Writing a book about eating disorders

For those of you who don’t know already, my next book is a story about a teenage boy suffering with anorexia. It definitely won’t be a typical commercial novel. It’s not a huge, amazing high concept story that will attract a huge, guaranteed audience. Unfortunately that’s a risk with all of my novels. I’m not really interested in writing high concepts for the sake of profit. If my book idea isn’t guaranteed to be successful, I don’t really care. I write what I want, essentially.

It’s thrown up a lot of challenges and questions though, writing a book about an eating disorder. I’m constantly questioning what is too much detail and what’s too vague. What might be triggering, what is realistic, how informal or casual is *too* informal or casual. It was stressful when I first started writing it, but as I’ve done more of the book, it’s become much more natural and easier to write. Here I’m just going to talk about some things to expect from the story and the process of writing it.

For one, a huge part of the story itself is about the representation. Every piece of media I’ve seen about eating disorders, especially anorexia, is aimed at or surrounding women. But for this story, the sufferer is a teenage boy. He’s not sporty or athletic, he hasn’t got massive risk factors. I chose anorexia specifically because it’s the eating disorder I suffer with and I felt it was easier to write and make it feel more natural. Makes it feel much more authentic, rather than forcing myself into the shoes of say, a binge eater or a bulimic that I can’t really relate to as much. Since entering the eating disorder community over a year ago, I noticed a distinct lack of men in everything. In films and books and even within the toxic ana community on tumblr. There’s next to no representation of men with eating disorders and I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult it must be to deal with that.

This, along with my own experiences, has inspired me to write this story. It’s written in the perspective of the protagonist, Jonathon. I figured this would be the best way to make it feel authentic and personal and real. As a result, the writing style is very casual and informal. At first I was worried it would be too casual and people would dismiss it as being badly written, but the more I’ve written the more confident I feel that this was the right decision. Even if the reader has not had an eating disorder, I want them to emphasise and/or sympathise with at least some of his experiences and feelings. I want the reader to feel like they know him.

It’ll be a risky story. Like I said earlier, it’s not a huge commercial concept. It’s not exactly happy and peppy. It will be brutally real and honest and open about the eating disorder world. Things like the physical symptoms (including fainting), thinspo, ana coaches, dating and losing friends are all explored within this story. For sufferers with anorexia, it’s possible it could be triggering. But it could also be reassuring. You are being represented and light is being shone onto a disorder hidden away behind the stereotype of thin, white girl. It’s a really, really important story to me and if any of my books were to suddenly become famous overnight, this is the one I’d want it to be. It’s just got such an important message and story that I think needs to be out there. Anorexia isn’t just skipping meals and losing loads of weight instantly. It’s going through horrible hunger pains, brutal headaches, lying to friends and family, seeing a different body in the mirror and never being comfortable with who you are. That’s the reality I’m exploring in this story, and that’s what makes it risky. Many readers want a happy story with a happy ending, or a high concept fantasy trilogy. That’s not what this is. It’s a brutally real and honest story that you should really get dragged into.

At the same time however, the protagonist’s experience isn’t the same as everyone else’s. One other thing I’ve been worried about is people calling things out as unrealistic or not right. When in reality, his experience isn’t the same as mine or someone else’s. For example, he found it easy to start skipping meal and fasting, whereas many people with an eating disorder struggle to fast longer than a few hours. And that’s fine. His experience is not my way of saying “this is what an eating disorder is in every person” but rather “how he feels and thinks is the reality of living with an eating disorder”. While many people with bulimia can purge, he can’t do it and that doesn’t invalidate him. He’s just a different person.

If you’re reading this and you happen to have a history with eating disorders, or a writer with some experience in this subject and would like to be part of an early reading group to give feedback and comments as I’m writing, contact me through my website.

Writing this story so far, despite my worries, has been really easy. Maybe it’s down to the familiarity of it. It almost feels like I’m writing my own story even though I’m not, and by using a casual writing style it feels like I’m talking directly to the reader. That should make it better as a YA novel too.

In mid December I’ll be writing a blog post looking at the year as a whole, in my writing, art and photography and how I’ve grown as a person. This will include an update on how the book is going, where I aim to be 1/3 way through it.

Thanks for reading as usual.

Published by Alexandra Killworth

I'm Alexandra Killworth, YA author, freelance artist and photographer and mental health activist.

2 thoughts on “Writing a book about eating disorders

  1. Please keep in mind that those who read books to be triggered are already in the depth of the illness and what you write has no impact. It’s not going to change anything. I used to read to stay triggered, like having a disordered companion. Then I read books because it was a relief to have those thoughts in a book and not in my head. It was like a short reprieve. Now I have one book about someone who developed it as an adult (college) and functioned with it for years. It makes me feel less alone being a functional chronic anorexic.
    I think bringing light to men and boys who have eating disorders is incredibly important. The percentage is much higher than people would expect. The only thing I would suggest is perhaps an addendum talking about adult men who have it. There is so much focus on children that those of us who are adults (30s, 40s, etc, male and female) feel even more alone and invisible. The impression is that unless you’re a child or teen, you don’t count. So yeah, perhaps a paragraph or three bringing awareness to people that this is not an age restricted disorder.

    Like

    1. You make excellent points! I realise that while it may be triggering for some, others will find comfort in having a character experience the same things as they are. I completely understand where you’re coming from.
      While the focus of this book is on a teenager with anorexia, I plan on doing additional books on similar under represented groups such as older adults and explore their own experiences. It’s not an age restricted disorder and this is touched upon in the book, but it deserves it’s own book.

      Liked by 1 person

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