This is gonna be a writing one.
I haven’t done a writing post in awhile because I feel like, in many ways, I have said all the things that I can possibly say about writing. And in other ways, I feel like I am still trying to figure this whole literacy thing out for myself and who am I to tell you anything. Also, I don’t want to be that tedious person who talks about their job all the time. Blah-blah-blah-I-make-up-whole-worlds-for-a-living-blah-blah-blah.
However, I feel as if this topic is actually relevant to readers as well as writers, so I’m going to give it a go. I want to talk about how we, as writers, ought to think about how we say things on purpose and also say things by accident. And I also want to talk about how I don’t mean messaging or pedagogy.
Let’s do this thing.
When I first started out as a writer, I didn’t think about any of this. At all. I didn’t think about theme. I didn’t think about what people might take away from my writing. I couldn’t. Writing was a bunch of balloons and it took all my concentration just to hold them all. Sometimes one of the balloons would get away and I would just have to hope it was not an important one, because I didn’t have any hands free to try to grab it.
Now, however, I don’t write a scene WITHOUT thinking about this. Which brings me to:
SAYING THINGS ON PURPOSE
My novels are character-driven, which means reader satisfaction comes largely from seeing people change over the course of the novel. For instance, I knew I wanted Sean from The Scorpio Races to start out solitary and end up learning the power of human relationships. Right here: this is my first decision. I am consciously choosing to say that being solitary < good family relationships.* Sean Kendrick becomes a thesis statement and the novel’s events become my proof.
*this is grossly over-simplified but basically blah-blah-I-make-up-whole-worlds-for-a-living-blah-blah
At the very beginning of the novel, Sean-As-A-Child watches his father die messily during the races. It’s an action that could have many different effects on a person. As a writer, I have to make a choice for my character in this moment.
So, Sean sees his father die. As a result, he vows to never be afraid — his father had been afraid before he died — and he also withdraws from human contact.
Decision! Done! But if I’m a good writer, I’ll question it: Do I think I’m saying a true thing? Let's look. What I’m saying is I think seeing someone die could make you guard your heart against later damage. But what I’m also saying, you'll notice, is I think a kid can watch his father die and not be destroyed by it. I’m saying if you grow up on a savage island populated by savage creatures and men, you might already be inured to death as a child.
As a writer, I should know that I’m saying not one of these things, but all of them. And as a writer, I have to believe they could be true reactions, or I should change what I’m saying.
Now, this was why I got upset about literary rape earlier this year. Because I felt writers were thoughtlessly and simplistically using rape as a defining moment for their female characters. For instance, I read a novel where a woman was raped and as a consequence became a cold-blooded killer/ sex fiend. What the writer was saying, by choice or by not, was a thesis statement about rape. Yes, the writer says, I think it is plausible that being raped would remove all of your tender emotions and render you without empathy or soul. And also make you crazy for . . . more sex?
If that is what the writer believes, go for it. Write what you believe is true.** But as a reader, I want to feel that the writer has thought about it. That they know what they’re doing and are in control. That they’ve made character decisions they believe could be true. Not just character decisions that are easy.
**and yes, I do think all fiction of every genre should aspire to truth in order to have maximum emotional resonance.***
***and if you're not writing to make readers have FEELS, what in the world are you writing for?****
****fine, fine. But I'm talking commercial fiction here. It's what I do*****
Which brings me to:
SAYING THINGS BY ACCIDENT
As writers, we all have our biases, and a good writer — one that’s learning how to hold all the balloons without letting them escape— will be aware of their own. And a good writer will know that it's hard to avoid saying things by accident. For instance, here’s some things I should know about myself:
1- I have no negative baggage with kissing. So I’ll tend to see a kiss as a positive. Not universally true, Maggie.
2 - I like living in the middle of nowhere. I have to work extra hard to not make all of my characters prefer the middle of nowhere. Some people prefer cities, Maggie.
3 - I play musical instruments. Not everyone plays musical instruments, Maggie.
4 - I freaking love cars. Not everyone cares about manual transmissions, Maggie.
5 - I have a complicated and adoring relationship with my father. Why you write so many daddy issues, Maggie?
6 - You have an underdeveloped sense of self-preservation, Maggie. Remember to make your characters afraid, Maggie!
We bring our own biases and beliefs and politics to the table as a writer. I don’t think we have to try to scrub them all out — specificity and voice are glorious things. But the more we make those subconscious choices into conscious ones, the more control we’ll have. And more control means better writing. Which brings me to:
I don’t like it. People ask me a lot of time if I’m trying to send a good message to the youth of America, since I write for teens. I’m not, I’m afraid. I would if I was writing for middle graders. Because they are young and squashy and their heads are still being formed. But I write for upper teens, and I’m not going to condescend to Teach Them Lessons.
I did worry when I started this post that folks would read it as a handbook for subliminal messages and pedagogy. But when I say I’m choosing what my book is saying, it’s not because I’m trying to say what’s Right. It’s because I’m trying to say what’s True.