Playing Chicken With Your
By Holly Lisle
Part IV of the 8-Part BRING YOUR NOVEL TO
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
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.
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.
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
'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.
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
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
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