Asper ad astra, baby.
Reach for the stars, or maybe, Hope for the stars. Writers are always setting challenges of every sort, at every level. We want to say something in such a way that other people want to hear it, but it is the challenges we set ourselves that make that possible.
Speaking practically, most of us want to be published because that’s generally a good way to get read. Meeting this goal is the job of writing, and it’s one we must keep meeting, again and again. We all know the drill: We put down words. We finish stuff. We send out stories. We exchange our work with other writers. We spend time on writing blogs, listen to professionals. We learn about the business end. We attend workshops. While the rewards of this work are specific — publications, money, recognition – the challenge is ongoing. Winning a Hugo doesn’t save anyone from having to write more words, not if she still wants to be a writer.
Writers of science fiction and fantasy maybe reach for the stars a little more literally than the general run of authors. We’re all about people striving for great things. In science fiction this is obvious; but fantasy is also about going out there– not to the real stars, but to places as distant and wondrous: Faerie, Narnia, myth.
We use challenges tactically as well, to kick-start individual stories. Content challenges are usually restrictions: I must write this story in first-person present tense. I must include Tolstoy and running shoes. I must not use adverbs. Or we work toward deadlines such as NaNoWriMo or the Writers of the Future quarters: I must have this done by December 31st.
Deadlines aren’t an infallible spur for me, as anyone I have ever promised a story to can attest. but prompts can work pretty well, usually in combination with something I was already brooding about, but which lacked the catalyst that would precipitate the story. “Monkeys” and “gazing into the abyss” were good prompts for me. Not every prompt is a good one, but even a clearly frivolous one can be productive: write a story without the word “the,” and you’ll have an unpublishable story — and some otherwise unattainable insights into syntax and cadence.
These days a lot of my challenges are structural, because I don’t think of myself as someone who understands plot. So: can I write an effective story with the hysteron proteron structure? How far down can narrative be broken down and still be coherent? Some of these projects are doomed from the get-go, but still worth the attempt.
I would argue that most of our prompts are not challenges, in that they may get a story on the page but they don’t deepen us as writers. “More words” is (usually) good, but “harder words” is better. Our challenges to ourselves should not be easy, and as we get better they should get harder. Writing should never get easy. Another good motto for writers: Ad astra per aspera. “To the stars with difficulty” — the Kansas state motto.
But I think that for me — for everyone – the greatest, really important challenges, have to do with writing about difficult things: deep emotions and hard truths. These require that we face them ourselves, and then that we use our craft and art to make them readable, bearable yet still true. Can I write a story that expresses black despair or white anger? Am I willing to explore and then utilize my despair, my anger? And can I take the reader with me, not as an exhibitionist might but as someone trying to say something about depression or anger? Succeed or fail, this is terrifying.
We should be exploring these profound elements from Day One as writers, but as our craft improves, our engagement should also increase. It’s regrettable if a new writer is insincere, but for an experienced writer it is unforgivable. Writing should get harder, not easier.
Writing for emotional verity is an ever-receding goal. For the last few years, I have written a series of short stories where I dared myself to dig deeper, and as soon as I’ve put THE END on one and breathed a sigh of relief – done with the digging! — I find there’s another story with an even more difficult emotional exploration. I keep hoping I’ll get to the bottom of Pandora’s box and find a romantic comedy. I am only now coming to realize that there will probably always be another, even more difficult story that needs to be told. Even if I write a romantic comedy someday, it will have to come from the same place my darker fiction has, from as deep inside as I can go: how do we laugh and love in the face of tragedy, or darkness? This is a worthy challenge, and I hope I am up to it.
Can we ever reach the stars? Is there ever a day when we can afford to slack off a little, maybe write a story we don’t engage with quite so much? It would be dishonest for me to say that all my stories come from the same deep well, but when I do notice insincerity, I take the story apart and rebuild it to make it as true as it can be. Finding the heart to what might otherwise be a finger-exercise is one of the best challenges I can set myself.
And it is the quality of the challenges I set for myself that will determine the quality of my fiction. Asper ad astra.