The Story Behind the Story, Part 2
Continued from Part 1
I returned to the Queen’s Swing Club characters in 2009. Although Andy had been the protagonist of the 2005 short story, I now saw Sophia was the more interesting character, and I upgraded her to be the protagonist instead. (Back then, I still imagined Andy being a co-protagonist; only years later did I give that status to Zack and relegate Andy to a supporting role.) I wrote a scene and a half before that attempt fizzled out, too. I still had the same problem as I had in 2005. The dance was too joyful, so it wasn’t dramatic.
In 2010, I began writing what would become my first published novel, Gateways. Sophia, Zack and Andy fell to the back burner, but I never forgot them.
Finally, with Gateways completed in 2013 and my mind turning to new projects, I had the necessary insight. I still wanted to write Sophia’s story, but since dancing was too happy, the story couldn’t be about dancing. Dancing would need to be the backdrop, the setting, the stage, for a much darker tale.
What I chose may surprise you.
In 2013, Anita Sarkeesian, creator of the YouTube channel Feminist Frequency, released the first instalments in a video series analysing tropes about women in video games. The videos, and the crowdfunding campaign that supported them, were met with a wave of anti-feminist backlash in the gaming community. By 2014, a campaign of harassment was targeting multiple women video game commentators in a movement known as #gamergate. The #gamergate campaign escalated to rape threats, death threats, and attempts at “doxxing”: publishing the targets’ home addresses online so they could be threatened and harassed in person. Lives were destroyed over men’s injured pride.
At the time, I was fascinated to explore the anger, hatred and dehumanization, the insecurity and self-loathing, the entitlement, and the desperate yet futile craving for power that would lead to such a heinous crime (many of these themes survived my eventual abandonment of the #gamergate plot). I was equally fascinated to explore the impact the crime would have on its victims, and the strength and resilience they would need to persevere through it. I thought I had finally discovered the beginnings of a plotline that would infuse Sophia’s story with drama and heartbreak, but also growth and hope.
And, as with its real-life inspiration, the story would begin with the innocent posting of a video.
In November 2013, I wrote the opening scene of Swing Out of the Blue, in which a group of friends watches Sophia’s viral video about depression. I spent most of 2014 self-publishing Gateways, but by autumn, I had cobbled together several chapters of the new novel and sent them to friends for feedback.
In hindsight, I was completely unqualified to write a novel about misogynistic online harassment. My early readers also pointed out that there’s a big difference between feminists facing backlash for calling out established power structures, and a young woman being harassed over a depression video; the latter seemed unrealistic. (Sadly, years later, I learned that a video game called Depression Quest had actually been among the early triggers of #gamergate, and its developer, Zoe Quinn, had suffered brutal online harassment and threats for it.) What really led me to abandon the #gamergate plot, however, was a telephone conversation with a friend in November 2014. “You don’t need it,” she told me. “The story is strong enough without it.”
At first, this confused me. We were talking about getting rid of my novel’s entire plot. How could the story be strong enough without it? What would be left?
The answer proved she was right. What was left were characters grasping for connection, holding tenuously to a dying dance club, striving to come of age even as they struggled with their inner demons. What was left was a video about depression, and the courage and vulnerability it took to share it … and the courage and vulnerability it would take for me to write such a story myself.
This character-driven version of Swing Out of the Blue was both frightening and necessary, because to write honestly about mental health would require me to remove my own armour: to remove the mask I show to the world.
Continue to Part 3!