourself, I’m not saying your narrative voice should sound like your speaking voice! But I am saying it should be your voice, and not your favorite author’s voice.
I left this one for last, because I think it’s one of the most important notions to consider.
Writing is a scary activity to engage in. Always has been, and always will be. To be successful at this gig, you have to open yourself up, rip things out, and place them on display for the world to see. There’s no side-stepping it. And there are no short cuts.
You are going to have to face your emotional reality.
You are who you are, and there’s no way to avoid it. If you were abused as a child, it will come out in your writing whether you like it or not. If you were raped, it will come out in your writing. If you’re suffering from clinical depression, it will come out in your writing. If you’ve dealt with addiction, it will come out in your writing. If you have been a victim of abuse of authority (as I have), it will come out in your writing.
If you try to stop this, or artificially control it, you’ll never rise to the greatness you’re capable of.
You have to face the reality of your past. Like I said in Know Thyself above, you have to be able to reflect on your life and put things into perspective. Anything else is artificially limiting yourself.
You deserve better.
Your readers deserve better.
They deserve your emotional honesty.
As I said, this is a complex topic. There are so many ways in which we fail to be honest in our writing that it’s impossible to list all of them here. I think at the end of the day if you take “Know Thyself” to heart, your writing will be head and shoulders above other writers’ work.
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