Bryon Quertermous: Writing Without Fear

HEY GUYS IT’S BYRON QUARTERMOUSE — *checks notes* — okay, that’s maybe not how you spell his name? Whatever. Point is, he came to me and wanted to talk about guest posts here. We kind of ping-ponged some stuff back and forth and what resulted was this idea of “writing without fear.” It’s a vulnerable post, a post about vulnerability, which is interesting, I think — vulnerability is sometimes a virtue for writers, but it’s also a difficult one to manifest. If only because we don’t really like to be vulnerable, do we? And yet, sometimes our best fiction is written from a place of vulnerability. So, the question is, is writing without fear the way to go? Or is it really about having the fear and making use of it? Regardless, here’s BRIAN QWERTYMUSH, folks. *checks notes* Damn, still didn’t get it. We’re just going to call him “Pete Smith” from now on.

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I’m terrified of saying the wrong thing in person. You’d never know it because I talk A LOT. I’m just hoping that if I do say the wrong thing I’ll say so many other things after it that will cover up the wrong thing I said. That carries over into my writing as well unfortunately. For a writer, I’m not very precise with my words. I can be lazy or impatient with my writing and much of the time my desire for feedback trumps my desire for quality or impact and I send things out or publish them before they’re ready.

My first novel Murder Boy was published recently and it was the first novel that I truly wrote without fear. I never expected it to get published so laid myself bare in that sucker. Every fear, every hope, every conflict, and every flaw I had up to that point in my life went in the book. A lot of it still makes me uncomfortable to read because it shows what an ass I’m capable of being.

When I set out to do this Sorta-Kinda-Not-Really Blog Tour for Murder Boy, I had a bunch of topics I wanted to write about. Some of them were softball PR stuff but some of them were important, controversial topics. As of now, I’ve not written a single one of the important posts because I’m scared. I’m scared that readers will see a human still in progress. I’m scared my desire to write funny will overrule my desire to write honestly. I have a lot of flaws as a writer and as a human and I know how to cover them. But I don’t want to cover them. I need to risk being called sexist to be a better man. I need to risk being called a racist to confront my privilege and become a better citizen. I need to confront my weaknesses as a writer and write against those weaknesses to get better.

But I’ve seen what happens when people write without fear. I’ve seen writers far more skilled with words and empathy than I am shouted down for trying to help. I’ve seen writers open themselves up in their writing and then get harassed for it. I’ve also seen the good work and the great discussions that writing opens up. Before I can write that kind of work though, I need to be able to write a guest blog post that means something and teaches me something. If all I’m doing is writing to entertain myself and my friends I should just stick to bar stories at conventions. But I want my words to mean something. I want every book I write and every post I write, even a silly guest blog to promote my new book, to have an effect.

I’m writing the sequel to Murder Boy now and I have the opportunity to confront some of my ugliest tendencies regarding race and sexuality. I have the opportunity to write diversely and with meaning. But I don’t want to. I don’t want people to know some of the things I think and feel. It’s easier to write about people I know and people in my world and people in my experiences. I run less risk of saying the wrong thing or making a fool of myself or getting it wrong. It’s easier to cover my insecurity with jokes and distractions. It’s easier to like status updates and retweet insightful posts from other people than to write my own. That doesn’t mean I can’t start trying though. I don’t want people to read this post and I think that’s a good sign.

It means I’m writing without fear.

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Bryon Quertermous is the author of Murder Boy and the forthcoming Riot Load. His short stories have been published in a number of journals of varying repute and he was shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger Award. He currently lives outside of Detroit with his wife and kids. Visit him at bryonquertermous.com and follow him on Twitter @BryonQ.

Murder Boy: Amazon | B&N | Indiebound

26 comments

  • “I’m scared that readers will see a human still in progress. I need to risk being called sexist to be a better man. I need to risk being called a racist to confront my privilege and become a better citizen.” We are ALL works in progress. I’m so glad to see someone admit it! Well done, and much needed post. Thank you so much.

  • Beautiful. I relate sooooooooooooooo much!

    My newly released book, Spinning in Circles and Learning from Myself, is almost entirely about what a terrible person I’ve been. The mean things I thought about my autistic brothers and mom, the eye rolling I gave my black husband when he told white me about the prejudice he grew up with, the food I stole when I was poor, and the time I raped a boy.

    Sure, I tell the stories with an eye for answers and a joy in discovering them. But that doesn’t change the dangers and cruelties at the core of my stories.

    Some people tell me I’m brave because I’m honest. But in truth I’m afraid. Afraid that people will learn about me from someone other than me. And so, I tell on myself.

    Also, and this is a much bigger reason for my articles and book, I want to talk to others who have made my cruel mistakes. I want to tell them they are not alone and that we can learn from ourselves by listening to our own stories and by listening to the stories of others while being willing to hear our reactions to them.

    And I want those people to remind me that I’m not alone. Because often I’m afraid that I am.

    So I write bravely, with fear.
    Fantastically, the fear becomes something new. Something less like fear.

    Thank-you for writing with and without fear, Bryon! And thank-you so much for being something I crave. A reminder that I’m not alone.

    And that our words, and our stories, are powerful.
    And that it’s worth stepping up to share them even when that means stepping into fear.

  • I’m in a state of fear at the moment but it’s less about actually writing. When I penned my first novel, years ago now, I don’t remember being particularly scared about sending it off to agents. I don’t remember being particularly scared when it was rejected by everyone. I don’t remember being scared when the same thing happened for the second, third, and fourth novel that I scribbled down and flung at long-suffering agencies before I finally realised that I was wasting everyone’s time since I didn’t actually know how to write yet.

    Several years on and I’m ready to submit again. And I’m terrified. It has taken me a long time to get my manuscript to a submittable state. It has gone through a critique group. An award-winning author that I met very kindly agreed to go over the first few chapters for me. I have edited and proofread until it feels like my eyes are bleeding. This manuscript is as ready as it’s ever going to be. But I’ve held off submitting it for the past couple of days and I don’t really know why. It’s not fear of the unknown – I absolutely know what it’s like to be rejected. Maybe I’m scared of it being accepted. That would open the door I’ve been trying to open for a very long time and, for whatever reason, that scares me.

    I know it’s not the same kind of fear that Bryon is talking about, but weirdly enough, it makes me feel a bit better for sharing this.

  • My tact is to write with fear. Fear can hover, sit its ass down next to me, share a cup of coffee. If I feel no fear or trepidation about what I’m writing, why bother? A bigger fear is that my vulnerability or honesty turns out not to be particularly interesting. My dark teatime of the soul ends up being tea and cookies at grandma’s. That thought freaks me out more than anything else, since it seems like everyone around me has a better schtick.

    • Amen. Very familiar with the thought that my best stuff, my personal version of genius could be met with a resounding, “Meh.” Sounds like I better just get all BFFy with that fear, though, since it isn’t leaving.

  • I think a lot of writers feel like you do. It’s easier to thwap around witty repartee than to pull the meat off your bones and speak it. And to some degree the fear is justified because of the propensity of “The Internet” to blitz attack at random an offhanded comment or careless word. We all want a little privacy in this nobody can have any privacy world, right?

    And I think maybe it’s a balancing act – even people who love us more than life don’t want to know every single thought in our heads. Maybe some things you should keep to yourself. But if you’re holding back ‘truth’ that really belongs in your writing because of fear then yeah, time for some serious confession and getting witnesses and amens and shit, right?

    Good post. Write on, brother. More power to you.

    Annie

  • Okay, I’m sure I should say something about your actual post, but actually, Murder Boy looks like a crazy cool story, and I’m really glad you’re on here so I could find out about your book.

  • Thanks everyone for the great comments. I walk around perpetually with my foot in my mouth so I’m always worried about trying to be honest with my writing. I hope showing off my own flaws and warts helps others do the same and helps build toward a critical mass of honesty.

  • Love your truth and your honesty. Living is a struggle; living well is a struggle; living honestly is a struggle. You have another fan along for the scary ride. I will buy and read your work just based on the real-ness of this guest blog post.

    Thank you Sensei/Chuck for the exposure and opportunity.

  • I have missed doing so many things out of fear. Fear for myself, fear for my responsibilities. I finally sent off a book to a new publisher, was shocked when it was accepted immediately. And I was so afraid of not being accepted (I’m not young, I’m not PC, blah blah blah) I kept my blog to innocuous subjects. Until I took on a daily blogging challenge and decided to address issues that just flat piss me off.
    More people than ever read my blog. Okay, it’s a matter of thirty vs three, but it’s still more. And I’ve sort of started not to worry about who is reading and who I might or might not offend.
    Liberating. I write Romance, stories about people meeting and becoming close. No billionaires, no bondage. That doesn’t work for me. I write as honestly as I know how and…it works for me.
    Now I’m hunting up your book. Nothing like a vomiting death to fill up my weekend

  • It’s worth remembering that you will never make everyone happy on the internet. Never, ever. It just will never happen. So you may as well write whatever the hell you want.

  • B-Man! As I already remarked on Twitter, some of the best advice I ever heard at a writer’s conference came from Don Winslow: Write the book you’re scare to write. If it comes too easily, it’s probably facile, banal, or boring. Maybe all of the above.

    Also: remember that whatever tendencies you’re scared of — racism, sexism, contempt for cats — they’re countered by wiser parts of you. And fiction allows you to strip away a part of you and fashion it into a fictional golem who can say openly what you have considered saying but thought better of. My books are full of racist, sexist, malevolent pricks. I’d like to disavow them, but they’re me. They’re just not all of me. Same with you.

    Go forth, fear and tremble, and write.

  • Great post, Byron. But… YOU NEVER TOLD US WHAT YOUR BOOK IS ABOUT! You put in some tantalizing comments and I scrolled down, expecting a blurb and… nothing! You gave us an honest post that wove together an important subject and aspects of your novel, and it resonated. Now tell us what your book is about. A little self promotion has its place, I swear. 🙂

    • Thanks for the prompt Melissa. That reminds me I need to update the blurb on my site with the back cover copy:

      Dominick Prince is out of options. He’s lived in Detroit long enough to use his experiences of crime and poverty to fuel his writing, but he’s ready to move on to bigger and better things. Dominick’s thesis advisor, the elitist Parker Farmington, refuses to let Dominick pass his class, thinking the genre of potboilers beneath him. Which means rather than becoming the next literary sensation, Dominick will spend his life asking customers if they’d like fries with that. And if that’s the only plan, kidnapping doesn’t seem like such a bad plan B.

      So if Farmington won’t pass him willfully, Dominick will make him do it forcefully. And once he has Farmington’s signature, fame and fortune are within Dominick’s grasp. But while Dominick may have a devious and brilliant mind on the page, in reality he’s more Betty White than Walter White. And before he can write ’the plot thickens,’ Dominick’s plan begins to go horribly wrong. Teaming with Farmington’s jilted mistress and her loose-cannon bounty hunter brother, Dominick finds that if even the best laid plans go awry, then his doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. And being a great writer won’t matter much if he’s six feet under.

  • “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.” But fear we do, and we might as well face it squarely as you have.

    And hooray for another Bryon who spells his name correctly!

  • April 25, 2015 at 9:40 AM // Reply

    There’s a scene in “Have His Carcase” by Dorothy L. Sayers, in which mystery writer is struggling with moving her story along, and Lord Peter challenges her by saying it’s a very pretty puzzle but there’s no real life or motivation for the characters to behave in the way that they have. He tells her the protagonist is a gump for automatically assuming the woman he loves must be guilty of murder, and thus perpetuating all the rest of problems in the story. Harriet essentially tells him that re-writing the character to make him real will hurt–and Lord Peter says, “So what? As long as it makes for a better story.”

    I’ve always loved that scene, even before I began writing my own stories. Thank you for reminding me of that. I’ve been hiding behind my own fears lately, and the current work in progress feels dreary as a result. I need to go back in and make those characters *hurt*, damn it. Even if it hurts me. 🙂

  • Enjoyed your post, Bryon. I was afraid to read it, but I made myself do it. A lot of it hit home. Good stuff.

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