Novelist Shaun David Hutchinson’s compelling (and award-winning) YA novels combine speculative elements with LGBT characters and themes. Now he tackles nonfiction for the first time with his memoir, Brave Face. He recounts his tumultuous life during his teenage years as he struggled to understand his sexuality, his depression, and the suicide attempt that led to a search for self-acceptance. Hopeful and courageous, Brave Face is every bit as poignant and gripping as Hutchinson’s fiction. Next up is his first non-speculative novel, The State of Us. The story of two opposing presidential candidates’ sons who fall in love will be out next year.
Writing memoir vs. fiction
Usually, I’m a “write by the seat of your pants” kind of person when it comes to fiction. I have a vague idea and a character voice, and then I’ll jump in and explore. With memoir, I already knew what happened. I had to create an outline of events and decide how I wanted to tell my story. Having an outline and supporting materials, such as journals and emails, is not something I normally have [with fiction]. I experimented with time jumps or linear order and picking events that best told the story. It was a challenge trying to find the honesty that’s necessary when telling a story in the first person. In fiction, I need to find the core honesty of the character, but this time the character was me.
Honesty on the page
I’m a private person by nature. With the memoir, when I sat down with my editor to work on it, I realized it was all or nothing. I was either going to let people into that part of my life during that time, or not. I wasn’t a particularly wonderful teenager. I had my faults, and I thought it was important to show those faults – and to show that the way I saw the world wasn’t necessarily the way the world actually was. But it was the way I interpreted things. It was the truth to me in that moment.
Crafting YA/teenage dialogue
It boils down to honesty. I try to stay away from slang because that immediately dates things. There’s a thing I see a lot in beginning writers when working on dialogue. They try to transcribe exactly how people talk, but dialogue is looking for the soul of the conversation. It’s about making every word count. I think teens are far more open when they speak than people think they are. I don’t dumb them down.
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Generally, I just start writing and finding the character’s voice and let them tell the story. Sometimes I’m dead in the water, and sometimes there are false starts. I have ADHD, and if I know too much about the story, I get bored. Part of the fun is figuring out what’s going to happen. It typically takes me three to six weeks to write a first draft, and it’s usually terrible. I’m a fan of throw it away and start over. I’ll outline a draft I’ve rewritten and make changes I need to, and then rewrite it. Some are easier than others.
Writing for an audience
I’m only writing for two people – the high school version of me and my best friend, Rachel. She’s the first person who reads my work. When you start thinking about “who is my audience” and “how to broaden my appeal,” then you’re writing for committee. And that doesn’t work out well for me.
Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.