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The first novel I ever wrote was a fantasy. As a new, very green writer, I soaked up all the information I could learn about the genre and the craft in general. One particular “Aha!” moment came when I stumbled across the term Suspension of disbelief.
It sounded cool and literary. I wanted to be cool and literary. Such a phrase, I thought, might come in handy to casually drop into the conversation at my first book-signing or live television interview.
Did I mention I was 23 years old and unflappably optimistic about my future success?
Suspension of disbelief, I learned, was a crucial element in any work of fantasy. Why should the reader care that your protagonist is stuck in a parallel universe, when everyone knows such things don’t even exist?
The skilful fantasy writer invites the reader to suspend their disbelief for the duration of the story. Not to believe that things such as portals and alternate realities actually exist; but to consciously put aside their natural skepticism in order to engage in the story and enjoy it.
There are deliberate strategies a writer can use to aid this process. (Don’t ask me what they are. I can only remember one of them. I’ve had three babies in a short space of time, okay? Brain cells have been irretrievably lost.)
Luckily, that’s not the point of this post. If you’re a fantasy writer, I apologize, and I promise I’ll refund all the money you paid to read this.
The thing is, lately it’s occurred to me that this principle holds another, completely different layer of meaning for writers.
Whatever genre you write, be it fantasy or romance or realism, as a writer you engage in the act of suspending disbelief on a daily basis.
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Think about it.
We all know the statistics. We know the grim facts about repeated rejection, and how competitive this market is, and how hard it is for an unknown author to break in at all, let alone stay published.
It’s easy to let those things get to us. Especially as time drags by, and it seems we’re no closer to reaching our dreams than ever before.
At those times, the voice of disbelief is strong. Who are you to think you can do this writing thing? Are you kidding yourself? You’re sacrificing so much of your time and effort – and for what? A pipe dream. That’s all it is. It’s never going to happen. You obviously just don’t have what it takes.
The simple fact is, writing a book takes a heck of a lot of effort, over a sustained period of time. It involves sacrifice. Early mornings when the harsh buzz of the alarm intrudes on your cosy slumber. Late evenings when all you feel like doing is curling up in front of the TV and not having to think. For some, it means sacrificing potential income. For others, it means being misunderstood by those closest to you, the ones whose support you most crave, who just don’t seem to “get” what you’re trying to do.
It means writing when you don’t feel like it; subjecting yourself to critiques that hurt like nails scraped over sunburnt skin. It means entering contests and enduring negative feedback. Submitting with hope and receiving the gut-punch of rejection. Rewriting your book yet again, even though each cut feels like you’re severing one of your own limbs.
It means smiling and answering politely when someone asks you for the hundredth time why your book hasn’t been published yet.
What keeps us going, through all of that? What keeps us pressing on toward our goal?
Suspension of disbelief.
If you’re listening to the voice of disbelief that tells you it can’t be done and who are you to even try – well, honestly, why bother? Who would carry on?
We keep going because we make a deliberate choice to put aside that voice of negativity. To suspend our own disbelief, no matter how valid it may seem to us at the time.
Knowing everything we know about the industry, the state of the market, the reality of how long this might take – we don’t deny those things; rather, we give them a polite nod and hang them on the coat rack in the hall, where they can just jolly well wait, while we get busy doing what we’re meant to do.
To keep on writing.
There’s a decade of waiting between me and that green new writer I once was – the one who daydreamed about which famous actor should be cast in the lead role when Hollywood snatched up the movie rights to my book. Back then, I learned how to suspend disbelief for the reader. These days, I’m more concerned with suspending disbelief in myself.
Time has a way of putting a tarnish on the most patient hope. But the simple truth is that the voice of disbelief never comes from God. God does not discourage, pull down, crush, dishearten or condemn.
God speaks in a voice of possibility.
He speaks faith. Hope. Perseverence. Conviction. Life.
Which voice would you rather listen to?
Do you find yourself consciously needing to suspend disbelief at times, in order to press on as a writer? What tips have helped you do this?
Karen Schravemade lives Downunder and likes to confuse her American friends by using weird Australian figures of speech. When she's not chasing after two small boys or cuddling her baby girl, she spends her spare minutes daydreaming about the intricate lives of characters who don't actually exist. Find her on her website and Twitter.