The season of ghosts, goblins and fun-size candy bars is upon us, and comparisons between Halloween and fiction writing are unavoidable. On Halloween, some children like to dress as witches; when I’m facing a tight deadline and the words aren’t flowing, I’ve been known to act like a witch. On Halloween, people adorn their houses with gauzy fake cobwebs; when I’m deep into a writing project, I forget to vacuum. Haunted houses are a Halloween staple; most novelists I know are haunted by their characters.
However, what truly links writing and Halloween is that they’re both about fear and chocolate. Writing is one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. But the promise of chocolate keeps me going.
Journalist Red Smith was famous for saying, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” Gushing blood is a gross and gory image, but also an apt one. For most novelists, writing means exposing our innards to the world. We cut deep into our souls to examine our experiences and our emotions, our dreams and our dreads. Then we yank out whatever we find in our guts and display it before the world in the pages of our books.
But sharing our thoughts and feelings with the universe, while hair-raising, is just the beginning of writer fright. We fear that what we’re writing will suck. We fear that editors will hate it. We fear that readers will hate it. We fear rejection. We fear that our labor will earn us no money and we won’t be able to pay the electric bill. We fear that our computer will be invaded by a virus which will devour the manuscript we’ve been sweating over for the past six months. We fear that the cover art for our books will be butt-ugly. (Trust me: some of my books have had covers that can send a person shrieking into the night.)
In my writing, I’ve often stepped outside my comfort zone, and that can be terrifying. As a novelist known for women’s fiction and romances, do I dare to write a mystery? As a writer of comedies, should I risk writing a dark, heavy drama? As an author known for decent, kind-hearted characters, should I create characters who are brutish and bitter? What if I’m not good enough? What if I can’t pull it off?
I once pitched a story to an editor. I warned her it was going to be controversial and a bit violent. She told me to go ahead and write the book and added, “I will give you only one bit of guidance: don’t hold back.” Excellent advice, perhaps the best I’ve ever received from an editor—but not holding back when I’m pouring my heart and soul into a story is the most frightening thing I can think of. Yet that’s what I do. Every day. Not just on Halloween.
Writing novels can be downright terrifying. But the treats—the thrill of creating, the joy of sharing my passions and my artistry with others, the power of controlling things in my stories in a way I can’t control them in real life—make the tricks bearable.
And yes, there’s chocolate. M&M’s and Snickers for the kids dressed up in costumes; a Godiva dark-chocolate truffle for me as a reward for completing a manuscript—or sometimes just completing a beautifully crafted paragraph. The kids hike up and down the street, ringing doorbells and pleading for goodies, while I hike up and down my imagination, banging on doors and pleading for ideas. Knowing that there’s a delicious piece of chocolate waiting for me at the end of a long day spent opening veins and bleeding is often all the inspiration I need.
Fear and chocolate: the life of the writer. Happy Halloween, everyone!
Judith Arnold has published more than 85 novels. Her new novel, Good-Bye To All That, is scheduled for March 2012 release. In the meantime, she’s busy learning how to be a publisher by reissuing some of her out-of-print books as e-books.