Write scared. Write as if nobody will ever read your words. Write as if someone will. Write as if they all will.
Write the kind of story you want to read, one of those precious books you can’t put down because to stop would mean abandoning characters who feel like family; love or hate them, you can’t leave them.
There is no safe way to write a page-turner, a keep-you-up-till-4am-story. Books that play it safe feel safe as we read. The stakes aren't that high, the risks don't seem very risky, the character's problems aren't even as troublesome as those we face in our own lives. As a writer, I imagine that author at work, crafting the story safely, leaving this part out because it might be offensive, changing that character's decision because it's too controversial. Books that leave me with dark circles under my eyes the next day make me nervous as I read. Worried, anxious, elated and then stunned with outrage, thrilled at the small triumphs right on the heels of being dismayed at an unexpected outcome. Anticipation and recognition color the journey -- I know these characters; I've thought those thoughts; I absolutely must see this through.
It’s where readers live, that whole other world created inside the pages of a book, inviting you in, making you comfortable … and then yanking the rug out from under you, leaving you breathless and terrified, knowing you have no choice to keep reading, keeping living in that world, to find out what happens next. The pages are not paper but landscape; the words not narrative but voice, action, emotion. You’re right there with the main character; his stakes are your stakes; if he fails, you experience that agony just as he does, and if you close the book, it gets worse, spilling out of the created world and into your own.
It is the same with writing. A story left in the dark, never given voice, manifests as all sorts of things scarier than the monsters and clowns in a Stephen King book, things a writer knows well: self-doubt, anger, regret, depression, fear. Ah, the fear again. But we can use that fear. Fear is healthy when it forces progress. In the process of outrunning the fear, if we use it to begin writing what we’re really afraid to write, we banish all of those scary things. They are crushed under the weight of the story, the one we write scared, the one that is ultimately the truth in fancy clothes.
Nothing is scarier than that. That is what I want to read. That is what I strive to write.