What Drives Your Fiction?

“The rest of it – and perhaps the best of it – is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”

Stephen King, On Writing


What’s the primary vehicle behind your words?

A sports car, all angry growls and bright headlights screaming in the night?

A sleek roadster, all curves and purrs cruising languid on a Sunday afternoon?

A cozy sedan with air bags, a sunroof, and the best safety ratings in the country?

A tired old junker, barely holding itself together, let alone its own on the road?

There’s a certain headspace writers slip into when creating words and worlds, but there’s another space, a deeper one, that guides the path of those words–the emotional space. Let’s call it the hurt engine.

Some people thrive creatively when their hurt engine is fueled with anger, others work best with a stream of sorrow or happiness, and some can write no matter what emotions are flowing in the real.

Of the five novels I’ve written in as many years, the earliest two were penned when my hurt engine lived up to the name and was, in truth, running on overdrive. The words flowed and the stories poured out, like the perfect mix of gasoline and air through a carburetor. I wrote the first draft of the first novel in forty days and two weeks later started the second. Thirty days later, that first draft was done, too.

Unfortunately, both novels needed heavy-duty edits/rewrites because while the words were driven by hurt, they were twisted by it too. Had I perhaps edited the first novel before penning the second, I might have realized what I’d done wrong. Live and learn, right?

Imagine my surprise when I started the next novel and the words didn’t have the same flow. It didn’t take long to figure out why. My hurt engine was running on a different fuel. I won’t lie, I missed the rush. Instead of zipping along at 95, I was stuck on 50. But I finished the novel nonetheless. The story is cleaner, but I’m a pantser, not a plotter, so my first drafts always have a bit of rust on their edges. My motto is “first draft is for story, second draft is for pretty.”

Sometimes the hurt engine doesn’t affect productivity, but it changes the flavor of the prose. I can tell what was fueling my hurt engine in my fiction by the word choices I make, by the staccato rhythm or the lyrical quality of the sentences.

I’ve since learned that I can trick the hurt engine when needed. I’ve written a story that required a certain taste of sorrow, and even though I wasn’t feeling sad at that moment, I pulled the necessary fuel from a memory and poured that into the story instead.

I’ve also learned how to set things on literary cruise control by swallowing the emotional fuel. The hurt engine becomes a quiet place of numbness. And yes, I can tell what stories I’ve written in that place, too.

Last year I wrote the most deeply personal short story I’ve ever written. I had to dig deep into a place I don’t like for the fuel, but the story is probably my strongest work ever. It sold quickly and well, but no, I’m not going to tell you which story it is.

The only stone in my tire is anger. I can’t write when I’m angry. At all. Sure, I can fire off an expletive-filled email, no problem, but fiction? Impossible. Fortunately, my anger burns bright and hot and then fades. I might still be angry, but the rage fuel tank is empty. And then I get back to work.

So what about you? What fuels your hurt engine? Do you escape your emotions when you write or do you let the emotions paint your words? Do you get blocked when you’re not in the thick of your preferred emotional space?

Try changing your fuel and let’s go for a drive.


One thought on “What Drives Your Fiction?

  1. I find that my emotions often inspire ideas, but get in the way of writing. It's when I look back on them later, play with the memory of how they felt, that I'm able to use them to fuel my writing. I guess I just need something a little less raw in order to be coherent.

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