Benjamin Sperduto

Fantasy, Horror, & Science Fiction Author

Category: Writing Advice

Bits and pieces of lessons learned over the years on the subject of writing and editing.

Finding the (sort of) Right Emotion

As a fantasy author, I don’t often think about how my writing reflects my own experiences in life. Part of this is due to the fact that I don’t feel like I have a great deal of life experience to draw upon. As someone who married and had children at a relatively young age and has lived in the same place for the better part of fifteen years, my life doesn’t seem all that interesting or exciting. But that’s kind of a ridiculous position when you stop and think about it. No matter their age or circumstances, writers are always observing. Sometimes we’re taking stock of our own experiences, but just as often we’re evaluating other people’s lives. On some level, every writer is a bit of a voyeur.

In many instances, though, my personal experiences wind up being far more influential on the creative process than I realize. They also have a way of popping up in places you don’t expect. When I wrote The Walls of Dalgorod, for instance, I was a bit taken aback by how much the father-son relationship between the characters Kirill and Gregorii was informed by my relationship with my father and my own son. The connections aren’t obvious, but there were plenty of times where I found myself drawing upon moments and situations from those relationships that stood out in my mind. Recollections of bad day here, an argument there, or even an internalized sense of frustration or disappointment informed the conflict between those characters even though I’ve never gone through anything so negative or dysfunctional.

When writers talk about drawing upon your experience, we sometimes make it sound like only people who have gone through exactly what you’re writing about can possibly portray those situations on the page. But what we’re really trying to say is your experiences create a window you can see through and help you find your characters on the other side. I find it to be quite similar to acting. You have to pull from your own feelings to portray how someone else is feeling. Writing is just another form of performance in that respect. The emotion you’re using to connect with the characters doesn’t have to square up neatly with their story; you just have to feel something to help convince the reader that it’s real.

The characters in Blackspire go through some horrible situations I’ve never come close to experiencing. But I’ve felt a lot of those emotions in other areas of life, maybe not to the same extremes, but at least enough to help me take a step in a character’s shoes. Once I get that glimpse, my imagination can fill out the rest. I can extrapolate the emotions and have a sense for what it might feel like in another context. Whatever I end up creating from that is still anchored to a real emotion, a feeling I can understand and contextualize. From there, I just need to credibly convey it to the readers, but that’s more of a technical issue I can tinker with and refine over time. You can always find better words and phrases to use, but you can’t get new emotions to convey.

Why You Should Join a Writing Group

You can find plenty of advice on why joining a writing or critique group helps to improve your writing. Setting aside the rather obvious point that having more eyeballs reviewing your work provides more opportunities for feedback, it’s important to consider some of the benefits of these groups that have nothing to do with your own writing, at least not directly.

The novelist John Gardner once remarked that alcoholism was the primary occupational hazard of the author. As much as I love this comment, I think he mistook the symptom for the cause. The real occupational hazard of the author is isolation. Writing is a very isolating endeavor. You can be as outgoing and socially engaging as you want, but at some point, the only way writing is going to get done is when you sit down alone with the keyboard (or pen and paper if you’re self-consciously old fashioned). Once that process begins, it’s easy to become cut off from anything that’s not directly related to the work at hand.

In some respects, this kind of intense focus is a good thing because it allows you to tune out distractions and pour your creative energy into the writing. At some point, however, you need to come up for air and remember that your project doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Your book isn’t the “only book in the world” even though it often feels that way.

Before joining a newly formed writing group earlier this year, I’d never really associated with other writers. I showed material I was working on with a few close friends, but none of them were writers themselves. After a period of frustration over how to direct my writing energies, I joined the group in the hope it might provide me with new perspectives.

After a few weeks of reading various works in progress, I learned that my approach to writing fiction and the topics I choose to write about are merely a drop of water in a vast ocean. This is something I knew intellectually, of course, but it’s one thing to read completed works you might not normally be drawn to and quite another to engage with the authors of those works as they’re writing them. Discussing and critiquing someone else’s writing isn’t just about the writing itself; it helps you to imagine yourself behind another writer’s keyboard, to understand why and how they write. Learning different approaches and techniques to writing can help you to reevaluate your own creative process, which can be quite valuable if you feel yourself falling into unproductive habits or simply want to try something new.

I think it’s healthy for writers to get out of their own heads every so often, and a good writing/critique group can do a lot to bring their thoughts and assumptions about writing out into the open. If you’re stuck or frustrated with your work, exposing yourself to other writers going through the same struggles might just provide you the perspective you need to get moving forward again.

And yes, you’ll have plenty of knowledgeable people to help critique your works in progress, but you already knew that!

© 2017 Benjamin Sperduto

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