There’s a question checklist I go through before I start typing away on any new project.
Do I have a kick-ass main character who’s flawed, has agency, and is interesting enough for me to want to hang out with for what could be—if it’s a successful series—the rest of my life? Am I bringing something new to the genre? What’s the theme? What’s it about? Am I a hack who’s going to be found out sooner rather than later? Why the fuck would anyone want to read this? All good questions a writer should ask themselves. Over these last few years, I’ve added a new question.
Am I bleeding?
As in the Hemingway, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed” type of bleeding, not the literal bleeding. Which I have done. I was twelve. Making my own comic books. Bit my nails and had cracked cuticles that would literally bleed on the page. But these days, I cut my nails with a clipper, so I have to bleed metaphorically.
Is my soul leaking onto the page?
For me, a person who likes to escape by writing science fiction and fantasy, it’s easy to forget to bleed. I’m writing about far away galaxies and giants and dragons. I’m taking a break from my life, I don’t need, nor do I want to cut myself open before I put finger to key.
But, as I get older, I’ve found the power in it. I never fail to ask myself now: In this project, how am I going to slit my veins lengthwise and gush sanguine on this here page?
Out of all the writing advice out there, I think bleeding on the page might be talked about the least.
How do you do it?
You get plenty of tips and tricks on how to create a flawed protagonist. How to craft worthy villains for them to face. How to world build. But how do we bleed? How do we show that rawest side of ourselves? How do you know you’re doing it right?
And I think the answer is: it’s really hard. By its very nature, bleeding on the page is, if you’re doing it right, uncomfortable, and you may be subconsciously avoiding it.
I’m not saying you have to do it. I’m sure there are a great many excellent pieces of material where the author had a healthy distance from their characters. But, at least for me, I think the bleeding may be one of the reasons my most recent manuscript has gotten more strangers to endorse it than any other piece I've written so far. I think, for the first time, I bled in the Goldilocks Zone.
I’ve written things that were more autobiographical, about teenage drug use and first love madness. Though I was bleeding, there was no concept to the piece, so while it may have been OK for a small group of friends to read, to agents and producers, it was a tough sell.
I’ve also written high-concept ideas that have hardly a speckle of blood to them. Fun romps through space and time, but lacking in raw truth. This time around, I tried to balance the two.
Concept and blood.
I took my time finding a concept—as unique as any can truly be—and united it with something from my life, something that makes my jaw tight, teeth grind, stomach wrench into knots ... and I used it. The thing that makes me feel that way is about my son.
I’ve been divorced now for five years. And though I’ve never had to meet the new man in my ex’s life, I know she’s had them. At least two that my son has met. What scares me is that one of these guys will be cooler than me, and my son will like him more. That he’ll be richer (not hard to do as a writer) and have, like, a water-park in his backyard. Taller and better at basketball (which my son and I play together on the regs). Handsomer. Better teeth. I picture them in my mind—because I can’t find their social media (not for a lack of trying)—and it keeps me up at night. Thinking about my ex, my son, and this probable Chris Hemsworth son of a bitch hanging out and having a grand old time makes me sick.
So, that’s what I used. I put my main character through the same thing I’m going through, though, of course, I put him in this high-concept, supernatural sandbox. And what’s important is to get granular. All the little details in there. The more specific they are the better.
Even though it sucks to do—get that specific—it gives the piece a wider appeal. Adding your unique pain gives the piece verisimilitude, drawing the reader in.
And as you edit and draft the prose, a weird thing happens—the thing you’re so fucked up inside about ... it doesn’t seem that bad. That fear, that person or thing that made you feel the way you felt, now that you’ve played with it—made it into this hyperbolic Chris Hemsowrth fantasy that couldn’t possibly represent the real thing any longer—once you’ve done that, the actual thing might not affect you as much.
There can be healing after bleeding.
Now, I don’t want you to think that bleeding can’t be fun. It is. It just starts out kind of shitty. You have to be real with yourself and dig into some deeply uncomfortable thoughts. But once you’ve gotten all of those fears onto the page, now you get to exorcise them.
That’s the fun part.
You get to do whatever you want to that nagging fear. You get to play out whatever fantasy you had in regards to that person or thing.
So, if you, dear writer, want to try bleeding, I’d encourage it. And if it makes your stomach flip, forehead sweat, teeth grind, don’t get up and walk away from the keyboard.
Stay. Keep typing.
You are bleeding right.
*Feature Photo: National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons