Smoothing Out the Edges

Somewhere along the line, I screwed up. Not in a particularly dramatic way, despite what my occasional cringe attacks might tell me (because I don’t get to move on from moderately embarrassing life experiences, I guess): just in a couple of small ways that I’m glad I caught because they were about to mess with my fiction writing something awful.

“Edginess” in speculative fiction is something I’ve been thinking about as I look at my second Kingmaker draft, listen to writing and social justice conversations, consider what I’ve done before, and watch and read other stories. Low fantasy and dark fantasy tend to be the fantasy subgenres where you can find the darkest plot elements and themes, the former explicitly emphasizing the less-than-glamorous parts of a fantasy world and the latter using horror plot elements and themes against a fantastic backdrop. There’s also “grimdark,” a term sometimes used as a speculative subgenre but also as derisive shorthand, that can be used to describe fiction that’s violent, amoral, nihilistic, and dark for violence, amorality, nihilism, and darkness’ sakes.

For a time, I considered myself a dark fantasy writer. I like horror novels for the imagination and fearlessness of the authors, and I also think fiction writers of all stripes can learn from their often highly effective language use and pacing. I also considered myself too jaded for the “good versus evil” morality of high fantasy and more optimistic sword and sorcery. In a way, I think that’s still true: a lot of people who’ve read my fiction tell me that, even if I start with a hopeful or funny premise, I end up getting really dark and depressing along the way. One of my old favorite pieces of writing advice is “write what scares you,” and according to those aforementioned readers some of my most visceral and grounded content comes from places of fear and pain.

At the same time, most things I write end up working out in the end. It might be bittersweet, but there’s always some form of resolution that’s not completely hopeless. That isn’t how things work in real life, and very often bad decisions have bad consequences, but in fiction, people are rewarded for struggling through fear and pain in a way they aren’t in reality. “It’s darkest just before the dawn” and all that.

So I wrote dark things. Very dark, but it was fine, because it all worked out in the end, right? Maybe I was calling myself “dark” in an attempt to be taken more seriously in genres that appeal to men; maybe it was a holdover from my teenage mentality of being “not like other girls” who write and enjoy fluffy romances (I now salute you, romance authors, and wish I wasn’t “too cool” for you when I was younger); maybe it’s because I’m a chronically ill woman in a world that hates chronic illnesses and women, and it made sense to draw from a well of pain and frustration when it came time to worldbuild or establish stakes.

Whatever the case might be, it doesn’t matter now: I was trying too hard to be grimdark, but I thought of it as being “real,” and my characters and stories suffered badly for it. I’m profoundly embarrassed about the novel manuscript I put on submission a few years ago because of how relentlessly grim and bad it was. The fact I was embarrassed to show people what I’d written probably should have served as a red flag, but I had chalked it up to perfectly normal and healthy writer bashfulness and put it on submission anyway. I don’t blame any of those agents or houses for rejecting me, and in fact I thank them for it, because a world in which Heroes & Villains was my traditionally-published debut novel would have been a world where I never wrote anything again.

I didn’t realize how bad it had gotten until I kept rereading a scene in Kingmaker from drafts one and 1.5. The contents of the scene don’t matter for the purposes of this blog post, especially because I’ve decided to completely delete it: all that matters is that I wrote a scene that did, in fact, scare me, and I was told a couple of times was well-written, but it crossed a darkness threshold that would have caused a lot of harm to some of my readers. I can’t defend it (which is why it’s on the chopping block), and the only thing I have that even comes close to a justification is that it was an artifact from NaNoWriMo, where I was trying to get my word count up, wasn’t sure where exactly my tone was, and was digging into a place of fear to create.

It can be hard for me to be hopeful sometimes, and for some things, fear is a valid source of inspiration. But that doesn’t mean that I should spread fear and pain to other people as a way to validate my own emotions: as a storyteller, I have a responsibility to entertain and comment on relevant issues where possible while doing as little harm as I can. Hope is necessary in speculative fiction because, without it, your world isn’t worth living in or saving, and relentless darkness just causes apathy. The fantasy genre in particular has an awful legacy of misogyny, racism, needless violence, and all manner of other dark tropes and themes: the very least I can do is wake up, stay awake, and not throw any more into the mix.

At the time of writing, I’m in my late twenties. That’s a little old to say that I’m still growing. But learning is still on the table, and I plan to do as much of it as I can, along with much more thinking before I put my name on anything I make available to a wider audience.

People cut themselves on edges, and I’m grateful that I was given a chance to step back and think before I hurt someone.

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