To my great surprise, I’ve written two books.
The first was non-fiction, and I spent the entire process worrying about making factual errors. I checked and rechecked (and rechecked) everything obsessively. At the very least, I wanted to be able to honestly say that I’d done my best to make sure any information I was sharing was reasonably accurate.
As a means of handling this anxiety, occasionally I mixed in a chapter of flash fiction. This was such a relief! These random chapters about wizards and aliens and talking flowers didn’t have the same obligation to be correct – in fiction, I could make up anything I liked.
Idly, I dreamed of someday writing an entire novel… a whole project free from this pressure, a project where there were no rules.
Be Careful What You Wish For
Of course, it turned out that having no rules was also horrible… just differently horrible.
I’d never anticipated what this complete freedom would feel like when I experienced it for real. It was dizzying. The absence of rules suddenly felt vertiginous, and terrifying.
Should this character go to this place, or that other one? Should they fight, or should they make up? What if the magical shop got burned down? Or trampled by a robot army? Or what if an eloquent snake turned up and played the trumpet?!
“PLEASE, SOMEONE, HELP ME! GIVE ME RULES, I CRAVE STRUCTURE!”
Unfortunately, nobody could give me that structure, mainly because it doesn’t exist. Unlike with non-fiction, there’s no “right answer” to what a story should be. Changes may make a story better or worse, but – in theory – even a radical genre shift and a sudden talking snake could be made to work.
(That example came to me randomly, but I’ve just realised that the bestselling book of all time actually begins with a talking snake, so it’s certainly not automatically a bad idea…!)
The point is that there’s no one story I could write. There’s an infinite series of possibilities, even within one, particular story.
Irritatingly, I found myself missing my old frustration of being pressured to find the ‘correct’ answer. At least there usually was one, and I could generally be sure when I’d found it.
Opposite Problems, Differing Solutions
It’s typical that I managed to get frustrated by two opposite problems. While both problems could be solved by simply “not writing a book”, let me share the solutions I found assuming you (foolishly) wanted to do such a thing.
The pressure of non-fiction has an obvious solution: patiently plodding on, and being thorough.
The vertigo of fiction also has an obvious solution, but I found it harder: CHOOSE.
The infinite possibility of the blank page is terrifying. So you have to choose something to put in it. A character, a scene, a place, a plot idea… as long as it’s something. This is your initial fixed point. From this, you can define everything else. Who else is near this character, or in this place? What happens after that plot point?
A story can’t exist without fixed points – at the very least, the hero must start out somewhere, and she must end up somewhere else. Once I fixed some ideas in place, I could be as creative as I liked with the parts in between.
These fixed points aren’t “right answers” in the non-fiction sense, but I could treat them as if they were. They made up the essence of the story I was trying to tell.
And this is the crucial difference: unlike non-fiction, fiction isn’t universal. War & Peace is no more the “right answer” than Harry Potter.
There Are No Fixed Points in Life Either
This fear of choosing what happened in my book mirrors the feelings I sometimes have about life.
Should I study this, or that? Live here, or there? Date this person, or another? The possibilities multiply outwards at a frightening rate. And, just like when writing a story, nobody can give us a “right answer.”
It’s not the right answer to move to New York. It’s not the right answer not to. Either choice is just a fixed point on the story we’re trying to tell.
Our life would certainly be different if we changed jobs, started a business, studied something else, moved abroad, got married, or any of the other possibilities which lie before us each day.
We can never know for sure which path is the best. There’s just the path we choose to take, and the many, many paths which we don’t. Whenever I forget this, I become paralysed.
But, hopefully, now I’ve done this through fiction, I’ll be better at doing it for real.
Do you ever look for a ‘right answer’ in life? What are the fixed points on your story? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
[this article was originally written for Puttylike]
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.