The page is where a person should hold no reservations; where we come to purge our demons, to have our dreams come true vicariously through our characters, where we go to be completely and utterly forced to face ourselves. It’s a place for brutal honesty and an openness we’d never dare display out there in the real world. If you can’t be honest with yourself on paper, then what’s the point?
Honesty on the page, as perceived by your readers, is fearlessness. And it’s a tool; one you’d be surprised is an asset well-received by an audience looking for escapism. More often than not, they like reading in a page that there’s something said they’re familiar with, something they’d never dream of telling another. This gives them a certain comfort, some understanding… even if it’s the most uncomfortable topic you can think up!
I often feel a certain crawling under the skin when I read a book and can feel the author being reserved. I feel like screaming “Just say what you mean!” But I get it, it’s not always easy… to admit on paper the emotions we have but shouldn’t, the wishes for others that aren’t fond, the words we chew on because society won’t have us say them out loud in accordance to some social etiquette we’ve probably made up ourselves in our head. For example, I start my novel “Freedom’s Child” with the opening line: “My name is Freedom and I killed my daughter.” See? No bars, no filters. Just say it like it is.
Writing without fear is a matter of writing a sentence that, when done, can be followed by one part of you snapping your fingers and saying in your most ghetto-fabulous accent, “Oh no she didn’t,” and the other part of you saying “Oh yes I did.” When I mentioned before that fearlessness is a tool, consider it a blunt weapon, because that’s what’s required: Bluntness.
However, there can be a downside to this fearless approach when you replace cute little bites of pastries with tearing raw meat off the bone with your teeth: the needle-fine line between being a fearless writer versus instilling shock value (and even if you find that line and maintain your fearlessness, there will still be people who insist you wrote for shock value). Of course, while some readers assume what your intentions are, we as writers should want to make very clear to them that we are drawing a line between the two. But how?
Don’t overdo it, for starters. Not every sentence has to be “I killed my daughter.” (avoid overkill). I like to use this tool when at hooks: opening lines and last lines of chapters. This is a personal preference, but just as long as you bear in mind that less is more. And on that note, because I think it compliments fearlessness so well on the page, keep sentences short and punchy. It drills in the point a little harder when you’re trying to balance fearlessness with etiquette.
And be ready to cringe at yourself. On top of my aforementioned first line, I also think of another one I wrote: “I still wear the clothes I was raped in.” It’s one thing to be alone on your laptop with these thoughts, but knowing people you know are reading this? Cringe, shudder, hide. After all, do I really want my family and friends knowing that I think like this when I’m not drinking tea on my farm? Well, not really. It’s comparable to the cliché standing-naked-in-front-of-the-classroom scenario. But did the point hit hard in them? Absolutely. They said it was intense, it was brutal, it left them speechless. And while I still cringe at the thought of having those I love read such one-liners, is it worth such a reaction? What do you think?
While the topics of literature have pushed (and often passed) the envelope, I find that the jolt of certain lines and sentences to a reader is a timeless technique. Isn’t that what we love so much when we want to delve into a book and escape reality? We want to be moved. And while there are numerous amounts of writing tools out there that move us all kinds of ways, fearlessness is that blunt object that won’t warm nor touch us, but will prod, dig, and stimulate us.
So I encourage you to be brutally honest, don’t bite the tongue (or pen) and let loose. Don’t be afraid to cringe a little. And most importantly, don’t think for one fraction of a second what other people will think of you. It should never be why you’re writing in the first place.
Jax Miller was born in New York in 1985. She started writing Freedom's Child while travelling around America on the back of a motorcycle and finished it in the peace and quiet of the Irish countryside. Within 24 hours of writing 'The End' she had been signed up by a literary agent at WME, and a few days later she had a publishing deal with Harper Collins. Freedom's Child is Jax Miller's debut novel and will be published in over a dozen languages. She lives in Ireland with her husband. You can find her on Twitter here.