One of my favorite pieces of writing advice comes from Stephen King. In his book, On Writing, he encourages writers to write without worrying what others will think. He says as soon as we censor ourselves, we’re not writing honestly. He warns:
“If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”—Stephen King, On Writing
I tried to abide by those words while writing Eating Bull. When you have a nurse who sues the food industry and a serial killer who murders overweight people, you kind of have to. As soon as I’d think, “Oh no, you can’t do that,” I’d remember King’s words. And then I’d write it.
Of course, most authors have limits to how far they’ll go. But those limits will differ from one writer to the next. That’s the beauty of creating. Each writer must find his or her own boundaries and work within them, though those boundaries might shift over time.
Which leads to another quote I recently discovered:
“Don’t be afraid to put yourself and your writing out there. Take colossal risks. The publishing world rewards bravery.”—Brandy Vallence, author of The Covered Deep
Though I have minimal experience with the rewarding part, that quote made me feel better about my own discomfiting topic. My first goal with Eating Bull was to entertain readers with a story. My second goal was to get a reaction out of them and make them think. As Sue, the public health nurse in my book, says: “a wimpy approach nets wimpy results.”
As for readers, they have boundaries too, boundaries that help decide what to read and what not to.
But there are a few things they must keep in mind:
1. The author is not the narrator. In an intimate first-person or third-person limited narrative, the character is the narrator. As such, the thoughts and actions reflect the character, not the author. In fact, the author’s opinion might be the complete opposite. People read fiction for the characters. They want to know what the characters think and what they feel. So that’s what we give them. And the greater the number of point-of-view characters, the greater the number of insights. That being said, it’s probably unlikely we can ever completely separate the two.
2. If you know the author, pretend you don’t. I read a lot of novels written by social media friends, but when I crack open their books, I try to remove the author from my mind (sorry, guys). Why? Because I know they’ve created characters who have their own thoughts and feelings, and that’s how they want them to be read. Such is the power of imagination. Such is the joy of writing.
3. The more controversial the characters or topic, the more reaction they’ll cause. Recently I read an excellent blog post by author Lisa Henderson touching on this subject (Is Art a Realm of Love and Hate?). Henderson mentions “the more original art is, the more polarizing it is likely to be.” Continuing on with this notion, fellow blogger, Smak, left a comment on one of my recent posts that said, “…if you want your book to do more than entertain…then you may have to make people uncomfortable.”
I agree with both of these statements. Polarizing topics might unleash a variety of opinions and emotions, and as authors, we need to be aware of this.
Which means we’ll also need to thicken our skin in the process.
Any thoughts on the subject? Do we stifle originality if we put limits on writing (or film-making, or art of any kind)? Can you separate creator from product?
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