Why unafraid writing is a risk worth taking


15 March 2024
Novelist Brydie Lee-Kennedy on why writing what's authentic rather than to meet the expectations of an unseen audience is a risk worth taking

The first chapter of my novel, Go Lightly, centres around a sex scene between Ada, my protagonist, and a woman she has just met at a drug-fuelled party.

Though I had loosely outlined the book before I started writing it, I didn’t necessarily intend to open with sex and drugs (I skipped the rock and roll). But as I got to know Ada it became clear to me that this was the right way to introduce her to readers – stripped bare, literally and figuratively, both vulnerable and powerful. It also put her queerness front and centre.

However I did see it as a risk, as tolerance for sexuality in novels is a fraught topic for readers and authors. Still, writing should be about risk because without that we fall prey to conformity.

I have been asked about writing 'unafraid' fiction but truthfully I think every novelist has a little bit of fear (or a lot of fear depending on how close we are to publication). Fear of rejection, certainly, but also fear that the audience won’t feel for our characters the way we do.

Perhaps your messy protagonist is read as unlikeable or unhinged. Maybe your central romance is too toxic to root for or a side character’s actions unexpected to people who don’t live and breathe the text. It is hard to avoid the mental traps that come with attempting to please every reader or even to understand what they want. Writers are readers too after all – the best we can do is try to please our own tastes and hope that someone out there shares them.

I’ve read accounts of writers in years gone by who worked by cutting themselves off from the world entirely and seemed to thrive in isolation. Of course most of those writers were men who relied on the labour of the women in their lives to attend to their needs while giving themselves over to their craft (it’s much easier to write 1,000 words if someone else has made your lunch).

But modern gender roles aside, this way of working seems even less practical now than it did then. Even if we are physically isolated we are constantly connected to others via the internet, perhaps even more so than if we’re getting our social needs met in person. So it is both impossible and unwise to remove the voices of our community from our heads when we write. Instead we must find ways of managing them.

I believe handling this has become harder for writers due to social media and the availability of feedback from strangers on a scale we’ve never seen before. Before writing my own book I frequented Goodreads (though only ever reviewed a book if I really loved it) and picked up recommendations on there from friends and strangers.

Once my book was announced, an author friend advised me to delete my account which I did immediately. The views of readers are so important and particularly valuable to other readers looking for something new. But I know enough about myself to know that if I read endless reviews of my work I would start to internalise the (likely conflicting) opinions I found there and that would absolutely hinder my ability to write another book. That’s where the fear would start to creep into the process and I can’t write characters that feel authentic to me if I have the voices of a thousand people describing their shortcomings in my head.

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The ability to disconnect can be tricky for contemporary novelists. There is an expectation that we be visible on social media as readers are often interested in the people behind their favourite work. A writer’s personal brand and ability to perform well on video is a standard part of the publishing process now and this also leaves you open to feedback, not just on your work but on other aspects of your life.

Walking the line of availability while protecting your private artistic practice is one that I’m not sure I’ve mastered, though I’m endlessly in awe of authors who seem to have nailed it.

Fiction can only be unafraid if it is written with conviction by an author, uncoupled from how they feel it will be received. We must respect our readers and want them to take something away from our work but I feel that focusing too heavily on the expectations of an unknowable market hinders the creative process (and attempting to know the market deeply will only add to our anxiety).

Instead we must believe in ourselves enough to pour hours into characters we love even if no one else feels the same, warts – and chaotic cocaine fuelled sex scenes – and all.

Go Lightly by Brydie Lee-Kennedy is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99)


Different genres in fiction require varying approaches to risk-taking. Author Henry Porter looks at why thriller writing is a risk in itself.