Thursday, October 05, 2017

I want to be sensitive to agents with trigger issues

When an author has a manuscript with graphic scenes (abuse) and it is not in the Horror or Thriller genre where such events may be expected, what is the best way to mention this in a query letter as to be sensitive to agents / editors who may have certain “trigger” issues?

Your job is not to protect me from anything.
Your job is to tell your story as well, as compelling, as possible.

If that involves graphic scenes of abuse, don't pussy foot around and warn people. Tell your story in a way that makes me compelled to read on.

[I'm going to spare everyone a rant about the recent move to put warning signs on reading matter for adults.]

I will say this however: agents and readers may elect not to read things that have graphic scenes of abuse and they don't have to explain why that is to you either.

For example, I don't take on any projects about child abuse. I read Bastard Out of Carolina, and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and The Bluest Eye, and the was pretty much it for me.

That said, I think Spotlight is one of the best movies I've ever seen and in fact use it as an example of when/how to effectively include a prologue in your work.

If this is the novel that you must write, do it.
Query it.
Let the chips fall where they may.


Donnaeve said...

As would be expected, this is a topic near and dear to my heart, considering THE EDUCATION OF DIXIE DUPREE that was met very favorably by a variety of industry professionals. Yet there were a few readers who made a comment the book should have come with a warning label. Personally, I think it was almost spelled out for them, and if they'd been paying attention, "survive the unthinkable," might have been a clue.

To the OP, as long as the abuse isn't gratuitous, and you've not overdone it, like Janet says, query it and see what happens.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I agree with everything said. Let the chips fall where they will.

Unknown said...

Donnaeve, you handled the topic beautifully in DIXIE. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise! OP, you're kindhearted for thinking about your book's impact on others. Good luck!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

As I have gotten older reading about or watching movies regarding children being abused turns my stomach, I mean literally makes me feel sick. Actually, anybody hurting anybody just frosts my ass.
The daughter of a friend of mine is a consular whose sole job is to interview young children, even toddlers, who experience sexual and physical abuse.
“How can you do that,” was my question.
“Somebody has to do it,” was her answer.
So I ask, how can you read it or watch its portrayal?
Reading or watching about someone with an arsenal who is almost a quarter mile away and 32 floors up, or flying a plane into a building, or entering a night club armed, or stalking a campus, or placing a backpack at the finish line, or holding young girls captive is not entertainment. Unless it serves some kind of greater good, count me out.
And that is from someone who consumes news like (opening and finishing) a super giant size bag of potato chips in one sitting.
My brand? Wise. It ingrains mature knowledge.

ACFranklin said...

I understand and yet I don't understand the warning labels. On the one hand, yes, there are people who sincerely feel the need to avoid certain things at that point in their life for the sake of their mental health. I do not begrudge them this.
On the other hand, spoilers! and other ridiculousness. I do not want books to have MPAA issues. Please, let us not let books have MPAA issues.
So, what? These people can only read therapist approved books?
But you would think that said people can intuit when there are books they should avoid. As mentioned by Donnovae, "survive the unthinkable." Also, such scenes can't really happen out of left field.
Personally, if a book distresses me that badly I would just stop reading the book, but I don't have triggers, so I don't know. It is possible that reading the start to an abuse scene is enough to trigger, and I would hate to cause panic attacks in others.
So, yes. I understand but don't understand them, but I don't see it ending well if we tried to use them, no matter the intentions behind such.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I think warning labels on books are ridiculous. That's what the back cover is for.
Like I said above, people hurting people, especially little people, not for me. There's lots of subjects I opt out of not because it triggers anything but because it is beyond my interest and taste.
I really don't think it's a writer's job to protect a reader's feelings and sensibilities. Writer's are supposed to write, period, end of sentence, end of book.
Where's my bag of Wise.

Colin Smith said...

I think most agents would draw the line at stories that glorify or celebrate such things--but then, most readers would, too. As others have said, write your story and let the chips fall. British chips, of course. With malt vinegar and ketchup. In a butty... mmmm... is it too early for a chip butty?

Amy Schaefer said...

As Donnaeve and Arri have said, I think it is all in the framing. If there is an organic lead up to the abuse, your reader should have an idea it is on the horizon, and can always choose to stop reading ahead of time. If it leaps out on page one or happens mid-book without warning, I can see how this would be more of an issue.

Timothy Lowe said...

I'm not an authority on any of this, but I'm coming to believe that the book writes you, rather than the other way around.

If you start overthinking and tinkering to try to avoid or include content, you're not immersed in your own story.

I loved every word of DIXIE. And I don't generally like books about abuse, either. But if that girl didn't tell her story (I mean Dixie), she never would have overcome it.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Personally, I don't need warning labels.

However. There are people in the world who have come through some really harrowing things, and there is content which has the potential to set off very grim psychological states for them. It's unrealistic in this world to expect there to be a trigger warning in everything; I know that, and I'm sure they know that. My understanding of "trigger warnings" is less to shield people in their bubbles and more to make people aware that potentially triggering content is present, and they can mentally prepare for it and approach it on their terms, or they can skip it. Kind of like those "danger falling rocks" signs on the side of the road.

This is not to say the book's blurb (and likely the query as well) can't/doesn't function as that (like with our "local" example in DIXIE DUPREE!)

ACFranklin said...

Like Jennifer said! That was the point I was trying unsuccessfully to make.

I would also mention that friends and family make for better possible trigger warnings than labels ever could. I also understand that that isn't necessarily an option.

Also, does anyone know if the people asking for trigger warnings are the people who would benefit from them?

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I am going to be VERY honest here and this brings me to tears.
I have one book on my nightstand. One book only for a very long time.
I genuinely adore the author. Her writing is amazing. Her own personal story of writing success is one for all of us to emulate because a few years back life threw her a curveball and she hit it out of the park. She has been immensely helpful to me, kind with critique and open. She is a dear friend to all of us here.
The beautiful yellow cover of that book greets me every morning and is the last flash of color I see when I turn out my light.
Because of the subject matter (other than the few first pages) the book sits unread.
But not anymore.

I am off to work.
Y’all have a nice day.
Um, hey Donna did I spell “y’all” right.

Colin Smith said...

Circling back to Opie's original question, when it comes to agents, I look at them like "Chopped" judges. You know "Chopped"--the Food Network show where contestants are given a basket of random (and often weird) ingredients and have to make a palatable dish out of them? I'm certain that to be a judge on that show, you have to have a broad palate and iron stomach. That doesn't mean they can't have preferences, but to be fair to each dish, they can't say, "Sorry, I don't eat fish, " or "Cow's tongue? Are you kidding me??" Of course, once that fork of food goes in the mouth, they are quite at liberty to spit it back out again if it tastes as foul as it sounds. They are culinary judges, after all, not trash containers. :)

Likewise literary agents. Most agents have to be willing to read a broad range of things, but that doesn't obligate them to read every word sent to them. Trigger warnings in queries seem pointless to me, like warning the Chopped judges your dish contains nuts.

As for the everyday reader? One could extend my analogy to advocate for warning labels on books (like the "contains nuts" indication on produce). However, a lot of the time, the nature of the food product tips you off to what it contains. For books, the cover blurb should give you an idea of the content, and if you're still not sure, there are always reviews.

For the record, chip butties contain 100% awesome. :D

Colin Smith said...

Sorry... I had to share.

Trigger Warning: Likely to cause your salivary glands to go into overdrive. Have a tissue handy if you don't want to fry your computer.


Unknown said...

Just had to look up chip butty. (Sorry, but that just doesn't translate well into American!) For the uninitiated like me, it's a french fry sandwich. Bread, butter, fries. What's not to like?

Unknown said...

2Ns, thanks for sharing and honesty. Dixie really is a lovely book.

Colin Smith said...

Kathy: FRENCH FRY sandwich!?!! *weeps uncontrollably*

Sorry, it breaks my heart whenever the great British chip is referred to as a "French fry." Curse you McDonald's!!!!

Unknown said...

Sorry Colin. I was such a butt to say that. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm not a person with triggers, but I have good friends who do. I've been to dark enough places in my own head that I believe them when they say running into unexpected triggering content is, well, traumatic. Trigger warnings aren't for the easily offended, they're for people who genuinely need them. I think this piece explains it pretty well: Romance in the Age of the Trigger Warning.

My two cents is that this information should be made a standard part of a books meta data. Along with author, word count, historical era, subjects tackled, famous persons appearing, etc., should be a spot for "potentially triggering content." That way when you search on a book site you can CHOOSE to see books set in WWII or books without animal deaths. It becomes a checkbox, just like the rest. And if you don't care you never have to use it. But it would mean SO MUCH to those who would use it. There are grocery sites where you can opt out of seeing meat products, dairy products, non-Kosher products, etc. This is easy, gang.

As for agents, I think including the warning indicates that you're a thoughtful person. Going into this industry an agent has to know they're going to run into sketchy stuff. That's on them. But I know I'd rather work with an author who was considerate than someone who wrote their query in a way that gave me no warning whatsoever and a heaping dose of nightmare fuel.

Colin Smith said...

Hmm... befleet got me thinking. Perhaps instead of a label on the cover, potential triggers could be listed on the copyright page. You know, at the bottom where the publisher gives all the cataloging information? That way, it's not in-your-face as a potential spoiler for those that don't care. But the information is there for those who need it. Like a list of ingredients on packaged food. As a vegetarian, I probably check that more than the average person. But if you really don't care what's in your Frosted Mini Wheats, you don't have to look. :)

Cheryl said...

To add a point: Sometimes what triggers a person can't be warned for anyway.

Since Donnaeve brought up DIXIE, I feel free to talk about it. Yes, the abuse was telegraphed well. But the actual words the abuser used? The mother turning a blind eye to what was going on? Those were what made me put the book down, no matter how good it was otherwise. Even now, just writing about it, my heart is stuttering and my hands are shaking.

But there's no way to warn, in the cover copy or otherwise, for the minutiae. And so I think formal trigger warnings might actually do more harm than good, in that they might instill a sense of comfort where it isn't warranted.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

Valid points with the trigger warnings. My issue though is that it will create an expectation that would ripen into a liability issue at some point. What if the trigger warning was imperfectly designated and someone was triggered? In this litigious society of ours, this will put the authors and publishers at a difficult position. One of the net effects that I see is that publishers (and agents) will shy away from submissions that would necessitate trigger warnings.

Apologies for the dystopian outlook this early in the day. Woke up with a stiff neck:(

Colin Smith said...

Janet indicated she has strong feelings about trigger warnings on books. I wonder if perhaps she might be willing to share..? :)

Megan V said...

Trigger warnings aren't pussy footing around an issue, they're blaring the damn horn to let people prepare for the oncoming onslaught. And while phrases like "survive the unthinkable" can give a person an idea that the shit storm is on its way, it in no way helps the right people who need to prepare for it.

Some book blurbs spell out the story in ways that help.

Some don't.

Most blurbs aren't going to spell out each and every potential trigger in their book.

Neither do most movies, but hey, their ratings actually come with a form of trigger warnings. This movie contains scenes of blah blah blah.

Most trigger warnings keep it general too.

This isn't about being overly protective, it's about care and consideration for people who've experienced trauma, among other things. Trigger warnings serve their purpose. Some people don't want to be drawn into their experiences in 'Nam or re-experience their rape etc. because of a single page character flashback.

So I beg to differ on this issue. I don't think there is any harm in including a TW in a query.

Craig F said...

Every book has an inciting incident of some sort. Every one of those inciting incidents can be a trigger point.

The object of writing is not to just trigger such reactions but to resolve them a little. The aftermath is where the focus should be, not the trashy details of the act itself.

Strength of character or the strength of love and friendship should be able to ameliorate the inciting incident. It should be better for people with trigger points to read such things so they can know that they are not alone, that there are ways to be helped or help yourself.

To those who like to write in the trashy details, please don't. Let me use my imagination to do that or not do that depending on how the read feels to me.

My question: Did my queen read DIXIE?

Susan said...

I want to add to the idea of trigger warnings with my own anecdote...

My book, THE LAST LETTER, is about a teenage girl with Lyme disease and focuses on the emotional toll this--or any chronic illness--can take. It often speaks of survival, facing our own mortality, and suicidal ideation and depression. This past September, I gave three talks to support groups, sharing my own Lyme story and reading a bit from the book. Before I read, I offered a word of caution to the audience. "I hope this book will help validate what you're experiencing and feeling," I told them. "But it might also trigger some heavy emotions with regard to those experiences."

One woman left, but I learned later that she stood in the doorway listening because her curiosity got the better of her. Afterwards, she came up to me sobbing and gave me a hug. She told me that she didn't think she could listen because of the emotional trauma she has experienced with this disease, and while I was ready to tell her I understood because I've been there, she rushed on and told me it was healing to have someone who finally understood and could voice what she was feeling.

Another anecdote: my pharmacist is now a friend of mine. When he asked me about my book and told me he wanted to read it, I warned him that there is a 9/11 thread in it, knowing he has some PTSD from being there on that day. He thanked me for letting him know and apologized, saying he didn't think he could do it. I told him I understood completely.

Trigger warnings aren't just for those who are sensitive to certain topics, but for those who are facing the depths of their trauma--whatever it might be--head-on, in this moment. For some, reading can be healing because you get to see your experience from a distance with an objective perspective--that's why I wrote this book as fiction even though it's my--and every Lyme patient's--story. But for others, it can ignite all those emotions and memories and start the downward spiral.

I have no problem with trigger warnings if it means helping someone, particularly with regard to their mental and emotional health. If it doesn't affect me, I'll just ignore the warning. If I think it does affect me but I still want to read the book, I'll know to proceed with caution like the woman I met. We all have our limitations in what we can handle at any given point in our lives. If warnings can help people decide those limitations for themselves, then why not include them?

Colin Smith said...


Susan's Novel


Julie Weathers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lennon Faris said...

What a great discussion. I know a few people who would definitely benefit from knowing potential triggers in books. They don't happen to be avid readers, so this isn't a relevant problem for them. Still I can see the points made here.

I am a big supporter of writing terrible things as long as it serves a 'bigger' purpose.

Unknown said...

My heart goes out to everyone who suffered childhood trauma. No child deserves any of it. Please don't leave it out of your stories. It's the only way the rest of the world knows what happened. It's the only way it can be stopped.

french sojourn said...

I've have a real hard time with abuse. Not sure why, but I'm only halfway through Dixie. It sits there calling me, and I will finish it, because I love the character, and I really respect the Author. Just the way I'm wired, sure I come across as the most insensitive creature in this community, but I don't know ...growing up with five sisters, and knowing the odds of reality.

Well I just grew a real strong abhorrence to depicting assaults of women where it seemed as an easy plot device. I gave up on watching Game of Thrones after the second scene where a woman was served up to shock the audience, and I felt it was gratuitous and didn't even remotely push the story, define the character. It was just a vulgar device to sharpen the story and get a reaction. I do watch The Walking Dead, funny the gratuitous gore doesn't bother me.

Not sure where I'm headed with all this, just my two cents. (my french keyboard doesn't have a cent key Merde'.)


Colin Smith said...

Hank: First, you don't come across as insensitive at all. And if you're going to insist on the point, I'm going to demand evidence. Because I don't believe any exists. :)

As some of you know, I'm currently reading the GoT series (just started The Brick, otherwise known as book 3). I haven't seen the series (yes, trying to avoid spoilers is a nightmare--my only filter tag on Twitter is #gameofthrones) and I'm a little wary of it, given some of the scenes in the book. At least when the text enters my head, I'm the director of how the words translate to images. Giving directorial responsibility to someone else, and having them thrust those images on me may be a bit much. We'll see, I suppose.

french sojourn said...

Thanks Colin (imagine I bolded it, as I'm Tech-less)
I like how you worded the fact that you have directorial control of what you read, as do we all. I know there are times when I finish a book and keep reliving it for a few days.insert Walter Mitty Syndrome here.

Be well, cheers! Hank

BJ Muntain said...

Some agents won't read stories where children or animals are harmed in any way. If that's what your story requires, then those agents won't be good fits for you. If it's done wrong, or if it feels gratuitous, even agents that will accept such things will say 'no'.

Questions to ask yourself when including things that may turn someone off:

1) Is this really necessary to the story? Why?
2) Is it written the way it needs to be written?
3) Does it need to be graphic? If not, is there a less graphic way to write it? If so, has it been written as needed for the story?

The why and the how are the important things to consider. If it's well-written, just query.

Kregger said...

Here in Cleveland, restaurants sell potato and cheese pierogi sandwichs, of course, on white bread. A diabetic's nightmare.

I don't have trigger points, so it's hard for me to relate. I guess, to be honest, I did have reactions to any story about the Volstead Act, but I since realize it was the Flappers and not the abuse of innocent booze.

If anyone reads George F. Will's editorials, he adds another layer to the trigger warning surge in the US. University and college administrations are dealing with students demanding warnings on any content that might upset them on campus. Painting with broad brush-strokes, these are conservatively raised children balking at liberal teachings.

Please don't misconstrue this as my insensitivity to persons with mental health or coping skill issues, but when will this stop? To me, this is analogous to product warnings like not using a toaster in the bathtub.

There are places in libraries and bookstores that have books without triggers. I can practically guarantee, nothing in the children's section should trigger anything, except for maybe puppies and Flappers, but that's just me.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Colin I love CHOPPED, and I think the comparison here may be apt? (Though there are some particulars to keep in mind, like Scott Conant and his deal with huge chunks of raw onion, or the general industry derision for truffle oil). Agents and Editors may expect, just by hanging out their shingle, that they're going to receive a lot of work, both what they'd want to read and what they'd prefer not to read, and it seems (to me) to be perfectly valid to put things in the submission guidelines like "don't contact me if the dog dies", "I won't read domestic abuse", etc.

I have seen a magazine that had content warnings on some of its stories and I can't remember what it was now. Fireside? They didn't strike me as intrusive, just up there at the top after the author and the title and the editor and all that jazz. Included with that jazz? Whatever.

It's hard to cover everything. And it's hard to remember to be kind. But I would prefer not to actually traumatize people with my stories, if it's avoidable. Just because I"m impervious to a lot doesn't mean everybody is.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Donna my friend, I promise, I will start again tonight.

Cyn said...

OP: Great question, and one I have had on my mind, as well.

I don't think I have triggers, but then I have been surprised at times, while deeply involved in reading a book, and a "scene" comes up that is upsetting, emotional, mostly because my "director" can see it so clearly, even put myself there in the story. I'm usually amazed that an author can take me to that place (of feeling moved). I've rarely put a book down, though (if it's a good one) when that's happened.

But then, reading the comments has given me further insight into the violence in my own ms, even though, it is a mystery and involves murder, etc. Each time I pass through the story with edits, my graphic scenes are getting less so. And I think they are getting stronger for it. Finding ways to express the situations that are horrible, without being over-the-top, is the most subtle art, I think. As long as it is needed to tell the story.

Thanks for all the truthful, insightful comments, all!


Donnaeve said...

I sure do appreciate the honesty out here.

2Ns - please don't feel compelled to read...DIXIE isn't the book for everyone, as noted here by some. It's graphic. It may disgust some. Dixie was a girl who wouldn't mince words. She'd tell it without fear. I saw that while writing certain scenes. So, I wrote her story without fear. I reckon it showed.

Hank - I get where you're coming from too, with your sisters, and all. There's a flip side to it, wouldn't you know!

Colin methinks no, to Janet having read DIXIE, although of course I sent her a signed copy. She may have burned it - and that's okay! :>)

There's another author who's achieved great success. I can't mention the name, it wouldn't be right. Her most recent book, which is doing well, is filled with gratuitous cruelty and abuse. I shook my head over the lack of recognition of this, but not everyone reads critically - like I tend to do ALL the time now.

Thank you all again for your honesty!

Donnaeve said...

Oops. Correction - Craig is who that question came from...not Colin!

Colin Smith said...

Donna: I can confirm that, at least as of January, Janet had DIXIE on her shelf. I can't speak to whether or not she has read it, but regardless, I know she'll treasure it because you wrote it. :)

Donnaeve said...


I need picture evidence. (Juuuuust kidding!)

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

I pretty much read everything and would confess to a fascination with real serial killers. Readers Digest started me on this when it featured the non-fic on Ted Bundy. But the one book that I was truly disturbed by was Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter. Oh, boy. The images sat on my brain for weeks and not in a good way.

Steve Stubbs said...

Off topic but someone might like this. The discussion day before yesterday of jealousy reminded me of a quote from my favorite editor, H.L. Mencken:

"Puritanism: The haunting fear that somebody, somewhere, is happy."

Those who are burning with envy, don't envy my serenity. I am a Puritan.

I don't know whom it is. And I don't know where he or she is. But I and my fellow Puritans are terribly worried that someboy, somewhere, is having a good time.

Whoever you are, please desist. You are disturbing my rest.

And if anyone reading this is blonde, this is a joke.

Anonymous said...

If Sol Stein is right, that the purpose of fiction is "to evoke emotion," then the act of reading is a daring act of courage. It's setting yourself up to be vulnerable to the entire range of emotion. The reader can manage or mitigate that risk by choosing to read only certain genres: romance with its promise of happily ever after, horror with its promise of terror, comedy with its promise of hilarity. But there's no guarantee that each of those genres won't contain some elements of the others. If we writers are doing our job, we will leave no emotion untouched or unexplored. It's unfair and unreasonable to expect we will pull our punches, let alone warn the reader ahead of time.

That said, I read a book once that traumatized me then and makes me shudder in revulsion to this day. I had no experiences in my life at that time (or since) that would have made me think to avoid "triggers," even had there been a warning. In fact, my husband told me rather emphatically not to read it. Which of course made me more determined TO read it. The beginning was so unbearably dull and boring, I skipped ahead to the middle to see whether it ever got more interesting. One could argue that it did indeed get more interesting, "interesting" being a subjective term, and it was certainly no longer banal. I thought I was literally going to either vomit or pass out, perhaps both, after being dropped into that scene with no lead up. Although I doubt a lead up would have blunted the shock. I never read another page of this "critically acclaimed," this "modern classic," this "important" book.

It's the only book I've ever thrown in the trash.

Do I think that book should have had a trigger warning? No. I really don't. I made the decision to enter that story world when I turned to the first page. I accepted that dare, took the chance. But I can tell you this: I will never ever again read anything by Ellis.

That's the risk we take, as writers and as readers. We offer up our eager vulnerable selves and hope the catharsis is worth it.

Stacy said...

I have mixed feelings about trigger warnings and I suppose I always will. I've heard it argued that adults shouldn't need trigger warnings to learn that the world is a hard place, but I've spoken with several professors who are ADAMANT that trigger warnings are a positive thing for their students. They've pointed out that their students come from all walks of life and have been through things where no such warning is needed.

These professors supply alternative material to read, but the vast majority of the time, students would read the material they'd been warned about, anyway. But the warnings keep these professors from unintentionally harming anyone. And you know, I think that's okay. I think it's just kindness.

And we can use more of that in the world. I know I can't get through GoT now--I haven't been able to in three years, since my stroke. The last episode I watched, one guy tied up another guy, cut off his pinkie, and then pinched the nerve. That was one too far for me. Haven't watched it since, and I don't think I can.