Better Free, Say I

On March 15, 2020, Raina wrote, Thanks for responding to my question, Gail! It really gave me a lot to think about, especially the part about how the difficult topics might be pushing me to write about them. I think that’s a very real possibility for me, but in that case, I’m running into another question/problem: how do you know/make sure you’re writing about these difficult problems “correctly”? How do you know if you have the skills/knowledge/experience/”right” to write about those problems? And how do you find the courage to write about difficult topics?

Without going into too many details, there have definitely been books recently that tried to tackle difficult topics that, due to the way they were written/presented were…not well received by readers, to say the least. And while opinions about those specific books may vary, as well as the general atmosphere of the publishing/book world currently, I think it’s pretty evident that sometimes writing something can have serious and far-reaching consequences, and good intentions aren’t enough of an excuse. I think there’s a lot of sides to this issue, and I understand why different people have different stances. Maybe what’s happening is good, maybe it’s not, but that’s an ethical discussion for another time.

But in this atmosphere, how do you know whether you should be writing what you’re writing? And how do you get over the fear of “getting it wrong”? And how can you make sure (and get over the fear of) that what you write isn’t misinterpreted by others to mean something you never intended? I know sensitivity readers are becoming more common these days, but even that isn’t failproof, and some issues aren’t directly tied to matters of identity that can be linked to a specific sensitivity reader. I guess what I’m asking is, how do you get out of your comfort zone when you feel like you don’t have a safe place you can fail?

This is a really thorny topic, I know (sorry for the string of downer questions!) but it’s something I’ve been struggling with for a long time.

Two of you weighed in.

Melissa Mead: I know what you mean. I have an unfinished story that’s sat for decades because I’m not sure I’m doing it justice. It’s about a brilliant student wizard who’s become mentally ill. He’s got the power to reshape reality-but he’s not perceiving reality the way most people are, so he kills somebody thinking he’s helping them, and his magic is sex-linked, so if he could be made to use his power to change his sex, he’d stop hallucinating…I decided it was WAY too much for me to take on.

Katie W.: Yes, my current WIP has a similar problem. My dragon MC faces severe prejudice and was abused as a child, but becomes a lovely dragon in spite of it and ends up a queen. And, no matter how I try to squish it, there’s a part of me that’s worried that people will read the story and think I’m writing it from some kind of personal experience, which I am totally not. But since I, possibly the most oblivious reader in the history of books, can see it, I’m worried others will too, even though it was never my intention. Like I said, 99% of me knows I’m probably being paranoid, but the 1% keeps worrying.

Melissa Mead (to Katie W.): Some people probably will think that. I guess the question is: How much would it bother you? Would a random person’s incorrect thoughts hurt anybody? There’s a really lovely essay in Jane Yolen’s book Once Upon A Time (she said) about how once an author puts a story out into the world it becomes each reader’s story, and they may find things in it that the author never intended. Sometimes in wonderful ways, too.

I am absolutely with Melissa Mead (and Jane Yolen) about stories belonging to readers once the stories are out with readers. If someone jumps to the wrong conclusion about something we intended, their mistaken leap doesn’t encumber us at all. Someday the writer may be interviewed about her writing and be asked if any of it is autobiographical. Then she can set the record straight forever, or she can say, mysteriously, that she leaves the matter to readers to decide!

Raina, my strongest response is that you should write what you want and tell it as well as you can. Period.

End of post.

That was a joke.

Several years ago I taught an undergraduate course in creative writing at a university. One of my students thought in stereotypes, which revealed themselves in his writing and even when he talked. He was blithely unaware of the offensiveness of some of what he said and wrote, even though other students were offended and said so. It got a little sad when he didn’t understand why he wasn’t well liked. I don’t think he meant ill; he was just so un-self-reflective that he couldn’t assimilate the feedback.

Most of us–the vast majority in general and here on the blog–are unlike him. We know that other people have feelings and perspectives that are different from ours. We don’t want to hurt anyone. I don’t think we should worry much when we write or speak. If we get it wrong, we’ll be corrected and we’ll learn. That’s good.

The stakes do get higher when we’re writing for publication, but we can show our work to beta readers and ask them to focus on the areas that worry us. If a literary agent is interested in our work, she’ll point out any problem areas. Our editor will too. Mine alerted me to sensitivity around the word invalid for a person with a long-lasting illness, because the spelling is the same as for the invalid that means not valid and is pronounced differently. I was surprised, but I found another word. And I learned something.

Another thing about publishing: Timid writing doesn’t stand up well, in my opinion. If publication is our goal, we should take a stand and write boldly.

Here’s a confession: I read reader reviews on Goodreads. Not everyone likes my books. For example, some readers (many!) are grossed out by Ogre Enchanted (which I’m reading on Facebook at the moment, if you’re interested. Reading my books there is my effort to provide comfort during the pandemic. You can find my page by typing in my name.) Okay. My sense of humor is pretty broad, excepting only meanness and stereotypes, but some people don’t go for it. They have that right. My editor was untroubled, so I felt I had license to be a little outrageous. Readers have a right to dislike any or all of my books, and I have a right not to be too concerned as long as I wrote the best book I could.

If we don’t experiment, we rob ourselves of some of the greatest values of writing: the opportunity to explore, to find out about ourselves, to discover what we can do, to see what surprising ideas we can come up with. We need freedom for that. We don’t get freedom by self-censoring.

Of course we can research an issue we’re not sure how to address. Say we want our character to go mad, for example, we can research mental illness, which is a very big field, but we can narrow it down. We can read memoirs by people who suffered from the kind of mental illness that interests us. Memoirs will give us an inside look.

Naturally, people who suffer from depression, for instance, don’t experiences it identically. It may be worthwhile to read the voices of at least two people who’ve been depressed and then use our imaginations to invent our own character with this illness. This does not mean that our depressed character has to be good. She can be our villain. The depression can be part of her evil or aside from it.

My historical novel, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, as you may remember, is told from the POV of a Jewish girl in late medieval Spain. I’m Jewish but I don’t represent all Jews, and I certainly don’t represent medieval Jews. I’m not religious, and I didn’t have much of a religious education. The experience of a more orthodox Jew would be very different from mine. Mostly, I relied on my research.

In children’s literature, there’s a move toward “own voices,” the telling of stories about marginalized communities by members of the communities. Following “own voices,” a writer wouldn’t write from the POV of, say, a Vietnamese-American unless she herself was a member of that group. Here are two interesting and thoughtful links that discuss this: https://www.hbook.com/?detailStory=christopher-myers-talks-with-roger and https://mgbookvillage.org/2019/08/09/the-struggle-between-diversity-and-ownvoices/.

If we’re not writing for publication, though, we can write in any voice. We can read about the war in Vietnam and imagine ourselves a Vietnamese child during the war. Without doing a very lot of research–not only about the war but also about customs, religion, daily life, etc. in Vietnam–we’ll certainly get it wrong. Even with the research, we’re likely to get some of it wrong, but the effort will be a wonderful exercise of sympathy in our development as a writer, and we can move some of what we learned into other stories, maybe as the basis for fantasy.

I hope the message of this post is a shout for freedom. Please write what you’re drawn to, which, more than anything else, will make your writing authentic. We can’t control what other people think, so let them think it.

Here are three prompts:

• Write a version of “Hansel and Gretel” in several voices: the witch, the mother or father who wants to lose the children, Gretel who thinks Hansel is a pest, and Hansel who craves independence. You can try this more than one way, changing which characters are sympathetic (or maybe none are).

• At a national debate your MC draws a very unpopular position to argue, a position she disagrees with: say, euthanasia for dogs who growl more than once at strangers, or, more seriously, the death penalty for children who commit certain crimes. Or a topic you choose. She argues so well she wins the debate and finds herself despised by the people she cares about and hated on social media. Write the story.

• Read Hamlet or a synopsis. Write a modern-day version, in prose or verse. Hamlet not only seeks truth but also right action once he discovers that his mother and his uncle really did murder his father.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Along the lines of research,, sensitivity readers, and “own voices,” while I certainly can’t speak for all disabled people, if anybody here has general questions about having Cerebral Palsy (one form of it, anyway), using a wheelchair, or things like that, feel free to ask me.

    In the case of my story with the mentally ill MC, I have a Master’s degree in counseling, and I STILL don’t feel I could do justice to it. 🙂 But the more I learn and grow, the more I start to see other possibilities for it.

    • Beth Schmelzer says:

      I wish there were classes in debate in HS and college. Debate is missing from our schools and our socirty. It’s based on a topic given to students. It’s not based on debaters true feelings (necessarily).

  2. SluggishWriter says:

    “We don’t get freedom by self-censoring.” Wonderfully put, and something I really need to work on in my own writing. Thank you very much Mrs. Levine!

  3. You all have read about the controversy about American Dirt. Jeanine Cummins is one of my favorite authors. Some have criticized her for not being Latinex. Her grandmother was born in PR. She wrote about middle class Mexicans running from the cartel as a cathartic way to leave personal grief and loss. She knew some might say she was the wrong author to tackle her subject, but she wrote it and is not stopping others from telling their stories. Many who critiqued her book did read it! My fav of her books is THE OUTSIDE BOY about a traveller in Ireland. Jeanine is not a traveller, a boy or Irish. She writes novels. Write your book as well as you know how. The end. Beth

  4. i💜writing says:

    In my current WIP, the MC has eleven sisters. She also has a soldier in love with her.
    I want the tale to feature the elements of sisterhood and romance. Do I need to make one take center stage, or (extending the theater metaphor) can they both star together?

    • The only problem I would see in having them both be MC’s is balancing the two plots. But there are actually a lot of stories with multiple MC’s, so it can’t be that hard. I tried it myself once, but dropped the second MC after the first draft because she did basically nothing for the story. The problem I ran into was padding or condensing chapters so an event was in the “right” character’s chapter, not to mention killing time so I could get back to the other character’s story. But if you feel like two MC’s is best for your story, you should definitely at least give it a try, whether or not the story stays that way.

    • Belle Adora says:

      I think you can easily make both themes central to your story. Especially of you are in the MC’s head. No one thinks about just one thing – I think its highly plausible for her to think dearly of her sisters and also be in love at the same time. Many stories have more than one main theme. Harry Potter for example has the themes of saving the world from evil as well as the power of friendships and following through with something you set out to do. Little Women follows the two themes that you are stuck between. I think that would work well. But it is also good to have one step back. It really depends on what you are going for. Ella Enchanted follows this where the main plot is all about her breaking the curse but also about her romance and family dynamics. A story doesnt need to have one theme. If you are going for a shorter story than it’s best to pick one to shine through and keep it simple. But if you arent afraid of length use more than one. This will make for some interesting subplots.

    • RedTrumpetWriter says:

      I think that both elements can work well together and strengthen each other. For example, if the sisters would have to help her meet the soldier secretly or something. It’s really up to you to decide what you think is most important and what kind of story you want to tell. There are some aspects of the character that you can show through interactions with her sisters, and others that would probably be more obvious in romantic scenes. However, you want things to make sense, i.e. she shouldn’t be a completely different person with solider versus her sisters, unless it’s for a reason- if she was in disguise or something. You could even drive the conflict forward by putting the two elements against each other if part of the plot is that the MC has to balance what is most important to her. What you probably don’t want to do is have one be the “star” that takes up say 90% of the story and leave the other as an afterthought. It would be better, in that situation, to only focus on one.

    • You can definitely have two main characters. The trick is to give them all their own arcs, but still have them work together. So each contributes something unique to the story. In my DreamRovers (which is coming out in three weeks!!), Walker and Indra are both loners who need a family, and they eventually come join the same family, but they come from different places and face different obstacles. Sometimes they’re both in the same scene and I have to decide which one has more at stake, but other times they’re in different locations and see different things. Since I’m a major planner, I keep track of how many words each has, and make sure they hit the same story structure beats at around the same time.

    • Depends what you mean by “star.” Do you want to braid 2 plotlines, or have 2 POV characters, or have 2 themes? It sounds like the MC is central to both ideas. Certainly both things could happen to her. What does she want most of all?

    • For what it’s worth, I can testify to the fact that romance and sisterhood can complement each other nicely. My sister began a serious dating relationship a few months ago, and contrary to my fears, it has not created a gulf between us. Instead, we’ve drawn closer. She at times needs to talk about him and about the relationship, and I can be a listening ear, or help her verbalize her thoughts. On the other hand, thinking about him has gotten her thinking about other relationships in her life, and we’ve had discussions long into the night about her and me and the way we think and the things we assume about each other inaccurately. Some of these discussions were not about her boyfriend, but they likely would not have happened if she wasn’t dating. So sisterhood is providing support for her in her romance, and her romance is giving her tools to improve other relationships in her life, including sisterhood.

      I’ve also seen girls who have ignored their friends when they fall in love. Way down the road they realize they need more than just the romance. Maybe they got married and “real life” took shape, or maybe they broke up. Either way, they go looking for their friends and find that the friends have moved on.

      The themes you are considering for your story have great potential and could be take several different directions. I’d say go for it!

  5. FantasyFan101 says:

    I love books where multiple characters are the stars. After all, everyone has their own story. My friend and I are doing one now, and I really like it. If you mean the two plot parts are starring together, definitely!!! It will add some conflict to the character’s life, having to have 11 sisters (a lot. I only have 2) and being in love (which I’ve never done). Readers love both personal conflict and multiple character conflict.
    Two MCs gives the reader another life to look at. I have always loved those stories, and I love writing them too.
    But you do what you do. Like Gail said, you need to go outside of your comfort zone and explore the world of writing. There are so many different styles and options. Whatever you pick, whatever you create, it’s yours alone. I quote, “my strongest response is that you should write what you want and tell it as well as you can. Period.

  6. Brambles and Bees says:

    I’m having a bit of a crisis. I have been trying to write a book, but I always end up disliking the idea and then give up. Or I actually do like it, but I have a hard time with writing it. I think it might be a problem with me not planning out my writing carefully, but I have never really liked planning anything out. I also don’t like a lot of the characters I create because I always have this perfect image in my head, but I can never get the character to fit into that mold. So how do you actually write out your characters? And how do you create enjoyable plots and storylines?

    • Fantasywriter6 says:

      One thing I’ve learned is to save what you write. Sometimes I’ll scroll through my Google Docs and find an old story that I started but gave up on, and I’ll find a totally new perspective on it or find that the words flow a lot better. Also, don’t pressure yourself to write a Full Length Book…the idea’s pretty intimidating and makes me feel like I need to get it right the first time, but who does? Just write because you love to write! Also, have conversations with people you trust about your specific plot lines or characters and see if they can help you form words. My guess is that you have great ideas(we are our own worst critic) but have a hard time putting pen to paper and being satisfied with what comes out. Just, again, remember that nothing comes out perfect- and very few things come out great- the first time!

      Hope that helped a little bit;)

    • I don’t think anything we write ever comes out looking like it does in our heads.

      It’s ok to dislike first drafts. It’s even ok to say “I’m going to write something awful, and then see if I can use it for a starter for something better.” And the nice thing about characters is, the more you write about them, the more they tend to grow and get more interesting.

      You might try first writing a short story about your character showing an incident that helped make them into the right protagonist for the book, as a sort of “Getting to know you.”

    • My advice with characters would be to give them a couple of basic traits, but then give them space to change and grow on their own. If they don’t turn out exactly like you imagined, but they still turn out awesome, that’s okay, right?

      For plots and storylines, I’m not sure how much I can help, because I’m a major planner. I’ve discovered that the more I’ve planned out the plot, the easier it is for me to focus on character, description, and emotion. My mind’s not tied up in making sure the plot is going where it needs to go, giving me the mental space to work on other things. But I’m aware that not everyone works that way.

      • I’m definitely in the camp of “give your characters some basic traits and let them work out the rest”, but for me “the rest” includes 90% of the plot. Most of the time, I only have a single sentence summary of the inciting incident, climax, and basic resolution before I start writing, and maybe a little world building. The characters decide everything else. Of course, this is the sort of thing that turns “I’ll write a story about how the silver forest in the Twelve Dancing Princesses came to be” into “I wrote a story about a boy going on an adventure to teach his people about the outside world.” But if you don’t mind rambling and random flashes of inspiration that make you rewrite half the story, it’s actually a pretty fun method.

  7. FantasyFan101 says:

    I have that problem too. I hated a lot of my characters, but Gail’s character questionnaire saved me. It’s a bunch of questions about your characters that you fill in. You can modify the questions depending on the world you create and a bunch of other things. It really helped me for my current WIP. I knew from previous stories that my characters were usually just creatures with a name and appearance. They had no special traits and way of speaking, or even standing. The questionnaire was a life saver. As for creating enjoyable plots and storylines, I did like you, just went where the story took me. But I’ve realized, I like to write Sneak Peeks. They help me get the gist of where I want to go, and how I want to do it. You can plan the beginning threads of future scenes, before weaving them into the actual masterpiece. I hope this helps!!!

  8. Fantasywriter6 says:

    Hey, all! I have sort of a weird question…does anyone have any advice on how to come up with a game for a story? One of those big, mysterious, puzzle-solving, slightly dangerous games where the characters are kind of forced into being the game pieces by some scary probably-evil power? This might not make any sense…sorry. But if anyone somehow miraculously knows what I’m talking about and has advice to come up with a game, it would be much appreciated! 🙂

    • So, kind of like Maze Runner, where they have to run the maze every day and figure out what mysterious message it’s sending?

      My DreamRovers has a scene where the main character enters the dream of the villain, and he’s strategizing his plan to destroy the heroes. Since it’s a dream, he portrays his plan using “patole”, a strategy game similar to chess. At one point, as he and the MC struggle for control, he traps her inside one of his pieces. I’m not sure if that’s similar.

      • Fantasywriter6 says:

        Possibly…I’ve never read Maze Runners, but that sounds about right:) it’s a strange question, so it’s absolutely okay if there’s no real advice for it.

  9. FantasyFan101 says:

    Maybe you could think of something that you might like to watch on TV, or read about, a game/ contest that’s totally engrossing, but you would be terrified to do yourself. Also, when I read the question, the first thing that came to mind was Harry Potter in the giant chessboard scene. The games could be an obstacle to overcome. Maybe the characters need to complete it as a test, or when they finish it, then the evil is vanquished. I hope this helps.

  10. FantasyFan101 says:

    Hello! I’m writing a story right now that takes place in an age of kings, queens, and magic. I can describe it fine, but when it comes to the characters’ language, sometimes it’s just too modern. I have one specific problem. I keep trying to describe the princess’s tutor. I just can’t seem to get his method of teaching and the girl’s boredom into words that fit the story. I can tell his personality and his features, but I just can’t write down what the princess thinks of him. Please help!!

    • It’s all right to use “modern language” if you want to. The way your characters talk is “modern” to them, so it would be like you’re translating.

      As far as the boredom goes, whose POV are you in? If it’s the princess, her attention will probably wander.
      “Princess Lillibet tried to focus on what Master Pedant was saying, but even the ant crawling between the blue stripes of the wallpaper was more interesting than Master P’s endless drone about the exports of Greater Tedium…” etc.

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