The Bleeding Heart of the Story: Reflections on a Career in Fiction

My first novel, God’s War, came out in 2011. It sold long before that, in 2008, but due to the vagaries of publishing, came out much later from a different publisher. I started writing it in 2003 and finished it in 2007, when I was 27 years old. This was not, of course, the first novel I’d ever written, but the ninth. And I can’t say there was anything about that novel that made it sell while the others didn’t. In truth, that book was a really hard sell, and almost never made it onto the shelves at all. But unlike my prior work, it had a pretty simple quest plot, which helped keep readers engaged, and I threw in pretty much every great idea I’d ever had – Bug magic! Centuries-long wars! Violent matriarchies! Harsh desert! Colonized worlds! – and just had fun with it.

In discussion with my agent on the latest episode of the podcast, though, I started thinking about what it was that made these books to compelling for people, and why The Stars are Legion (which was, emotionally, the toughest book I’ve ever written) seems to be doing so well. The truth is there are so many things in publishing that are beyond our control that we can’t say, “Well, this one is just a good story!” to explain why some did well and some didn’t. The Worldbreaker books have all earned out as well, and sold more than the God’s War books, but people don’t get as emotionally invested in those books as the God’s War books and The Stars are Legion. People don’t cry over them the way they do my other stuff.

It’s the emotional connection that we make with stories that makes them mean so much to us. On the podcast Hannah mentions how much she loved the Twilight books, not for their clunky prose, but for how well they captured, for her, the experience of falling in love for the first time. That was a bit revelatory to me, because these were books that I never connected with. But talk about The Girl on the Train, and I’ll tell you it’s not only the mystery aspect, but the fact that it’s a woman who drinks too much who’s being (spoilers) gas-lighted. And whoa boy did I ever connect with that whole, “Everyone thinks you’re crazy but you’re actually being set up by a nutty dude,” experience. It’s something a lot of women in particular deal with, and I was wholly invested in her discovering she was not actually crazy because it mirrored so much of my own journey toward discovering feminism. I often think that the reason a lot of YA novels don’t connect with me is that they don’t explore emotional themes that really interest me right now the way that many adult novels do. YA tends to be about finding oneself, about the first discovery that the world isn’t what you were told it was. And I’m past that and on to other things.

This discussion about the bleeding heart of the story led me to ask what the bleeding heart of the story was in my own work. It’s interesting because you don’t always know what the heart of the story is when you first begin to write. It wasn’t until Nyx fell to her knees in the ring at the end of her big fight at the end of God’s War that I knew what the heart of that story was about. Nyx struggled with all sorts of issues related to faith and submission, and independence and dependence. These were issues I, too have and do struggle with. Much of Nyx’s emotional struggle throughout all three books springs from having someone I was in a relationship with say that i was a monster. That stuck with me for a long time. Was I monster? In rejecting the weak person I had been, had I become everything I hated? Good stories tap into the very darkest parts of us, and Nyx was certainly the female Conan I wished I could be, wading out into pools of blood and coming out the other side being just as true to herself before as after. She and Rhys are tangled in the sort of snarky abusive relationship that for many years I’d assumed was love. The way they actually end up shows that I have learned something since then. In God’s War, the entire drive of the narrative is to get Nyx onto her knees in that ring, to allow her to admit to herself that what she would love, more than anything else, is just to submit to God, to fate, to the world, and stop fighting it. But she can’t. She knows she can’t, even as she admits it. The drive in Infidel was always to break them down into their component parts, to have them both lose everything and see what it made of them. And of course, in Rapture, the terrible events that they endure there are meant to break them both down emotionally so that they can have, finally, for the first time, an honest conversation about their feelings and why they can’t be together. The rest of the books: the bug magic, the blood-eating sand, the giant hornets, the bel dames, the assassinations and beheadings – existed to tell that emotional story between Nyx and Rhys.

The Stars are Legion was, famously, a difficult book for me to write because unlike with the Nyx books, I knew exactly what the bleeding heart of the story was going to be before I wrote it, and understood what I would have to write about, and that’s some scary stuff. At its heart, Legion is about women’s control (or not) over their own bodies and reproductive power. It also has not one, but two wildly abusive relationships at its core. I wrote deeply about things that mattered to me, issues related to fertility and bodily autonomy and of course, the monster inside so many of us. Once one has been monstrous, the book asked, is it possible to go back, to repent, to become someone different? Those were the bleeding emotions of the story, the burning questions, and I faced them down in all their cold, stark truth. Those are deep, powerful emotions, and beyond the gooey ships and birthing ship parts and struggling through the spongy center of some world, it’s the emotional stuff that we can all relate to on some level that powers its heart and makes it so unforgettable.

As the saying goes, folks may forget what you say, but they won’t forget how you made them feel. Fiction is very much like this, and it’s another reason I don’t like to tie up my stories into nice neat packages. I want to leave the readers with questions that they can mull over as they contemplate the story itself and how it affected them. There’s a reason I ended Nyx’s story the way I did in Rapture. And it’s not because I’m an asshole. Like the reader, I too, like to wonder what fate Nyx deserved, and whether it was the lady or the tiger stepping out of that bakkie. Nyx has done terrible things, but I understand that it’s not up to me to judge her, after all. Rhys would say it’s up to God; I would say it’s up to each individual reader. It’s not for me to decide. Such are the endings on which much great fan fiction can be imagined.

When I sit here looking at Broken Heavens and the original emotional heart of the story, I understand why it’s collapsed, like a souffle, now that I have a different ending. I had spent a great deal of time in the prior two books setting up a very specific ending. What I had failed to do in this latest draft of Broken Heavens is make it clear what the emotional turning point is for the character here so she understands she doesn’t just have two choices, those two choices I set up so many books ago. I realize that the character needs to have the same kind of emotional moment I did after the election, when my entire conception of my country and where it was headed and who were not only were, but who we wanted to be, got flushed down the toilet forever. I will never forget that moment. How betrayed I felt; how my own people had voted to destroy everything I knew and loved. It was a break in reality, for me, the moment when I felt the whole world literally lurch onto another timeline. It was among the most surreal moments of my life. And I knew I had to accept immediately that it had changed everything I knew, and was going to profoundly affect the future – my own and those of my friends and family and the world itself – in terrible ways.

Those are the emotional turning points we talk about. It’s the moment I got out of the hospital after nearly dying, and had to ask for help cutting asparagus because I was so weak. It was laying out the syringes and medication I would have to take now everyday for the rest of my life, or die. It was that understanding that I was not as strong and robust and invulnerable as I’d always assumed, that knowledge that everything I believed about the world and myself had been irrevocably changed. My future, my expectations of such, were rewritten before my eyes.

These are the emotional experiences, and the emotional moments, that we often use fiction to explore. I may not know what it’s like to chop off someone’s head, but I know what it is to be called a monster, and to wonder if it’s true. I may not have ever given birth to a world, but I know what it is to be at war with one’s body while the world itself tries to control you. We use these emotions as leaping off points, and memorable fiction understands that to endure, to touch people, takes more than explosions. It takes tapping into these very vulnerable parts of ourselves, often the very worst moments from our lives, and translating them onto the page.

This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of bestsellers that don’t do this. I just read a bestselling author who wrote a mystery novel that was absolutely emotionally devoid. I also tossed it immediately into my Goodwill pile to give away and promptly forgot even the names of the characters. But making work that lasts needs to touch people in some way. It must be memorable. It must bleed all over the page.

I get that, and yes, some days it does bother me, because frankly, I don’t want to revisit a lot of my most vulnerable moments. This is likely why I’m a discovery writer, because it allows me to sneak up on these emotions in a very organic way. It allowed me to simply write Nyx falling to her knees in the ring, longing to submit, knowing she couldn’t, and having no idea why that scene felt so powerful to me; why it felt just right. Not until much later.

But as I struggle with the massive backlog of projects I have right now, I realize that I have less time to allow myself the comfortable blinders of pure discovery writing in order to creep up on the truth. I have to face it head on, first thing. Even if it scares me.

Even if it bleeds.

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