What does this writerly screed have to do with my grandmother's notebook?
I’ve been carrying around this old notebook of my grandmother’s forever—it's sat in the bottom of a bookshelf in every place I live. It was entirely blank and unused, aside from one page of something random (and the front, where she wrote her name and ‘knitting book.’) Isn’t it cool?
Yeah, so cool, that I felt like I needed to wait and find a really important use for it.
So, I didn’t write in it for years, waiting for the exact perfect use for it. Something monumental. And of course I simply never used it.
There is this bad habit writers can get into, or at least, I can get into, which I think of as ‘scarcity thinking’ which is where I’ll think of an awesome event or realization or twist, and I decide I need to hold that for the pinnacle of the book.
Whenever I find myself thinking that I need to keep something to spring later, I purposely do the opposite — I blow the cool idea early in the book.
It’s because I have this writerly superstition that holding things back for the right time implies that there aren’t millions more cool ideas, and I think it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy—that is, waiting to use the good stuff makes the good stuff scarce. Holding back the candy makes it so that I have less candy, whereas if I spill all my candy right away, more will be there waiting for me later. That is my superstition, but I actually think it works like that.
There is another form of it where I’ll hold off on getting my characters in worst-case-scenario trouble until later. I think that’s really bad for a story to let worst case scenarios hang out there forever. When I find myself doing that, I’ll try and spill that candy, pull that trigger, push the nuclear option button.
I'm not successful at it yet. It's a discipline I'm working on. Striving. You know how it is.
Have you ever watched the Sopranos? It’s this whole drama about Tony Soprano, the mafia boss. Not to criticize it, I mean, it was an excellent, brilliant, groundbreaking show, and I couldn’t have written it better. But, my husband and I would get so frustrated because they kept almost getting Tony in trouble, and then withdrawing the trouble. He never got arrested, convicted, toppled by another Mafia boss, nothing. They kept the Sword of Damocles suspended over his head—season after season after season, just wiggling around now and then. And I think that’s why the show got stale.
The opposite is Joss Whedon, who’s perfectly willing to go there, wherever there happens to be. Joss is a total hero to many writers, including me, and I think a lot of it, for me anyway, is his abundance thinking, which is the opposite of scarcity thinking. He’ll kill characters (sometimes twice) let people radically transform, even plunge the planet into apocalyptic chaos. He doesn’t hold back on going to the ultimate place. He’ll go there - it’s as if he knows that when he comes out the other end, there will be a new ultimate place waiting.
Actually, Kresley Cole does that really beautifully, too, in a different way. She lets things get big and crazy and terrible and spills candy all over the place. Sometimes, I look at the events in just one of her chapters, and in other hands, I could see it filling a whole book. I think she is amazing.
So this is a big thing for me that I’m always working on, to get away from scarcity thinking, and always looking to my favorite writers for their example of it. Like, what would Joss or Kresley do?
I was thinking about it this past winter, and thinking about other places in my life where I do that.
I have favorite clothes that are so favorite that I coddle them and, I limit how much I’ll wear them, like they’re too precious. Why do I do that? I actually have another grandmother thing—these little Christmas candles from the 40’s that I never burn. Sometimes at Christmas I take them out but they get dusty if you leave them out too long. But I think I’m going to burn them this Christmas!
And this notebook of my grandmother’s, of course. So I thought, no more scarcity thinking with that notebook! I’m going to use it. I decided to use it for brainstorming notes on short stories and novellas. And it’s been really great, because the thing is in use, laying all over my office, in the living room, wherever. I look at it 1,000,000% more this year than my whole life combined. I’ll eventually fill its pages but why not? It's there to be used.
Do you do that scarcity thing, too? Do you need to find a way to blow all your candy, or do you have the opposite problem?