Young writers hear so many writing rules, but they usually boil down to variations on one thing:
Well I didn’t. When I started writing my dark fantasy novel Heartsnare in 2011, I just wanted to write. I love stories and I wanted to make some up, simple as that. Many people I’ve talked to even felt that they couldn’t write because they didn’t know what they wanted to say. Forget this rule, I say. There are more important ones out there.
Another rule in writing is that you are meant to tell a truth, albeit in an askance sort of way. Somewhere in those intervening seasons of actually writing my book, which took about four years and a good portion of my anxiety-filled twenties, I realised that, yes, there was something I wanted to be honest about.
In those years, I was reading a lot. This was right around the time when YA fiction began to hurtle toward the Best Selling lists, and with it came one story told time and time again: the idea that a “Chosen One” will have their gilded destiny handed them before they’ve even crossed into their third decade of life, and that they will rise to that challenge while falling madly and eternally in love.
If you sense a sneer coming, there is in fact no curl to my lip. There are many stories that accomplish this form of heroic journey well, and sometimes they even manage to tread new ground while doing so. I’d argue that The Hunger Games plays a variation on those themes that is, while sometimes uneven, ultimately rewarding.
Those are other people’s stories though, they were never mine. And perhaps inevitably, though without meaning to, I created a book that rallies against those tropes.
Due to a heart condition my queer twenty-something protagonist Eric had no teenage years to speak of. He gets out of the hospital to find that life’s grind is anything but heroic, his major love interest never gives him the romantic deflowering he so desires and, when he does happen on a world of dark powers and deadly monsters, it’s actually his own mental state that is his greatest enemy.
I wouldn’t say I wanted to bring a dose of reality to the fantasy genre, but I did want to frame a story that sounded more truthful, to my ear at least. This grazes a deeper truth that simmered beneath my skin while writing this book, and it’s one about that all important word “authenticity”.
At some point in the writing process it dawned on me that I wanted to unearth characters who sounded like the people I grew up with and, admittedly, who sounded like me. Well, not me exactly, because I probably wouldn’t do well as part of a supernatural army where people are dying at the equivalent rate of bad talent shows popping up on the TV. But a queer Yorkshireman bumbling through an arse-clenching, monster-marauding situation while still trying to juggle day to day life, and being painfully sarcastic about it all? Oh yes, I quite fancied that.
The thing is, we often talk about characterization as if it’s entirely separate from the setting of a book, and indeed a great deal of popular fiction and so-called low fantasy and urban fantasy fiction is written so that, while some city name might be mentioned, the characters could be from anywhere. In terms of tempting in a wider audience, this makes sense. But the work it produces is often less than stellar. The dialogue is sterile, and the characters are often free of those little quirks, those bonds that tie communities together while setting individuals apart.
Well I love those quirks, and now I realize that the Yorkshire setting of my book is fundamental to my main character Eric expressing who he is. It has shaped him. It has shaped me. When he tells people to “sod off” or when he confesses, “We’ve made a proper mess of things,” he does so with Yorkshire honey on his tongue. True, it’s not always that sweet a taste, but it is a recognisable flavour nonetheless.
With that realization, I found I did have something to say after all. It’s a truth that took time to unearth but led me to the heart of who I was as a writer, and it’s about being queer, and it’s about being from some place small, and it’s about integrity.
There are many trends in the fiction market at the moment, but there are some things that are timeless. Retaining our voices is vital, and especially for those from minority communities like the LGBT community of which I am a part. I’ll use this as an example, but anyone who might find themselves in a minority–and most of us are in some way–will find this resonates.
In books today, queer identity is so often reduced to narrow but easily saleable frameworks. Click To Tweet Situations like coming out stories, sexual fantasies or, arguably most pervasive of all, the incidental character trait, are all too common. “Oh, my hero just happens to be gay, it’s no big deal” is often said as a virtue and a testament to our supposed post-identity politics society.
I don’t know about other people, but whenever I am doing anything I am always doing it queerly. I’ve said this elsewhere but historically speaking, and with the struggle for equality firmly in mind, that has always been the point.
So yes, I’ve written a book about heroic supernatural wars played against a backdrop of almost boring everyday life, yet I’ve found the greatest battle isn’t just to write a book–a mammoth task in itself–but it’s to do it sincerely enough that it actually retains that first fire from which the writing began, that singular need writers have to find themselves in their stories and to express their truths on the page. For me, that’s about writing from my little queer core. And that means some things that, if I stripped out of the book, would render it entirely heartless.
I’m a thirty year-old man from Yorkshire and I wouldn’t be much good in a supernatural war, but I took up the fight to get my weird voice heard— and I encourage others to put fingers to keys, to paint brightly, to sing loudly, to calculate wildly or do whatever it is that shows the world the many shades of who you are, and to never compromise that voice.
I believe that this, while it can’t fix a broken plot or of itself make for compelling characters, can at least ensure that the writing is truthful, and that is no small thing–Because, for any act of art, authenticity must be the first rule of all. Click To Tweet