Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Query Question: topics that are "twisted"

Have you ever read a manuscript that was too "twisted"?

No. I reject those at the query stage.  I'm not the right agent for graphic violence or sadistic cruelty.  I've received queries that I've literally stopped reading after one sentence to send a very quick, very terse "not for me" reply. 

If your book has elements that are disturbing, you'll do well to soft pedal them in the query.  The query is too short to lead a reader into anything brutal. It's like being doused with a bucket of ice water and we've all see what that's like

You can lead a reader into things that are pretty graphic if you've got time and page count on your side. I've ended up reading books that were definitely more "twisted" than I'd have said I was ok with but by the time I got to those scenes, they were part of a plot that made sense.

The most recent example I can think of is in I AM PILGRIM by Terry Hayes. He's got a scene in that book that was absolutely essential to the plot but ohmygodiva...ICK.

This is another example of why it's important to query widely and not set your heart on some "dream agent."  You have no way to know what is "too" anything for any agent. 


Susan Bonifant said...

I have wondered about this. I know I can't even attempt to read about some subjects. What happens when agents are faced with very good writing that deals with personal "triggers" for him/her?

On the video...Twice. Twice, I had to take off my glasses because I was cry-laughing and Gus is still looking at me with his worried little writer-cat face.

Bonnie Shaljean said...

OK, I'm at sea on a ferry heading home, using the ship's wifi on my iPad, and the video has been blocked for 'inappropriate content' !!!

Bonnie Shaljean (in case I can't log in for some arcane reason)

Colin Smith said...

This reminds me of a torture/punishment scene in Andrew Grant's EVEN when the antagonist strapped the victim up and had his lower parts exposed. Wasn't sure she'd go there but... yup, she did. Made CASINO ROYALE look restrained. To your point, Janet, this one scene was not typical of the novel's tone, but it fit the antagonist's sadistic character, so I wasn't throwing the book across the room in disbelief. It's a great novel, even with that scene. :)

Gary Corby's IONIA SANCTION also features a particularly unpleasant torture device that is put to use more than once. My wife is definitely of a squeamish disposition, and yet she put up with that because she enjoyed the novel as a whole. In fact we're both looking forward to the fifth in the series, DEATH EX MACHINA, which comes out in May.

Did you want to say a few words about Gary's new novel, Janet? :)

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Ya know...I used to be able to watch anything, read anything, write anything, discuss anything and pretty much contemplate all kinds of grossness and not be freaked out. But now, but NOW, there is so much evilness going on, on screen, in pages, in real life, I just don't want to deal with it anymore.
Once someone starts intentionally causing someone else pain, I turn off.
As a species we are better than that I think.
When excellent novels contain pain, torture, the ick factor overwhelms all literary sense for me. I'm not all sunshine and roses and I am not one to stick my head in the sand but what does it say about us when that kind of entertainment, entertainment which wins awards and is lauded as exemplary, becomes something to reward and admire.
The flip side is that truth, evil and disgusting as it may be, should be penned, shown and admired as brave expression. If it's true, it should be told, it should be read, seen and explored, if it's not, why make it up, truth is ugly than fiction any day.
Actually I am sad for us. Sad that we even have to discuss pain as entertainment. Ya know...I could go on and on about this, about us, about industries that thrive on this but relax my friends, I will not.
As one to stand at the periphery of grief and watch my daughter suffer in the midst of loss at Sandy Hook I stand with them, I chose love.
Have a nice day all and that's not a platitude. I mean it.
Be kind and unwind with good feelings.

S.D.King said...

I had that experience with the more recent Ted Dekker novels. I finally quit reading his work because sometimes the gruesome or scary overshadowed the rest of his gripping plot - for me anyway.

Colin Smith said...

Carolynn: In general, I agree with you. But I would defend the depictions I described in my previous comment on two grounds:

1) "Show don't tell." The author could say, "Billy was one heckuvan evil dude," or s/he can show Billy being evil. The latter has more literary/emotive impact than the former. This leads to point 2...

2) We appreciate the light more when when understand the how dark the darkness is. One could argue that we just need to turn on the news to see how much nastiness there is in the world. But I think our 24/7 news cycle has, to some extent, numbed us to how seriously messed up things are out there. Atrocities that we recognize as unpleasant don't hit us as hard as they would have done 20 or 30 years ago because we see them all the time. One thing the novel can do is to remind us, often in powerful and personal ways, what that evil looks like. And the novel can also offer hope and the possibility of redemption--a reminder that there is light, and things don't have to be this way.

Examples: THE STAND by Stephen King. The HARRY POTTER series (JKR has said that the murder of Cedric Diggory was gratuitous in order to show the reader how little Voldemort considered the lives of others--he was just "the spare".)

Of course, novels don't always do this, and can wallow in depravity just for the sake of it. I wouldn't want to spend much time reading those books either.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad Janet brought this up. Not long ago there was a blog post about not spending a lot of time researching agents, but stuff like this is exactly why I do.

You can really only intuit so much from the agency website. In a few cases, very little. The agent tells you about their life, but not what their looking for and certainly not what they can't stand.

I follow #askagent #querytip and #mswl on twitter sporadically. It's an interesting read, if nothing else. When agents are commenting on queries in the #tenqueries is where it really gets interesting. No fallen angels, no straight male mc, no books without strong female characters, no child slavery, no torture, no southern fiction, etc.

I don't like collecting queries just for the sake of saying I'm querying. That being said, I have some yuck scenes in my current work. I don't go into great detail, but they're there. I'm not mentioning them in the query a-tall.

We had to post exercises on Books and Writers for January not naming the characters in the scenes or giving clues to who they were. The purpose was to see how much the reader could tell about the character just by the snippet and see if you could tell different characters in the scene by dialogue.

One comment on my second snippet, which was supposed to portray a villain, was interesting. She said sadistic rapists are a dime a dozen and this character is boring. The girl in the scene is nothing, but a victim and she's boring, too.

I had to laugh. Sadistic rapists are boring. Then I explained, no, he has never touched the woman physically. He's a demon lord in human form and would burn down half a world, men, women, children, and goldfish and not blink an eye, but he's not a rapist. He enjoys sex. He's a master at pleasing women. He might kill her after she's been well pleased, but he won't rape her. In this case, he is torturing the woman psychologically to break her and force some information from her.

I detest sending out 50 pages, because it ends at a very bad part. It's going to turn a lot of agents off. It gets better and things aren't as bleak as it seems at the 50 page mark, but it's a bad cut off. I'm thinking about sending 40 pages the next time an agent requests. I'll widen the margins or something. Yeah, that's the answer.

Colin Smith said...

Julie: I hesitate to comment because I'm not an agent so really not qualified to address your 50-page concern. But let me tell you what I would do (for what it's worth). Based on things Janet has said here in the past, it seems most experienced agents know within the first 5-10 pages (maybe fewer) of a request whether they're interested. If an agent gets to page 50, there's a good chance they want to read more. If I were you, I'd stop just before the scene in question--even if it's page 40. If the agent writes you back and says "What gives? It was just getting good!" that's a win for you. Offer to send more--even a full. Perhaps mention why you stopped there ("the next scene really needs to be read in context, and you might get the wrong impression of the novel if you stopped at page 50").

As I said, I'm not an agent, and I hope Janet responds with her usual sage wisdom. But that's what I would do. :)

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Colin, I get what you are saying but after a lifetime of rolling down the (numb to the bone) atrocities hill, at the bottom, when it actually hits you, or the ones you love, or the ones you know, or the ones you think you know, the numbness disappears and every nerve comes alive and burns with the recognition that one human being did something awful to another human being. Write it, show it, put it up on the screen, it's just not for me anymore.
I'd rather write and read about the goodness, write and read about the humor, write and read about the rescues. If getting there requires I wallow in the mud, guts and screams of children...I think I will stop now. Enough is enough.

Time to dish up a huge bowl of ice cream, go pet my old dog and wait for Donna to comment. I'd love to know what she thinks. One of her characters is a nasty dude.

Anonymous said...


I agree. I'm going to cut it off before it gets to that point. It's not gory, it's just a creep factor. I can't read or listen to a lot of news because it gives me nightmares. That being said, one of my characters is a sadistic wench, think Elizabeth Bathory. Thankfully, her escapades are usually behind the scenes. We know about them, but I'm not going to be the one to describe them in living color.

Colin Smith said...

Carolynn: No argument here. When these things really get personal--i.e., they affect people you know and love--I can understand your desire to not have to deal with them in fiction as well as in real life. You certainly don't need to be reminded how ugly evil is. I can't begin to imagine what your daughter has gone through (and continues to live with). As a father, I can perhaps get a sense of what it must be like--but that's not a place I like to visit.

Susan Bonifant said...

I noticed an interesting arc in John Sandford's prey books. The first few, when Lucas Davenport was a free-wheeling, lone-wolfish single guy with laser focus were horribly violent. As the series of Prey books expanded, he married, and a couple of Prey books later, he had a child. What I noticed was that as Lucas became more tender himself around the middle of that timeline, the violence was coming way, way down.

I wondered if authors evolve out of their own need to shock or if they themselves find it harder to write violent as they become more tender toward the world.

I also wonder if the tolerance of target audience has as much to do with agent reception as the agent's own tolerance. I know a lot of twenties who are probably less horrified by violence than forties, but more upset with heartbreak.

And finally, I wonder if I will go straight to my short story from here or keep procrastinating?

Karen McCoy said...

*Makes note to check manuscript for plot relevance related to protagonist's eye removal*

Anonymous said...

I was going the Angie way today and try to keep my mouth shut, but with Carolynn's interest in what little ole moi has to say, I'm in.

I'm pretty sure during one (wait, I just thought of another so two) of the Flash Fiction contests, I lost Ms. Janet's interest b/c I went "there." Once dealing with the extraction of a heart. Yep, in one hundred words, my story plunged into the Shark's area of "not for me," and the second time was when Mama got burned alive. Ouch. It took me twice, but I learned this lesson. Sometimes it's just a bit much, too much overreaching or trying too hard for shock.

Anyway, it's, like any other story, a subjective thing, a matter of taste. In the finished project Carolynn mentions, the main bad guy is a killer, and he's rather factual in the way he goes about it. He does what he's told to do, and really has no guilt over it. It's a job. He's a borderline sociopath, I guess you could say, b/c he does after all, fall for the MC. So he has feelings. He also has a rich backstory. Interestingly, when the ms was read by a group of unbiased readers, they actually liked him, felt sorry for him, even though he wasn't a nice guy. His backstory, given out in bits and pieces, told them he's a victim of circumstances too.

What I think can happen sometimes is a writer can get carried away and go too far with descriptions, and screams, and a character's begging for mercy - especially if it makes up a good chunk of the overall story, or if it's gore for the sake of gore.

That could turn me off. Case in point, recently I was on a Cormac McCarthy kick. I read CHILD OF GOD, really liked it. Then, I read SUTTREE, and well, didn't much like it - not only for the difficulty with his narrative, but I actually felt a bit nauseous over some of his descriptions. Then I read OUTER DARK, and even though I have BLOOD MERIDIAN still waiting, I had to take a break. Even a master like McCarthy can wear one out with too much "muchness" in the writing. (2N's - who's that sound like?)

I don't mind rough murder scenes, ala TRUE DETECTIVE/Nic Pizzolatto style, yet, I don't care for Texas Chainsaw Massacre sort of story telling.

I have my standards. :)

Anonymous said...

Karen - *snort!* Good one.

Colin Smith said...

Donna: Both novels I cited as examples were repped by Ms. Shark, so I think this is an example of the quality of the story overshadowing some of the stories more unsettling moments.

However, you are talking about Ms. Shark's taste with regard to much shorter forms of literature (flash fiction and queries). There's a lot less story going on, so one might expect her to be less inclined toward ikkier tales. To be fair to Her Royal Sharkiness, though, I think she would consider a flash story involving organ extraction if it was particularly exquisitely told. A search through the archives might bear this theory out.

OK. I need to stop hogging the comments. Sorry. Maybe tomorrow's topic will be on something upon which I have no opinion. Maybe hog farming in Alaska, or Dante's use of the semi-colon... :)

Anonymous said...

Colin, actually your first line is exactly what I'm talking about in most of my comment..., i.e. the fact a reader might be able to deal with some horrific stuff if it's told in such a way, and serves purpose. My reference to the FF's was only to say, even there, one can go too far for a Shark's taste for blood.

All we have to keep in mind is, does the gore/torture/organ extraction move the story forward? If so, great, if not, rethink that part of it.

Karen, the master of succinct made this point in one sentence. Sigh. This too, I must learn.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

Carolynn with two 'N's I am with you 100%.

Sunday I read, on the collective blog, Do Some Damage, an Kristi Belcamino ask readers what means 'gone too far'. here is the link


I read humour mostly, Carl Hiassen, Janet Evanovich Christopher Moore, etc, but I love thriller pacing. I love laughing outloud on a parkbench with a book in hand. I loved that hilarious western video that the Shark posted a while back.

Gratuitous sicko stuff makes me paranoid.

Right now I'm careening through We are Not Good People. It's kind of sicko funny and Somers is now my fav voice, though not my normal genre. I'm going to buy every paper book he's written and will. Kudos.

Anonymous said...

I had a discussion with an agent at Surrey in the bar. Yes, I was plying her with drinks. It's what we do. I happened to be wearing a tee shirt with a picture of a kitten in a toilet looking up. (no water) The tee shirt said "Im in ur bathroom stalkin ur agent"

It was a conversation starter. Anyway, somehow we got to talking about romances, which I don't write. She commented that she'd rather see sex scenes that were beautifully written with innuendos of what's taking place than blow-by-blow, tab a goes in slot b sex scenes. To her they were more evocative and much more difficult to write.

Obviously, there's a huge market for more erotic work, but that was one agent's opinion.

Perhaps the same might apply to horror. The implied terror.

There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.
--Alfred Hitchcock

Karen McCoy said...

Master of succinct! Thank you, Donna! You made my day with that.

The true master was (and is) my high school English teacher. She wrote EUW--Eliminate Unnecessary Words--on all my papers.

D. B. Bates said...

Welp, now I understand why you shot down my query for The Festering Eye Socket: An Erotic Curiosity.

Jenz said...

My biggest dealbreaker is animals getting hurt, especially dogs. I read Watership Down and Plague Dogs as a kid, but as I've gotten older I find I can't handle that stuff any more.

I'd probably feel the same about children being hurt, but that doesn't seem to be as widespread a problem in fiction.

[I'm not a robot.]