Finding the Chemistry in my Writing

WHAT’S PLAYING:  The Wallflowers “I Wish I Felt Nothing”

“To a chemist, nothing on Earth is unclean. A writer must be as objective as a chemist.”

Anton Chekhov

I just started work on a new project this week. It’s still very much in the early stages, but it deals with some very unpleasant subject matter – rape, murder, and suicide. (Did I mention that it’s YA?)

I’m very passionate about this project, but sometimes I wonder if I’m skilled enough to handle it with the sensitivity and unflinching honesty that it deserves. I wonder if I’m going too far, if I should pull back a little and let my protagonist off the hook. Not to mention the effect it’s having on me. Sometimes I have to take a break because I find myself getting too emotional. So why do I do it? Why wallow in filth and horror when I don’t have to?

One simple reason…because the story demands it.

I won’t lie to you, sometimes I want to abandon this project and turn to something lighter, funnier, something uplifting. But I can’t. Not because I don’t enjoy writing humor or escapist fantasy. It’s because I know that if I turn my back on this story – the story I’m burning to tell in the here and now – simply because it makes me uncomfortable, then I might as well quit writing all together.

It’s at those times – times when I’ve poured so much raw emotion on to the page that I feel drained and deflated – that I have to remember that pain is a part of life. Pretending otherwise is not only foolish, but also makes for boring stories. As a nuclear chemist, I handle dangerous and volatile substances every day. So, why shrink from them when it comes to writing?

I love science. It’s steady, predictable. It makes sense. Math and science are the only constant things in this ever-changing world.

I love writing for the opposite reason. Anything is possible in fiction. Dragons and unicorns exist, the past can be altered and happy endings are guaranteed.

Writing and chemistry are the two great loves of my life. Together, they allow me to explore new worlds while keeping me firmly grounded in this one.

What more can a science nerd/fantasy geek ask for?

 

Finding Balance between Consumer and Critic

WHAT’S PLAYING: The B-52’sLove Shack

Ask any writer or professor. Read any book or blog, and they will tell you that one of the best ways to learn how to write is to read.

This is very good advice. Problem is that, more often than not, I find myself getting lost in the story rather than dissecting authorial technique.

Maybe it’s because when I pick up a book, I’m doing so as a consumer rather than a critic. Sure, I might go back to see if I can figure out how the author pulled off that neat trick with characterization or setting, but when it comes to reading, my primary aim is always to enjoy a good story.

There have been many times when critics have lambasted some of my favorite books, calling out the authors for purple prose or poor characterization or weak plots, basic skills everyone should master before attempting a novel. They call the author an amateur, a hack, a bad writer.

I don’t care. I still love them.

When it comes to books, I only have one rule: don’t bore me.

Sounds simple enough, but it’s more challenging than you might think. I have a notoriously short attention span. For an author to keep me reading for three hundred pages requires a great deal of skill. If the story sags for more than a few pages, then I’m done. Bottom line: if a writer is going to explore the human condition, preach altruism, or flex his literary muscles at me, then he’d better wrap it all up in one hell of a story.

This attitude has made it difficult for me to develop a critical eye, but I’m slowly learning how to look for what works in other people’s stories, and by extension, my own. There is just as much to learn from poorly written books as there is in stories written by master storytellers.

Still, nothing compares to the rush of diving into a great story and not coming up for air until it’s over. Knowing that I can always go back and figure out how the author captured my attention is just icing on the cake.

What about you? How do you find balance between your own consumer and critic?