Thursday, March 26, 2020

content warnings in a query letter

I was wondering about including content warnings in a query letter. Do you include them for things like graphic murder, recounting of rapes, loss of a baby, etc.? And if so, how do you include them? Where would you include them?

The purpose of the query is to entice your reader to read the pages.
The purpose of the pages is to entice your reader to request the full novel.

That means you're going to tell me about the story.
If the story means your main character has lost a child, then that's what you include.
If the story is about a rape, then that's what you include.

But if those things are just part of the story, not the start of the plot, then you don't need to include them.

No matter what, you should not attach some sort of scarlet #NSWF to your query.

Honestly if something arrived here with a content warning I'd be much less likely to read it, since I think the scariest things are often those that are not graphic.

Freddy Krueger isn't all that scary.
Alfred Hitchcock is absolutely terrifying.

The Lottery will never leave me, and there's nothing graphic about that story in the least.

I'm looking for things that engage my emotions, not upset my digestive system.
Be very judicious in your use of graphic content.
It's a powerful tool to be wielded with great care.


E.M. Goldsmith said...

Great question and better answer. And yes, I still shiver at The Lottery. Haunting, horrifying tale. I was very young when I read it and never forgot it. In fact, that story is the first source of my innate distrust of authoritative bodies of all stripes. That's great writing. I wish I could get there.

Hope everyone is holding up. Back to enticing students with online content and hooking them up with books and food while keeping well away from them.

After I write for an hour.

I have decided to write in the couple hours before dawn even if its mindless dribble. So far, it's all been incoherent drivel. Which is a step short of the dribble to which I aspire.

Karl Henwood said...

Personally, the story that maybe creeped me out the most the first time I read it is Those Who Walk Away From Omelas. Not because of it's graphic depictions of violence; there was literally nothing graphic in it whatsoever. Because it highlights the casual acceptance of injury to the powerless that every society relies on to some level.

As a whole that idea was far more disturbing than another physical atrocity because you, me, we, are all complicit and no matter what we do we can't change that.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Okay I'm hooked. The Lottery (author please)
There's ton of them.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson - it's amazing

Jill Warner said...

2Ns I'm 99% sure Janet's referring to Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery."

Lennon Faris said...

I'm also guessing agents are a tough bunch when it comes to reading. If a 1-pg query letter triggers something, I'm guessing they wouldn't stay an agent for long.

Yeah, the Veldt (Ray Bradbury) was the scariest for me. How people can gradually assign objects in their life to receive human status (and worse, vise-versa). It's horrifying because it's real.

Lottery I could get behind as well.

Scribe (Parchment & Ink) said...

In my high school English 1 class we had a unit on dystopian fiction. There Will Come Soft Rains, The Lottery, The Veldt, and even Metamorphosis haunted me for weeks after. Compelling stuff, and none were explicitly graphic except that one description of a certain animal in There Will Come Soft Rains (I'm trying not to spoil anything and I don't know if it's working)

Craig F said...

The things that creeped me out most were those that engaged my imagination and prodded it through that dark door.

It is not the graphic nature of things that screw with you. It is those that unleash the beast you fear from deep in your subconscious.

In other words, my personal imagination is a darker thing than how you try to tell me how dark your's is.

Mister Furkles said...

The problem with 'graphic' is that it limits the imagination: 'This and nothing more'.

The strongest fear is 'Fear of the Unknown' and that makes our current virus scare greater because we don't know if will mutate into something worse.

When you write a story you are producing a play to be performed in the mind of the reader and imagination is your greatest tool. Too much detail also limits the imagination.

Well, that's the advice I offer crit partners. Sometimes they go into so much detail it stifles the imagination.

Colin Smith said...

This is why, in my humble estimation, books are always better than movies. Of course, I enjoy a good movie just like any other social distancing responsible person. But movies place images into your head, whereas a good book will evoke images from the darkest recesses of your own imagination. A much scarier place! :)

Steve Forti said...

Karl, I misread that as "Those Who Walk Away From Omelettes" and thought "who the hell would do that??" But then, there are crazy people in this world. Or maybe the omelette just had onions in it. Totally understand walking away from that garbage.

nightsmusic said...

Most of what Shirley Jackson wrote creeped the hell out of me. Way more so than more graphic things unless they pertain to animals. But that's not creepy as much as it is cringe worthy.

Mr Forti, onions make the omelet! ;)

The Sleepy One said...

Colin, with your novel to movie preference, you've also touched on why Jaws was scary. The music and knowing danger lurked is much scarier than seeing the actual danger (in this case, slightly cheese fake shark). The anticipation of danger is scarier than seeing it.

It's also why Alfred Hitchcock Presents "Bang You're Dead" episode is so scary. The viewer knows the five-year-old picked up his dad's real gun instead of his toy gun. But the people he's pointing the gun at don't know, and the viewer keeps waiting for the child to fire.

Also, this spoof of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" is amazing:
The Lottery In Stars Hollow

John Davis Frain said...

2Ns, you can pick up a copy of The New Yorker and read The Lottery. Well, assuming you can time travel back to 1948. Short of that, it's FREE online if you're not a fan of time travel.

And why not stay inside today and catch up on some reading! Shirley Jackson is certainly a good excuse to do so.

Page-turner that I just finished and would recommend: Shari Lapena's The Couple Next Door. The ending didn't quiiiiiiite hold up, but the story is superb and it's super-hard to put the book down for necessities such as eating and sleeping. Plan accordingly.

Alyssa R said...

...a.k.a. why I've decided not to have my villain appear in person, instead letting the rumors spread. He will be a terrifying ten-foot-tall shadow with eyes of flame by the time I'm done. No, not like Dark Lord of Derkholm. A completely different flame-eyed ten-foot-tall shadow.

Omelets are delicious. Eggs. Cheese. Pre-sautéed onions. Greenery--kale and broccoli are good. Micro-greens--I like mustard. Maybe carrots. Salsa.
Now I need to stop dreaming of what I can't have. We don't have all the ingredients, so I'll have to settle for eggs and cheese.

Shauna said...

The thing about content warnings is, if I understand them correctly, you put them before something where the viewer may not have a reason to expect the trigger. IE if you link to an article about animal abuse that has graphic pictures, you would put a trigger warning for that. With a book, if the plot is about a triggering topic, that should be clear from the summary and tone anyway. IE the Hunger Games doesn’t need specific trigger warnings because the premise makes it clear what’s going to happen.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I return to The Lottery again and again. And The Haunting of Hill House. Shirley Jackson was one of those greats, she really sets the hook. There was actually a recent graphic novel adaptation of The Lottery which was aggressively okay. It didn't really elevate the story (for me) or particularly make the case for its existence. The art was (to me) vaguely Edward Hopper-esque but not enough that I could really tell why they'd made that choice and what they were trying to evoke. Really, it made me just go and read the short story again, unembellished.

When I was probably too young, I read a couple of collections of Alfred Hitchcock short stories (or stories that he curated), and one of them, I've never been able to find again. It took place in England, I think, because the people who owned houses had "gardens" in that way, and the main characters found a lock of hair that, if they put it on a picture of somebody, could harm them. I know there are a lot of Hitchcock collections, for young readers and otherwise, so it's a difficult haystack in which to find my needle. I think one of those collections is where I first encountered Patricia Highsmith, with her "The Quest for Blank Claveringi"!

Rebecca Taur said...

Content warnings are interesting because they're considered basic etiquette within online writing communities but not in publishing. On AO3, for example, writers either mark major content warnings (graphic violence, main character death, rape, and/or underage relationships) or explicitly opt out (“Choose not to use archive warnings”). These warnings appear before a story's summary. Writers can also add additional warnings for things like eating disorders, homophobia, abuse, etc. The purpose is to say upfront “I'm dealing with a subject that's a deal-breaker for some readers. Proceed with caution if this is you.” It doesn’t always translate to graphic. A story about rape recovery would include a warning, even if the actual rape isn’t on the page at all. Maybe “explicitly deals with” fits better?

Online, it’s bad form to "trick" readers by not including the appropriate warnings, even if it spoils a plot twist. If someone wouldn't open a story with a content warning, they aren't going to like it if you spring it on them either. I don't think queries are the place for them, but I get the impulse to include content warnings somewhere. I’m curious how an agent who grew up with the online norms would feel about them.

Panda in Chief said...

Shirley Jackson's The Lottery and Bradbury's The Veldt still send shivers down my spine, but are firmly lodged in my memory. In general, I can't remember what I went upstairs for, three minutes ago, but I remember these. I also remember (although I can't remember who wrote it, and am too lazy to look it up) the flash fiction entry here about the airport thief who stole the purse of a woman during the ebola outbreak. Are scary things more memorable?

I hope everyone is doing okay. I'm holed up in my woodland cottage for the duration.

Dena Pawling said...

The Lottery stuck with me. Also Harlan Ellison's I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream. Nasty piece of excellent writing that's stuck with me. You can read both online at no charge. I recommend doing it in the morning so you don't (1) stay awake all night, or (2) have nightmares.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Thanks all for The Lottery info. I bought it because anything that gets this kind of reaction on the reef...I WANT TO OWN IT.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I read it.

nightsmusic said...

2Ns And will never leave you...


Sorry, couldn't resist, but it really is just that kind of story.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Okay boys and girls that I would read this during these troubling days of who will live and who will die...well...eeeeeeek!

And nightmusic Mwahahahahahaha... back atcha.

ACFranklin said...

Question for the group:
Do you find horrifying themes or character-centric horror scarier? Having just read The Lottery, I find myself firmly in the latter camp. Probably in part because it reflected my current opinion of government.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Okay ACFranklin I'll jump in. Sort of.

As I read the Lottery...the time in which it was written kept pulsating in my mind. Post WWII.

I've written this comment four times and each attempt becomes political so I shall back off for now.

I did find an 18 minute movie of The Lottery made in 1969. This is all just creeping me out.

Katja said...

It seems like I shall never read this story, The Lottery. I'm ALREADY scared! And so this way I still have a chance that it won't stick with me forever.

Katja said...

P.S. I have told Fiancé about it, though. He just said, "OK, I'll read it for you."