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Playing Chicken With Your Story

Apr 15, 2008
Part IV of the 8-Part BRING YOUR NOVEL TO LIFE Series

And now we come to the hard bit. You've got your theme, and you've figured out how to bury it so that it's there for you, and SOMETHING meaningful is there for your reader. You've let go of the temptation to write a message book---always difficult---and have embraced telling your story for the sake of the story.

So you start to write. And you find yourself pulling back every time you get close to putting something on the page that might be controversial, that might offend someone, that might tick off a reader.

You're trying to write for everyone, and in doing this, you're going to end up writing for no one. You're killing the passion you feel for the story, the life it might have, the resonance you could bring to it, out of your fear. You are systematically ripping out the soul of your book.

Here are three things I've learned and that you'll need to make a part of your writing if you're going to keep your story alive.

1) You cannot write for everyone, and you must not try to.

It is impossible to have the whole world as your audience, and it is impossible to have everyone love you. In fact, on about a one-to-one ratio, the more people you have who passionately love your work, the more people there will be who passionately hate it. Some of these readers---on both ends of the spectrum---will then go on to transfer their feelings about your work to you.

This is part of the gig.

You can, therefore, either strive to write the books that will stir the passions of readers, and give some of them stories that will move them and change them and bring wonder and joy and hope to their lives...or you can gut your work of all feeling, all life, all rage and fury and glory, in the hopes that the pitiful rag you're left with will gain the admiration of the PC people, who live to have their feelings hurt.

Of the two, I'd rather have my audience among the people who are not offended by strong opinions and who are not afraid to have their own. So I'll shoot for writing books people can love, accepting that this means I'll have plenty of detractors, too.

2) If you do not have an opinion, you do not have a story.

Here's one for you. "All men are potential rapists." Have you ever heard anyone say that? Here's a secret. Every person who has ever said that is an idiot. A small percentage of men, and a small percentage of women, are potential rapists, and a smaller percentage of each are actual rapists, and the rest are people who have morals and ethics and who would not, under any circumstances, rape anyone.

That's an opinion, and you could write a good, powerful story by burying that opinion as a theme or a subtheme in your novel. It will give you heroes and villains, forward momentum, great conflict, struggles to prove innocence or guilt, moments of defeat and moments of triumph. It will give you something to care about, a reason to keep writing, and a reason for your reader to keep reading. The outcome will matter, because one side is right, and one side is wrong.

If you do not have an opinion, though, you do not have a story. The 'no opinion' stance means your hero will be no better (and no worse) than your villain---in fact, you'll have to slide to the weaker position of having a protagonist and an antagonist, and even then, neither you nor your reader can really like one better than the other. Nobody is good, nobody is evil, everyone is just misunderstood.

'No opinion' means that it doesn't matter whether someone wins in your story, or someone loses, because neither option is right, and neither option is wrong. You're stuck with the ultimately boring, helpless stance of having Fate decree one outcome over another, and having the reader not really care anyway. If you do not have an opinion that can carry the story forward, all you'll have is a long, tedious vignette in which nothing that matters happens, simply because nothing matters.

3) Every once in a while, people need to be offended.

Yes. I said it. Being offended can be good for the mind and the soul. It forces you to think. People who are easily offended are people who do not want to think, who do not have the courage of their convictions, who want to be fed pablum and sheltered from the hot spices of real life and real opinion and outcomes that matter. 'Don't offend me' is the whine of the coward who does not want to have to judge issues on their merits (what, you want me to pick sides? Why can't everybody be right?) and does not want anyone else to, either.

Well, everybody can't be right. Some people, some issues, some positions, are just flat-out wrong. Pretending otherwise does not change that truth.

This is life. Issues have real merits. Thought is necessary for survival. If you fight your way through to opinions that you have earned by judging issues on their merits, you will be able to write stories with real kick. And even though you're going to be burying those opinions in metaphor, the strength of your passion and the richness of your story's stakes will be able to wake up a few sleepers who have been following along through life, not challenging themselves, because no one ever challenged them first.

Dare to have the courage of your convictions. Dare to think hard, to earn your opinions, and then to write them into your work. Dare to write stories worth telling. Dare to pick sides, dare to write your truth. Dare to be meaningful.

The book you save will be your own.

In BRING YOUR NOVEL TO LIFE, Part V, Dig Deeper With Your Novel's Subthemes, you'll find out three ways to bring in more of your passions and fears, and use them to make your story richer, and add layers of surprise and meaning.
About the Author
Full-time novelist Holly Lisle has published more than thirty novels with major publishers. Her next novel, THE RUBY KEY, (Orchard Books) will be on shelves May 1st. You can receive her free writing newsletter, Holly Lisle's Writing Updates at http://hollylisle.com/newsletter.html
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