I spent some time on Saturday in a large plastic water-tank (about 6000 gallons) – A tank I had inadvertently put a crack into, and was now trying to weld. The tank has been used for at least 20 years to pump muddy dam water uphill to allow garden irrigation pressure – so it had more than a token amount of silty mud in it, and we couldn’t drain the last of the water out.
We tried leverage and to use a suction cup glass transporter to pull the edges of the crack into alignment – but alas, it didn’t handle the convex surface well, and it required more force than the suction could handle. So it had to be dealt with from the inside.
It was dark, hot, humid, and pungent in there. I planned to try to hammer the crack to line up the edges, with a rubber mallet, before it could be welded.
Now the problem here was to get in the tiny manhole (to have it reachable without having to dive off a ladder –and then be stuck for eternity inside – as the manhole was too small for a ladder) the crack had to be at about my first rib to shoulder height.
From the outside that seemed quite ideal and easy to work at. The manhole was about the same height, maybe a fraction lower.
It was plainly not going to be fun, but it’s my problem so I dived in through the tiny hole. I mean ‘dived’ because your feet are off the ground, and you slither through the sharp edged hole with occasional echoing shrieks of… well not glee, as you trap certain delicate parts of the anatomy on the hard, sharp edges. A little more and it could have been… if not girlish glee, some sort of imitation. The dive ended with my hands in the muddy slithery puddle and with some difficulty I managed not face-plant into it.
And then in that echoing hot darkness came the point of this piece of writing, and its applicability to writing. I had a goal, just up a curving slope, in sight…
But not really in reach. I could touch it… with more than a little risk of landing face-first in the mud, because it meant getting up what didn’t seem a very steep slope. A smooth slope, however, covered in viscous mud.
Some epic swing-and-slither with the rubber-mallet followed, because I could simply not gain enough traction to get the 8-10 inches that I really needed for the job… As the bishop said to the actress. I added having the mallet head come off, and bounce into the puddle, and my exploring hands searching for it finding a frog.
The bottom line was that I was just not quite up to the job unassisted. What would have been quite easy if I’d been taller, or able to stand any higher up the slope without falling, was near impossible.
And this, frankly is the key to almost every phase of writing. Nothing is as boring as the character who can just do everything. It’s at the heart of the wish-fulfilment Mary-Sues so beloved of the modern left. The Reys who are just so independently brilliant they never land on their faces in the puddle, or get deafened by beating a big reverberating drum from inside, or have gobs of glutinous gunk plopping down on them every time they tried. It’s not how Frederica fearlessly flattened her villainous opponent in the timber-store which she was easily capable of, being twice as fast, twice as smart, and a trained martial artist etc. … It’s how Frederica, in the timber store with her even smaller friend, terrified, a quarter the weight of her opponent, who was a master of martial arts – flattened him with a two by four while the friend who distracted the villain for that crucial second. The story revolves around how she gets the two by four, and finds the willing friend.
It’s a lousy story if the character has the traction and you just tell me they do it. It’s potentially a great story if they solve the problem – with the unlikely tools that you, the cruel author gave them, in a plausible way.
As you can see I am standing on a suction cup glass transporter. Without it, and the little bit of traction it gave to me, I’d still be trying. It made a funny story, and amused a fair number of my readers. My easy success would not have.
Ergo: make it hard to seemingly impossible for your character, rather than giving them all the attributes they would need. ALSO include the tools that they will need early (see paragraph 2).
Now, in a strange sense, it is writing about what most of us in writing world know about. Just in our writing – let alone life. Look, with rare exceptions, most of us simply don’t have the traction (or luck) to get up the starting slope with selling enough books to make a success out of this. Which is why it is essential to not just rely on your story and skill in writing it, but to aid that traction in every way you can. Be that investing in a good cover, making a network of friends and contacts to help promote it. (Seriously, trust me on this: if you set out to make a network JUST to promote your book, the chances are it will fail. If you make a network of friends and contacts where you take an interest in them or their interests (be that a gamer group, a gun forum or a SJW bandwagon) into which you rarely intrude with your books, it’ll work better.) And yes, even here luck is a factor. Your pictures of taping bacon to your cat go viral, and as a result you get to promote your book widely. Another day, another person, a more interesting thing… and it wouldn’t. For so many authors, this luck never happens. Their talent may far exceed (or not) the lucky. But here’s the thing: the more you try, the better your chance at such ‘luck’ (sometimes it is just luck, and sometimes it is hard work + luck).
Keep swimming up the undertow…