Image: courtesy of Jessica Shirley
A couple of years ago I wrote the first draft of a novel called He, She, It. It’s a dark book, touching on dangerous and complicated themes, but looking back at it now, I realise I didn’t quite have the courage to let it be dark or dangerous enough.
For example, there’s one scene where my fifteen-year old protagonist encounters a predatory adult in a position of power. Anna escapes unharmed, and tells her Mum, who acts impeccably: she immediately believes her daughter’s account of events, and acts strongly to protect her.
I found it very upsetting to write that scene: I was shaking as I typed, and I cried a lot afterwards. At the time, the only way I could cope with the feelings it triggered in me was by making the Mum swoop in immediately and save Anna. I had to put an end to the unbearable tension.
A number of readers, including agents, and my editor at Mother’s Milk Books, thought the scene was great, but didn’t go far enough. In acting to protect Anna, I jumped in too soon. In removing the tension I killed the drama.
I’ve recently starting rewriting that book, with a view to sending it out again. Now I feel the task is to make this book darker and more dangerous, and to do that I need to find it in me to sustain that tension and sense of danger over the whole of the novel. This tugs against the part of me that wants to keep my characters safe, particularly if those characters are children.
It’s hard being a mum writing children’s or young adults’ fiction. To make my stories gripping and dramatic I have to put my characters in danger. I have to torture and test them, make them suffer. I don’t mind doing this to my adult characters: I happily subjected my protagonist Alex in Baby X to all manner of mental and physical torment. But when I write about children, I feel like a mum: my instincts are to protect and comfort.
If children in fiction are going to triumph over adversity, they need to rescue themselves. And in order to make this happen, the adults they trust need to let them down. This means I have to fight against my desire to write strong competent parents who protect their children from danger. I have to let my adults characters be useless, or find another way to hobble them.
I’d love to hear if any of you experience similar struggles.