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On Writing and Skinny Dipping: The Importance of Writing Personal and Realistic Fiction

Debut novelist Helen Hoang discusses the importance of writing personal and realistic fiction.

In our “Breaking In” column in Writer’s Digest magazine, we talk with debut authors—such as Helen Hoang, author of The Kiss Quotient—about how they did it, what they learned and why you can do it, too. Here, Hoang discusses the importance of writing personal and realistic fiction.

I wrote on and off for about 10 years before “breaking out” with my debut novel, The Kiss Quotient. I believe it was a combination of things that did it: timing, market conditions, luck, etc. As writers, we can’t control any of that, though. What we can control is the book itself, the writing.

Previously, I wrote fantasy/historical romances (which are all metaphorically hidden under my bed because they’re awful). The plots involved things like the fate of mankind and the end of the world, and I gave the characters internal conflicts similar to what I’d seen in other books. Those conflicts, however, aren’t things I personally relate to, and the feelings that I wrote weren’t ones I’ve experienced. I was blindly copying others without connecting to the characters, trying to fit in when I should have been celebrating my differences (I think we all should do this), and this emotional distance was reflected in my work.

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The Kiss Quotient was a major turning point for me in that it’s my first contemporary novel, taking place somewhere I’ve lived and remember fondly, and more importantly, it’s the most personal story I’ve written. I believe it is this personal depth that truly sets the book apart from my earlier work. That said, I don’t think it would be accurate to describe the main characters as reflections of myself (I’ve heard them described as “cinnamon rolls,” and if I were anything carb-loaded, it’d be something more like a garlic and onion bagel), but I did give them parts of me, and not just the “good” ones.

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I was pursuing an autism spectrum diagnosis as I wrote this book, and through my autistic heroine Stella, I explored and embraced parts of myself that I’d never understood and always tried to hide—difficulty with relationships and intimacy, all-consuming interests, social awkwardness, routines, repetitive motions, etc. Giving these very personal traits to a character made me feel naked, but it was also empowering, so I guess writing this book was kind of like skinny dipping. Additionally, her fears and insecurities were mine, and when she confronted them, in a sense, we were doing it together. As an author, I’d never felt like I had so much on the line—even when I’d written about the end of the world. Her mannerisms, thoughts, and feelings have an authenticity to them—I hope—because they’re real.

In a similar fashion, I gave the character Michael my tight-knit Asian family; complete with the grandma, mom, passel of sisters, trouble-causing dad, health issues and relating drama. If these characters shine, I like to think it’s because they’re tailored after real people I love. The culture, the food, the family dynamics, all of these things were taken from my life, and I wrote them with honest affection and as much respect as I’m capable of giving anything. Michael’s struggle to balance his own desires with the needs of his loved ones is something I know intimately as well, though I’m not as heroic as I think he is.

I believe it’s the truth within the fiction that reaches hearts, and that means authors need to open themselves up first. Only then will readers reciprocate (at least, that’s my experience). I’ve never hired an escort to teach me relationships or anything else, but the insights and vulnerabilities on the page are mine and deeply personal. If this book resonates with readers, I think that is why.

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Helen Hoang’s debut The Kiss Quotient—about an autistic mathematician who hires a male escort to teach her about romantic relationships, and is surprised to find herself falling
in love—is tied in closely with Hoang’s own story, as a woman diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The Kiss Quotient was released on June 5, 2018.

Read more in the September 2018 issue of Writer's Digest, or subscribe to get WD all year long.

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