Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Trigger warnings in queries

 

 

I read your blog post "Content Warning in a Query Letter." My manuscript explicitly discusses child abuse as a subplot, which doesn't appear in the query. I understand that it's best not to add a content warning, so I wouldn't hurt my chances of getting published, but I still believe it's common courtesy to warn the agents of any possible triggers.

 

In this case, what do you advise me to do?

 

Thank you so much.

 

Why do you think it's common courtesy to warn an agent about a subplot?

 

Your job as a writer Is NOT to guard my mental health.

It's to tell me a great story.

It's to illuminate a truth.

It's to expand the world I know and understand.

 

You're not writing to children.

 

Your concern is well-intended, I know.

 

 

But context is everything.

If an agent auto-passes on killing animals, they miss OLD YELLER.

 

If an agent auto-passes on rape, they miss Laurie Halse Anderson's SPEAK.

 

 

If an agent auto-passes on child abuse they miss Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Dorothy Allison, and a lot of other books that illuminate the world.

That said, if an agent really doesn't want to read anything about child abuse, it's up to them to let you know that. You can then deselect them for querying.

 

The only thing I need a trigger warning on is bad writing, and sadly, that's never ever going to happen.

 

 

 

 

18 comments:

french sojourn said...


Wonderful post.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Fantastic post.

KMK said...

Best closing lines ever.

CynthiaMc said...

I still haven't forgiven Disney for Old Yeller.

Kitty said...

Maybe agents don't need a warning, but this reader does. There are some subjects I don't want to read about, especially if I'm not expecting them and they spring out at me.

Amy Johnson said...

OP: I've noticed that some agents clearly state they're not interested in seeing X or Y. Seems best to respect that and not send any X or Y to those agents, and to follow Janet's advice to not include a trigger warning in your query. I hope all goes well with your querying!

OT: Catching up on posts and comments after spending a week on a mountain with spotty reception. The place is the inspiration for the location of my work in progress, which I've been eyeball deep in editing. This made for some weird moments last week. Hey, there's no mist hovering over the pond -- wait, that's just in my story. Hey, here's the place in the forest where she first spots the two boys from another time period -- is there something moving behind those trees? Really surreally!

Alex said...

While Janet's advice is fine for her and probably for the majority of agents, there are agents who request trigger warnings or advise that they don't want to read certain topics.
As always, do your research and tailor your query to the agent you're looking to impress.

Colin Smith said...

Couldn't you consider the query letter a trigger warning about bad writing? 😉 Seriously, though, while Janet speaks for herself, I hope many other agents take the same position--for their own sake as much as ours. After all, as noted, they could miss out on some great stories otherwise.

Amy: Speaking of being inspired by a place, this place (i.e., this blog and the commenters) inspired a story I managed to get published. Here's the link in case anyone wants to read it: Comment Box. Trigger warning: I wrote it, so... yeah, expect oddness... 😁

Katja said...

I once had a national editor from The Atlantic tell me that my novel was too odd and possibly daunting people so he refrained from recommending it in his big fat paper.
Ever since I thought maybe I should add a trigger warning for it in my Amazon description but a few other people told me not to. 🤷‍♀️

I remember your oddness, Colin. While I did understand (and totally loved) Time In A Bottle (hopefully I got the title right), I'm not sure I ever fully understood this other story.
Maybe I'm just a little dumb. 🤣

Colin Smith said...

Katja: "Odd" can sometimes be in the eye of the beholder, somewhat subjective. And some "odd" is easier to get than others. Just a glance through the Writing Contest archives gives evidence of that. Some of the winning stories, while well written, left me scratching my head while Janet and others gushed over the clever twists and references. So, yes, that stupid feeling happens to all of us. Time in a Bottle has a special place in my heart. I love that story too, and it was the first story someone actually gave me money to publish. I'm glad you liked it!

Brittany said...

I'm not sure I agree. An agent who auto-passes on rape was *never* gonna be the right agent for SPEAK. If they auto-pass, that means they don't want to read it even once. Why would they want to read it dozens upon dozens of times in guiding it through the publishing process? An agent who has any sort of auto-pass criteria is saying "I know that this could be the Next Big Thing and I'm okay with missing out on it." By leaving it out of the query, sure, you might be able to convince them to take you on if the rest of the book is dazzling enough to overcome it. But you're far more likely to just delay your rejection to the moment where they do encounter that material and nope out.

You don't want just any old agent. You want the agent who's going to be the best champion for your work. If your work contains something that's detrimental to the agent's mental health, it's not a good match. Might as well make that clear up front. (I was going to say that perhaps you might specify how much of the material is in there, because an agent with a mild aversion might be willing to work on something with one scene but not where it's a whole subplot. But honestly, would you rather have an agent who has to hold their nose to get through your book, or an agent who's enthusiastic about the whole thing?)

Colin Smith said...

Brittany: Good point, but I think I would rather agents let us know their triggers so we know who not to send to, rather than clutter queries with all the potential triggers in the plot.

Katja said...

I'd hope to get an agent who is adult and experienced and robust enough to be able to tell themselves when it's time to put the manuscript I have queried down.

If I need to warn them about what I have written that I find readable, where do I even begin the list?

I'm so sure that Janet is a big girl!

Kregger said...

Nice story, Colin, very Rod Serling-esque!

Colin Smith said...

Kregger: Thanks. If anyone asks, my genre is "Twilight Zone." :)

Beth Carpenter said...

Definitely Twilight Zone, Colin. Great story!

Like Janet, I'd hate to have missed Old Yeller, which I would have had I known the ending in advance.

Matt Adams said...

Janet is 100-percent, unequivocally wrong about this. The current tenor in society is that we are all, indeed, responsible for everyone else's mental health. The agenting community has long established that they have thinner skin than the rest of the society, and if you write something that an agent will find disturbing, not only will that agent not rep you but is likely to tweet to the world about being triggered by someone's insensitive query/pages, which will bring a hundred comments about how they, too, have been triggered by queries and a thousand sympathetic querying writers feeling bad for what happened.

If there's something in your query that could be explicit enough that you would consider it potentially triggering, write around that. If it's in your pages, make sure they know it's coming. While there are plenty of mature, grown up agents in the world, one long look at agent Twitter suggests that there are enough who aren't that the risk you describe is a real one.

Craig F said...

In other words, if you are an easily triggered literary agent; you are in the wrong line of work.

Even middle grade must deal with child abuse because it is a fact of life.