Skip to main content

No Mediocrity - Push into the "Ugly"

So what's your edge?

I just finished reading two very mediocre books, both very atmospheric, but without much story because the story was buried somewhere in that atmosphere (and, in one case, lyricism, as one book was written by a poet and she was so in love with her writing she didn't realize there wasn't actually a story). I'm not going to tell you what either book is because one is a Pulitzer Prize winning 'classic' and I don't feel like debating its merits. The other was represented by an agent I'm going to send my current novel to, so a little self-preservation is called for! 

While dragging myself to the final chapters of these books, I realized that what's missing is fear. In writing, a healthy dose of MyGodICan'tBelieveI'mWritingThis! is necessary. I didn't feel either writer standing too close to the edge (note the title of this blog...). It's your job to challenge yourself. Sit in the dark corners tied to a chair so you can't leave and meet what comes for you. Climb into the snake pit and pull the cover over your head. I guarantee you, not only will it scare the crap out of you, it will thrill you no end. 

So what freaks you to write about?

For me it used to be sex. I was raised Catholic and--well, enough said, don't you think? I thought it was a victory just to have sex without being married, let alone write about it in all its nasty glory. Then a professor gave us that assignment in class one day: write what scares you. So I did. I had just started writing a novel for my honors class and my professor's challenge took the work to a whole other level. I realized I couldn't just write a sex scene. It had to go deeper than that. (I think there's a joke there somewhere...)
Sit in the dark corners tied to a chair so you can't leave and meet what comes for you. Climb into the snake pit and pull the cover over your head. 
The novel was about a girl using her sexual escapades to kill off her good girl image. 

The culminating scene took place in a strip club where the female main character had to enter a live peep show booth to strip and do whatever the man she was with told her to do. I stalled as long as I could with research (not that kind!) and, with the deadline looming, got to work. Let me set the scene so you know how difficult this was for me. At the time I lived with my parents to save money and because I worked full time as well as went to school full time in the evenings and had a dog I needed fed and walked in my absence. 

So picture sitting in your childhood bedroom with the dolls your mother insists must not be hidden in the closet, pictures of you as a kid (one in your communion dress and veil), children running around playing and screaming right outside your window, and your mother knocking on your door about once an hour to ask you some silly question because she doesn't get the whole writing thing and must absolutely know right this minute if that's your laundry in the dryer and what do you want for dinner? And you're supposed to write what? 

I needed to park in a dark alley off of The Block in East Baltimore with a bottle of gin, but I'm not that brave and I'm not a drinker. So it had to be done in my bedroom in my parents' house. It took me 26 hours to write the 10 page scene. Sixteen hours on Saturday, another ten hours on Sunday. In a way, I actually think where I wrote it helped. The tension of location versus content, my Catholic past versus my writing future. I was conscious of that tension the entire time and kept pushing and pushing against it, making sure I felt very uncomfortable the whole time. 
That's key: discomfort. Add disgust, sweaty palms, and some nausea and you've got the magic formula. 
Here's how you can make it happen for you: Tell yourself it has to be complete by a certain time and you're not allowed to do anything but write until the piece is finished (meals and bathroom breaks excepted). Tell yourself no one will read it, close your eyes and write. Sometimes it's easier if you can't see the words. Pretend you are another writer, for whom this subject is no big deal. She/he wants to shock and surprise. Let her/him at it. No deleting anything. Get all the way through first. Then leave it alone for at least three days, preferably a week. If you want to delete something at that time, delete only what doesn't serve/move the story or the characters, that's all. 

Don't delete something because you're worried what other people will think of you. Do something nice for yourself once it's over. You might be high on the accomplishment, you might be exhausted, but find a way to appreciate your effort. A movie, a trashy book to read that doesn't tax your brain, a new pair of shoes, a phone call to a friend to relate your harrowing experience and be told you're awesome. 

After that weekend, going back to write other sexually explicit scenes leading up to the peep show was a piece of cake. I enjoyed it. And now I can say 'been there, done that' about writing sex. Sure, there are different types of sex, different degrees, and I could try writing them all, but that was the edge for me, and it was enough. You'll be uncomfortable, but also have a great time with it because once you get past doing it the first time and realize you didn't spontaneously combust, you can appreciate the line you crossed, you'll feel more confident in your abilities, and you can look forward to shaking up your readers. 

So what's your edge? 

What scares you to write? Is it sex? Religious fervor/obsession/possession? The truth about your parents' marriage? The truth about your marriage? Death? Murder? Abuse? War? It doesn't have to be something big, humans are cruel and horrible in many small ways, but go for something big first. Go for broke. Get twisted. If you're working on something right now, look for the dark side and run straight for it. What you write may come out awkward, cliché, maybe too soft. The important thing is to keep pushing into the ugly. Don't let anything hold you back. You will get somewhere you never expected and, whether you use what you wrote or not, you'll be a better writer for it. I dare you. 


Christine Stewart is a writer/editor in Baltimore and program director for literary arts with her state arts council. For editing services email, and join her Facebook page:


  1. Wow, Christine! I think you were talking right to my deep, hidden, thrust-down-as-far-as-I-can fears. I have a thought about doing a memoir but wonder how I would handle the whole truth, or whether I would skip over some stuff. How do you handle the fact that your truth may really impact someone close to you?


Post a Comment

Worthy WE Wisdom

The Six Act Two-Goal Novel

What makes for good drama is a constant. To begin, we combine Siegal's "nine act structure - two goal" screenplay (very much like the Syd Field three act except that the "reversal" from Field's structure joins "Act 5" in Siegal's version) with the Field classic three act. The Two-Goal Structure, Siegal maintains, creates more dynamic plot tension due to the insertion of PLOT REVERSAL later in the story. We concur.  NOTE:  "Plot Point" is defined here as a major occurrence that emphatically changes the course of the story. In the genre novel as a whole, we see three to five major plot points depending on various factors: a first PP that begins the rising action, second PP defined by the first major reversal, a third PP defined by a possible second major reversal, a climax PP, and a theoretical PP residing in the denouement, i.e., we think the story is going to resolve a certain way after climax, but a surprise happens that resolves

"Top Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice" (and it gets worse)

OUTSIDE OF NARCISSISM, IMPATIENCE AND BAD ADVICE ARE A WRITER'S WORST ENEMIES . If you ever attend writer events, you will never cease to hear utterances of bad writing advice, the popular kind that circulate like  ruinous viral memes through the nervous systems of America's aborning novel writers. And each time you are exposed, you either chuckle or swear, depending on your mood and the circumstance. You might make a daring attempt to kill the meme in its tracks before it can infect someone else, or you might just stare at the writer with a dumbfounded look and ask, "Where the hell did you hear that?" Yes, the primal question: WHERE THE HELL DID YOU HEAR THAT? Inevitably, many will point to their writer's group . Ahhhh, of course , you think. Why just recently at an Algonkian event , one of my faculty (a former senior editor at Random House) and I were faced with an individual who adamantly asserted to us both that using only one point of view to write a n

What Makes a Good Memoir?

By Paula Margulies As a publicist, I'm sent books of all genres by authors interested in my services, but lately I seem to be on the receiving end of a lot of memoirs. I've also spoken to a higher-than-usual number of memoir writers, who either telephone or approach me with questions at writer's conferences. The bulk of these conversations have to do with why their memoirs aren’t selling and what the authors can do to make them better. My first suggestion for all memoir writers is to take a look at their market and identify the different types of people who would want to read their book. This is tricky, for while many memoir writers have done a good job of detailing certain aspects of their personal history, a number of them have not thought about who might be interested in reading what they've written. A lot of memoirs I've seen recently are nothing more than personal recountings of an individual’s experiences – some of which are, indeed, memorable. But I

Labors, Sins, and Six Acts - Official Novel Writing Guide - All Genres

An ideal first stop... You will discover below a series of scholarly, researchable, frank and indispensable guides to conceiving and writing the commercial genre novel, as well as the plot-driven literary novel. But the cutting edge of the developmental peels and prods as presented makes an initial big assumption, namely, that you are honestly desirous of true publication either by a classic publisher or traditional literary press , and therefore, willing to birth the most dynamic and can't-put-it-down novel you possibly can. Further, you are also naturally desirous of great sets, mind-altering theme, unforgettable characters, and cinematic scenes, among other things. Does that go without saying?   Perhaps, but you must know, it won't be easy. Labors and Sins First of all, the method-based assertions and information we've gathered and elevated before your eyes below will shiver many of you like a 6.5 on the literary Richter scale because it will contr

Loglines and Hooks With Core Wounds

HOOK OR LOG WITH CORE WOUND AND CONFLICT Your hook line (also known as logline) is your first chance to get a New York or Hollywood professional interested in your novel. It can be utilized in your query to hook the agent into requesting the project. It is especially useful for those pitch sessions at conferences, lunches, in the elevator, or anywhere else. When a prospective agent or editor asks you what your book is about, your high-concept hook line is your answer. Writing one also encourages a realization of those primary elements that will make your novel into a work of powerful fiction.  The great novel, more often than not, comprises two stories: the exterior story or plot line, and an interior story focused primarily on the protagonist, one that defines and catalyzes her or his evolutionary arc throughout the novel. For example, a protagonist with a flaw or core wound that prevents her from achieving a worthwhile goal is forced to respond to a lifechanging event instigated

"High Concept"? Sufficiently Unique? - Write a Tale That Might Actually Sell

Aspire to be a great genre author? So what's your high concept?...  If you fail to grasp the vital importance of this second question, you will fail to conceive much less write a publishable genre novel - thriller, mystery, fantasy, horror, crime, SF, you name it. Just not going to happen. Don't let any writer group or self-appointed writer guru online or writer conference panel tell you otherwise. You're competing with tens of thousands of other aspiring authors in your genre. Consider. WHAT IS GOING TO MAKE YOUR NOVEL STAND OUT from the morass of throat-gulping hopefuls who don't know any better? Believe it or not, 99.5% of the writers in workshops all across the country *do not* arrive with a high-concept story. If anything, their aborning novel child is destined for still birth. They strut forward proudly waving their middle or low concept tale while noting how their hired editor from Stanford, or Iowa, or the Johns Hopkins MA program just "loves it!"