Tuesday, February 27, 2018

When you're writing about unspeakable things

There is violence in the world around us. I wish there was less (well, after I polish off my hit list of course.) You, the savvy writer, need to know the difference between essential and gratuitous violence.

Being able to talk about violence and the aftermath is essential to healing. Silence equals death, a phrase coined at the start of the AIDS epidemic, still applies. Shaming victims requires they be made afraid to speak. Writing stories helps end that silence.



Two books very close to my heart involve acts of unspeakable cruelty and shame. They are central to the story; they in fact ARE the story. How those acts are presented in the story leaves no room for misunderstanding; they are not there to show how terrible a villain is; they are there to show how flawed the protagonist is.

And they are certainly not there for titillation.

The reader is not shocked; the reader is not horrified. The reader is heart-broken.

How you write about violence will make a huge difference in how far I'm willing to read in your novel. It's not what you write , it's how you write it.





29 comments:

french sojourn said...


I instantly thought of "City of thieves." D. Benioff's coming of age story set in, and during the WW2 siege of Leningrad.

There is a passage, that with my frikkin' luck will be my last thought as I transition into the great beyond. Powerful incredible story, however I wish I had an ounce of eye bleach available for just after I read it.

My current m/s has an unappetizing scene in it that I am still laboring with. Nice post today. Cheers.



E.M. Goldsmith said...

Before We Were Yours does this beautifully. I read that book all the way last week and I can’t get it out of my head. Beautifully voiced characters. So heart-breaking.

On the other hand, I supoose Cormac McCarthy is not everyone’s cup of tea. Some scenes in more than one of his books have left me physically ill. Essential to his story but very hard to absorb.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I cannot read about violence against animals. Violence against children makes me sick. I turn away from reading about violence within relationships. And yet all three appear in my WIP.
Why?
How human beings mistreat other human beings and innocent creatures is heartbreaking. How survivors persevere, rally and overcome is everyday legend.
Suffering is universal, legend is personal.

Lennon Faris said...

Yeah, as a reader I feel the same way. I will put a book down if I think the author did it for some flippant shock value. One of the reasons I don't get into GoT. *ducks from rotten tomatoes*

Lennon Faris said...

typo alert: "how terrible a villain in"

Also there's an extra space (before the comma) in the last sentence.

*scramming!*

Lisa Bodenheim said...

I'm not able to stomach reading about violent incidents anymore. I flip past the incident, my imagination well able to visualize it. In some cases, I read on after the incident to see how the character reacts, perseveres, recovers, heals.

In my WiP, a violent incident has happened, before the story begins, to a loved one and my protagonist deals with her own heartbreak and the ripple effect of trauma.

CynthiaMc said...

I am a happily-ever-after person. I don't like violence.

I have stopped reading authors I used to enjoy because they got too graphic/sick/violent for me.

Imagine my surprise when all kinds of things I don't usually write popped up in my current project.

I read for fun and to escape grim reality. This thing is full of reality (at least in my fictional world).

I have no idea how this is all going to turn out, but it's the most fun I've ever had working on a project (except for the firefighter and the music teacher, but that was a short story).

french sojourn said...


Lennon, I also quit G.O.T. for the same reason. Gratuitous, party of one.

Jeannette Leopold said...

I've been wondering about this very issue with my current ms. I tried to flip the archetypal hero and villain roles so that the hero has many of the typical fantasy villain's flaws. Fantasy villains often enjoy physical cruelty, and my hero has some of that.

I've been exceptionally nervous to share the ms with beta readers and to send it out to agents because I'm afraid I'll be accused of writing some kind of sick gratuitous violence. And maybe I have. I really don't know, but this is how the story came out.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I have so many rants about how fantasy treats excessive and gratuitous trauma. One of the worst parts (in fantasy, at least) is when poorly-fleshed out characters undergo terrible suffering in order to further the protagonist's character arc.

I hate it. I throw those books across the room.

Fantasy does have slightly different rules simply because of the scale--a violently destroyed village may take up less than a chapter in a fantasy novel about overthrowing an evil empire--and the defense a lot of authors put out about gratuitous violence in those scenes is, 'it's realistic!'

Ptttthhhhbhtht.

You can't summarize a town being destroyed and meticulously detail the awful rapes and murders that happened at the same time. No one is fooled by that.

KariV said...

I was frustrated with the 3rd book of a very popular YA series. The first 2 books had death and violence but it was integral to the story. In the third book people were dropping like flies -people you cared about - for ABSOLUTELY NO REASON! The violence, death, and destruction was so unnecessary for the plot. It drove me crazy and although I like the series I struggle to have a desire to reread it. Frustrating readers is not something writers should want

Timothy Lowe said...

This post makes me think about the Black Mirror episode I watched last night about the murderous robotic dogs. I must be a sicko, cause I kind of loved it.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

This is sort of the same, yet sort of different because my titles are nonfiction... but I wrote about my father's death in my first book. During the editing phase my publisher wanted to remove that entire section of the ms. She said it was too sad. Too raw.

I felt his loss and how it affected me was an integral part of my journey to opening the sanctuary. My pub and I were at an impasse for a few weeks. It was an interesting process and I learned a lot. While nearly all editorial changes were met with agreement on my part, ultimately I stuck to my gut feeling and insisted the part about my dad remain.

It's proven to be a story that resonates with readers and has had a deep emotional impact.

Theresa B (of Nebulopathy) said...

I'm with the group that won't go anywhere near GoT because of this.

I realized about a month ago that I'm just no longer willing to read the sections of mystery/thriller books written in the POV of the killer. Most of the time you can skip the entire section without missing anything, which to me says that it was all filler just to pad the word count. (Or maybe the publisher is demanding those sections? I have no idea.)

Sam Mills said...

Yes. I read a very popular, critically acclaimed fantasy novel in which the entirety of the climax hinged on one character going through such extensive sexual trauma that she finally snaps and kills somebody in the other ongoing storyline, tying up all the threads of the story but with zero resolution for her. It felt like her entire book-length, increasingly gratuitous arc was just a ploy to add a surprise resolution to the "real" plot. BAH I threw it away, and I never throw books away.

But then a story like ROOM can carry you through a situation of enormous, heart-breaking trauma, make you bawl your eyes out, make you really feel the aftereffects of that violence--WITHOUT EVER SHOWING IT. Going into explicit detail of the trauma doesn't make me feel more sympathy for a character; walking me through their PTSD does. Going into explicit detail just makes me feel like the author is trying to titillate, and I feel disgusted being made a witness.

Steve Stubbs said...

The Sleepy One said...
Steve, how is anyone's physical appearance remotely relevant to the discussion at hand?

Hi Sleepy,

I am glad my jokes are so easy to get.

If I were an agent and had to put up with some of the stuff Ms. Reid has to put up with, I would have no hair at all. If she has not pulled hers out yet, methinks there must be an explanation for that.

Of course, we all know that writers tear their hair out. It was not for nothing that Shakespeare's first name was Bill instead of Hairy. Isaac Asimov and Dean R. Koontz shared barely a lock between them. Writer, thy name is trichotillomania!

More jokes coming up, all of them obscure to the point of disastrous inscrutability.

PS, Thanx for defending me, Kregger. Much apreciated. But I don't have the faintest idea what you were trying to say. The shoe is on the other foot now. I probably had that coming. You make me feel better, son.

Julie Weathers said...

We had this discussion on the forums about one of my scenes. The MC has been caught by a soldier who attempts to rape her. He's been separated from his unit which was part of a house burning group that raped a mother and daughter and killed the son and grandfather, then burned their house and barns. MC manages to shoot the man who will not survive, but won't die right away either. She sits down to have a discussion with him about what goes on in the minds of men such as him when they do these things.

She could be discussing the price of cotton in Atlanta.

I'm not concerned about the writing. Everyone agreed it was well done. It's not added for shock value. This area gets wiped out. It simply is a fact. There were some who said, "You can't write about this. Agents won't want it. People will stop reading."

I said this is straight from the pages of letters Union soldiers wrote home, from diaries people wrote who survived the atrocities. These things happened.

"Yes, but people don't want to read about it in today's PC world."

I guess we'll see.

LynnRodz said...

I've barely started watching GoT a few weeks ago. I'm doing a marathon catch up which is great. I don't have to wait each week for the next episode and just go right into the next one. Yes, I admit it's horribly violent, but I close my eyes (literally) when all the fighting happens or I fast forward ahead during those (too) numerous fights scenes and go back to the story.

It's the characters and what'll happen to them in the end which makes me continue to watch. What I find interesting is some people I hated at first become people that I like afterwards as the story progresses and vice-versa. It's a good study of how people/characters are made up of good and bad.

The Sleepy One said...

Are most of the people avoiding GOT talking about the TV show? If yes, I find your comments interesting because the violence in the books is different than the show. There's violence in the books, but--I'm trying to be vague to avoid spoilers--the show made some interesting choices and added violence in scenes/situations that weren't in the books in ways that really bother me.

I prefer the books and think Martins has done an amazing job, especially with how some of the characters evolved over the books.

Colin Smith said...

I wasn't sure I'd have anything to contribute today, and then y'all bring up GoT. I've just finished Book 5, and I've seen the series. I have many thoughts, but I would broadly concur with The Sleepy One. Honestly, the language and sex bothered me more than the violence. In the end, however, it's the world and the characters that suck you in. I'm planning a blog article discussing it, so I'll save y'all my waffle here. :)

One Of Us Has To Go said...

Hi Janet, this is off-subject for today's (or any day's) post but I still wanted you to check this out, please.

If this isn't you in this picture, then maybe you'd like to correct this with the person who runs this website.

The reason why I care is because I feel about this so-called "former literary agent turned author coach" that he has ripped me off in the past.
I registered for a one-hour phone call with him after having sent him my query letter, synopsis and first 50 pages. I didn't believe he had read past the first two pages (given the conversation I had with him). Further, he told me NOTHING new that I hadn't already gathered from his website and elsewhere.

He promises beforehand that you can ask him questions but I didn't get a chance. It was all 'political' bla bla bla, if you know what I mean.

After the phone call, he offered me a nine-month coaching term for $4000, saying it was a special offer and would cost $5000 the following year.

Then I started arguing with him via email.... expressing my concerns and that it might all be a scam and he could be just an online guy sitting in his garage, pretending.

I am an anti-him kind of person now, particularly because I have learned so much (and better stuff!) on your blog and that one shouldn't have to pay so much money.
So I don't support him, if you understand what I mean.

He collects a lot of stuff that might not even be his 'work' and then uses it to pull people into the trap. I'd love it if you didn't support this either and told him that this isn't you (I have asked a fellow Reider and he said it's not you 😃).

If you do get in touch with him, please DO NOT mention me. Thanks!

Here's the link:

https://literary-agents.com/literary-agents-list/janet-reid-literary-agent/

One Of Us Has To Go said...

Oh, and of course: I had paid this guy $297 for that one-hour phone call during which I learned nothing!

MA Hudson said...

I didn't even get past the first episode of GOT. I hated the scene by the river where the prince(?) is bullying the common kid. There wasn't even any physical violence but that complete control over someone else's life - just gets my shackles up. Bizarrely, I think the same scene in a book wouldn't turn me off. Maybe because you can't actually see the glint of evil in the bully's eyes.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

One of us...the picture is Rachel Gardner

One Of Us Has To Go said...

2Ns, Thank you :). I just wonder if Rachel Gardner would like to be Janet Reid and if the latter would like to look like the former.

Maybe it's all not so bad for her/them and it just bothers me. Then I am sorry!

But my feeling is that this guy takes information from their website and makes it look like his work and how much he's providing his hopefully-future-clients.

Then he brags about this info being all for free. He calls it literary agent directory, I think. Huh??
Okay, he's collected the info, but...

Anyway, I apologise for my rant about this trick here on this blog :).

Janet Reid said...

Yup, that's Rachelle Gardner at Books & Such (a delightful human being and terrific agent.)

****

This joker has pulled public info from Publishers Marketplace and PW.

The best place to report this kind of preying on new authors is Abosolute Write, and Victoria Strauss.

***

Ironclad rule: authors don't need coaches. They need editors, maybe agents, and always readers, but they don't need coaches.

One Of Us Has To Go said...

Oh God, I am glad that this is guy is identified as a joker. I'm glad I didn't go for the $4000.

I still have his offer on these $4000 but I'm scared of reporting anything. It says that it's forbidden to use it elsewhere and mentions a $10,000 fine.

I'm just sorry for those people who go with him (and went).

I once heard this: What do you do if you're not good at your profession... you become a coach...
Haaa, ha ha, he was a bad literary agent.

Thanks Janet for confirming we don't need coaches, phew!

AJ Blythe said...

One of Us, you don't have to dish the dirt to Victoria Strauss (who Janet referred to). Just send her an email with the link to the website you posted here (which you've done publicly), explain you think you were ripped off (again which you've done publicly here) and she'll investigate. She never breaks a confidence so you wouldn't have to worry - but I could almost guarantee the scammer has threatened the "fine" to scare people like yourself. Forwarding a link to a public website isn't punishable, but what they are doing is!

Victoria runs a website to warn writers of the scammers out there. If you aren't already following her posts you should start. I've learnt a lot from what she's got to say =)

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