The sudden spate of publicity about “Breaking Point” over the last week or so has made me revisit the idea of a follow-up book. The following is a personal piece about the writing of the novel and the motivations behind it. It was useful to write to put my own thoughts in order but, also, I thought it might be useful to read for those who might be encouraged to read the book in the coming weeks thanks to the recent publicity on Twitter. If this little essay comes over as a vanity project, it’s not the intention. It’s more like a private journal entry being made public, a stream-of-consciousness in which I attempt to put some thoughts and ideas in order.
Life has a strange way of surprising us when we least expect it. I published Breaking Point as an e-book back in 2011, and sold around six copies over the space of eighteen months. This wasn’t devastating, but instead totally expected. After all, Breaking Point is a novel that centres on the subject of homophobic bullying in schools. It’s hardly bestseller material. What’s more, it sits in a kind of no-man’s–land between a young adult book and an adult book. Sure, for the most part it revolves around a group of sixteen year olds, but they act and speak in a way us adults try to forget they are capable of.
In order to have a bit of a break from writing my PhD thesis, I revised Breaking Point in late 2012 and reissued it in February 2013. I found that the world was very different in 2013 than in 2011. Twitter had suddenly become a great marketing tool, a way to reach out and tell people about the book. In the space of eleven months, seven thousand copies of Breaking Point have now been downloaded. I’ll admit, many of these were during free promotions etc, but nobody writes a first novel for it to make money, but in the hope that it will be read. By someone.
A few weeks back, I was able to self-publish Breaking Point in paperback. I knew then that very few copies would shift – most people who wanted to read it had already done so through the e-book. But at least the paperback allows the book to reach school libraries, for example – and I hope that is what happens. Around the same time, things took an unexpected turn when I was contacted by Amanda Taylor from the University of Central Lancashire who wanted to talk to me about the book in relation to the Social Work Book Club – this, too, has resulted in publicity of the book through Twitter and elsewhere.
The comments about the book, and the reviews on Amazon, have often been touching and moving. I have received private messages on Twitter from people who have read the book, and received emails too. I’m still partly in shock about this, despite the fact that the book is only doing what it set out to do in the first place.
What is that, exactly?
Well, I guess the aims were twofold. Firstly I wanted to write a gay-themed work that didn’t resort to long passages of sex to try and get the reader to part with their cash or their time. As a gay man, I find it really quite offensive that filmmakers and many authors think we only want to read gay-themed stories if they contain an abundance of nudity and sex – that these directors and writers are mostly gay men themselves only compounds the problem, making it appear that the LGBTs of this world are interested in one thing only. I don’t believe that’s true. I have been into Waterstone’s book shop and asked where the LGBT fiction can be found, and been told “it’s under ‘erotica’”. What the bloody hell is it doing under “erotica?” Well, part of the reason, I guess, is that most of the gay fiction out there today does have a substantial erotic element. Fifty Shades of Grey wouldn’t raise eyebrows amongst LGBTs, such subject matter is par for the course for gay fiction. Even today, the act of sex seems to define who and what a gay man (or woman) is. I find that scary and sad in equal measure.
I think most of us would be just as happy finding mirrors of ourselves on the silver screen. And I don’t mean mirrors of who society thinks we are, but mirrors of who we really are. There is no place for a stereotype in 2013. We are, after all, individuals. For all the talk of the “LGBT community”, we are still not clones of each other, or definitely going to like and admire each other just because we are sexually attracted to a particular gender. It’s lunacy. We wouldn’t expect all heterosexuals to be the same and like the same things and people just because they are all attracted to the opposite sex.
So, I wanted to write a book that didn’t rely on cheap thrills to get an audience. And I wanted to write a book where the gay characters didn’t live in a separate world to straight characters – again, this seems to be something that only happens in the world of gay-themed independent (American) filmmaking. But the second major thing I wanted to do was to give a certain group of people a voice.
I wrote earlier about how we perceive fifteen and sixteen year olds, and how they really act and talk. The bullying in Breaking Point centre on a type that is not talked about in the press or on TV, and concentrates very much on embarrassment and humiliation. The reason we don’t hear about this as much is because the victims don’t want to talk about it. While the incidents within the book didn’t happen to me, they are nearly all inspired by personal stories people have written on the web or from the very few newspaper articles that mention this type of behaviour. The victims don’t want to talk about it – and understandably so, and so Breaking Point was intended to give those victims a voice, and to bring these issues out into the open. I never intended to provide answers or resolutions to the problems. That’s not my job, and neither am I qualified to do such a thing. I don’t think there are solutions, certainly not blanket ones that work in every case. If there were, we wouldn’t still be having this problem.
The reason for me writing this blog post is because I am trying to get my thoughts in order as to where to go next. For me, the answer is an obvious one. In order to finish what I have started, the rest of the story has to be told. Bullying doesn’t end with the last day of school – either for the victims or the bullies. The repercussions are there for a long time, in some cases throughout the person’s life. The victim doesn’t walk out of the school gates on that last day, start smiling, and float through the next few years unaffected by what has happened. I was diagnosed with depression two years after leaving school, and with bipolar ten years after that – which I still have, albeit nicely under control. These kind of after effects are what I want to use as the backbone for “Breaking Down”, the tentative title of the follow-up to Breaking Point.
I wrote a blogpost earlier in the year about cinematic depictions of mental health issues, and I face the same quandary as the films I discuss there: how do you make the depiction of depression realistic and sympathetic, but also make it entertaining? A novel has to be entertaining, after all. Well, unless it’s written by Henry James, but let’s not go there. And this is where I am falling down at the moment. I know how the plot needs to unfold, I know how I want to depict the issues it raises, but I still need to find a way to do that in an entertaining way that makes people want to read the next page. And that’s not going to be easy.
Will Breaking Down ever get finished? I hope so, not least because I like the few chapters that have already been written. But for it to be successful in any way, it has to concentrate on the individual experience, and not resort to the stereotypes that have plagued gay and lesbian film and books, and depictions of mental illness, for so many years.
For those that have read Breaking Point, or helped to spread the word, I shout out a huge “thank you” – the idea of seven thousand people owning a copy of my book would have been laughable just a year ago. So, thank you for making 2013 a memorable and very special year.