The Struggle Is Real


This was a great YallWest panel where we got into the nitty gritty about books that feature tough stuff for the characters and how that impacts both the reader and writer. We talked a lot about vulnerability, how it’s essential for authors to have it because this is where the good stuff lies. This brought to mind one of my novels that’s coming out next year, Bad Romance, because it was so closely linked to experiences I had in my own adolescence: an abusive boyfriend, financial woes, a family breaking apart.

We talked about how our books make us—and our readers—cry. I remembered how I was writing the death of a character I loved. It was three in the morning and I’m crying and then the theme song for Schindler’s List comes on my playlist and that is about the time I lost it. When you’re writing about tough stuff—death, abuse, depression and the like—you have to be willing to bring your vulnerability to the table.

For me, the most important thing about weaving serious issues into your novel is to be specific. Specificity is what will make those issues authentic for your character and it’s what will create an emotional impact for the reader. You might ask yourself how the death of your character and those who grieve him or her is particular to the characters and the world you’ve created. How would your protagonist cry? Because she’s going to cry in a way that only she can, not just generic sobbing. I loved how Jandy Nelson depicts grief in The Sky Is Everywhere because it’s so raw and honest and exactly what those characters would have done.

When I wrote I’ll Meet You There, I had Skyler, my female protagonist, as a girl that’s desperate to get out of her small town. As I’m sure you know, that story has been written hundreds, thousands of times. So why would you want to read this story about this girl? Though we’ve read about poverty, small towns, and first loves I’ll Meet You There particularizes those things. It is a novel that could only be written in this era, by this author. I brought my family’s experiences with poverty and the military, as well as my own desperation to get out of my small town, to the table. If you have some kind of personal connection to the issue you’re highlighting, that relationship to your subject matter will always come across the page. So, hopefully, will the research you do.

If you want to write the hard stuff, you have to be willing to get in the trenches with your characters. Some of the places you need to go to will be really dark, putting your commitment to vulnerability to the test. If you’re a really big plotter, you might be forced to let go a bit and see what your character wants to do in these tough situations—they usually know best.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to go to these dark places—whether you’re a reader or a writer. Yes, here there be dragons, but facing them is worth the effort.