Once upon a time, I was scripting a graphic novel for a small press. It was my first traditionally published gig bigger than an anthology piece, and I was very excited about it. It was a work for hire job where I was essentially adapting the publisher’s detailed outline into a script format. As I began work on the project I found certain aspects of the outline to be a bit weak, clunky, or downright corny.
Despite my excitement over the project, I felt it necessary to voice my concerns. The publisher agreed to a few of the changes I suggested but was adamant about keeping other spots of contention, particularly some bad dialogue. One school of thought dictates that, as a hired gun, I shouldn’t have cared, but I did. My name was going to be on that book forever.
While I was working on this project I was lucky enough to attend Joseph Michael Straczynski’s writing panel at New York Comic Con. When the floor opened to questions I presented my conundrum to Straczynski. Do I follow the direction of the publisher/editor, or do I stick to my guns?
I wish I had recorded his response. It was passionate, moving, and poignant. I can’t recall the exact words, but I will try my best to paraphrase him.
“First consider what the editor says. Be honest with yourself and consider if their input improves the work. If, upon honest consideration, their input harms the work defend your position to the death. Walk away from the project if need be. Writing is a holy task, and you owe it to yourself, to your readers, and to all future writers to approach it with unyielding honesty and reverence. Compromise has no place in the heart of a writer.”
As I said, I’m paraphrasing here, but Straczynski’s words stirred me then, and they guide me still. His advice was helpful in regard to that project years ago, but more importantly, he made me think about the concept of honesty in fiction. But what does that mean? What is honesty in fiction?
Honesty in fiction, at least the way I see it, is being true to your voice, your point of view, and placing your legacy above a quick payoff. It’s about creating work that represents you with sincerity and crafting puzzle boxes of make believe that hold the treasure of your own unique truth within.
One of the common pitfalls I see writers fall into is the trap of trying to write what’s hot. Just the other day I saw an Amazon marketing course claiming to provide the most searched keywords so that authors can tailor their work to trend and market demand. So what’s wrong with this path, you ask? Everyone needs to put dinner on the table, so why not pump out zombie books while they’re in demand?
Let’s continue with zombie fiction as our example. The Walking Dead comic series arguably started up the modern zombie boom. The comic was awesome. Kirkman’s passion for what he was doing was clear, and he put everything he had into it. Because of that passion, and a lot of luck, it made him rich. What about all the imitators?
I’m sure some of the writers who jumped on that bandwagon did so with sincere interest. Some of them made decent money, of course. But let’s face it, a lot of off brand zombie fiction sucks. Now those authors who just wanted to cash in on the zombie craze have compromised their names with subpar fiction they phoned in for a quick payoff. On top of that, they robbed themselves of precious time that could have been used creating something true to their soul. Every minute spent writing to please the market is a lost opportunity to forge something special and unique. And for what? A month’s rent? Is it really worth it?
Just as dangerous as the betrayal of one’s own art is the betrayal of one’s own voice and values. While the former is born of greed or laziness, the latter is often times born of fear or conditioning. We live in a society with cultural, moral, and social norms, and our fiction has developed acceptable tropes based around these norms. While many share a vanilla, advertiser friendly worldview, there are many of us who don’t. Still, most people stick to the basic bitch tropes that a lifetime of corporate media has hammered into our skulls.
Good triumphs in the end.
Love conquers all.
Underdogs have the moral high ground.
The ends don’t justify the means.
But what if you don’t believe these things? Should you be bound by them? Of course not. If you eschew the concepts of good and evil then any black and white, Tolkienesque tale you write is going to stink like bullshit. On the flip side, if you are a person of hope and faith writing grimdark because you grew up on Game of Thrones, your prose will feel as disingenuous to your reader as it does to you.
The reason 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 are great examples of dystopians is not because they were among the first. It is because they were written with true passion and sincere concern for the future. Some contemporary dystopians are very clever, and incredibly well written, but they lack fire. A big part of this problem is many writers approach these stories with the superficial elements in mind and borrow the substance of their themes from the passions and insights of older stories.
I fell into this trap myself while writing an urban fantasy story years back. I’ve always been interested in European paganism, iron age religions, etc… and I decided to write a comic about Celtic myth in the modern day. My protagonist was an ex-cop with a gruff exterior but a heart of gold. You know the type. You’ve seen it a hundred times. When I sent the story to beta readers they all said the same thing – great world building, great villain, lifeless protagonist.
Why? Because I fell into tropes that were at odds with my own beliefs. The protagonist displayed a mixture of New Testament morality and post-modern values that I personally find trouble relating to. As such, I propped her up with the cardboard crutches of played out tropes and hoped she could stand up to the weather. The villain, on the other hand, was a Byronic figure, akin to Milton’s Satan. He was a pre-Christian hero embodying the virtues of an iron age. His struggle was that of a man out of time. From the start, I identified with the him.
The heroine was an afterthought—an archetypal space holder. Upon reflection, it became clear to me that I had chosen to tell the story from her point of view for two reasons. First, because I was subconsciously following the established tropes I was used to. Second, because I was afraid of putting a character with values that went against the grain as the lead. In short, fear kept me from being honest with myself and with the potential audience. The story suffered for my insincerity.
From that project on I have made a concerted effort to make sure that my fiction is sincere, and that there are truth in my lies. I’m a skeptical, inquisitive person and I write stories that pose questions and challenge beliefs. I value men and women of strength, intelligence, and capability, and my characters reflect this. I also don’t take myself (or much of anything) too seriously, and that shines through in a lot of my work as well. To read my books is to know a part of me, and what is the point of creating art if not to give a piece of yourself to the world?