Over the years I’ve worried about crossing lines in my writing. Sometimes I have the job of writing funny material. Once, I was taken off my column in a company newsletter because my humor was too biting. I was nervous when experimenting with fiction writing about creating villains. I feared falling too deep into the minds of the evil-doers. And today, I wonder if compromising my story vision might gain me more readers, and bring in higher income. I want to revisit these questions for my own enlightenment.
To recap, the questions for a writer are: What not to put in Stories?; To thine own self be true, but how much?; and What to compromise for success? The first question for me relates to my ethics and morality. I’m somewhat sensitive to stories I read. I don’t want to read much torture, violence toward the weak, sexual assault, and similar topics. So of course, when I write, I very carefully choose what I include in my stories. I have had a torture scene in one book. It was limited and quick. The second question, I see meaning do I only write what I want, or do I write for others. I seek a happy balance, it should be what I enjoy, but also enjoyable for others. The third question I haven’t answered for myself yet. It remains an open question for me.
I asked these questions of author friend, Stephanie Barr, here is her response:
“I don’t want to put in enough detail that I’m providing voyeurism to someone who gets off on something heinous. I think it would turn off a decent person and only appeal to someone who perhaps wasn’t so decent. I think most people have sufficient imagination they can get the sense without a graphic description. That’s how I see it.”
“I am true to myself, and I make my characters true to certain of my own moral hard lines – but not all of them and part of what I do is point out that some decisions don’t always give you a clean choice, where any choice is good. In Curse of the Jenri, I have a mother who loves her children and kills them out of love for them. That’s a hard sell, but I needed to put her in a bad enough position that the reader could understand why she did it, that she wasn’t evil, even if they could not have done it themselves. I like to push my own boundaries. I think many people can easily become judgmental–I think writing is a venue where you can help people understand a different perspective.”
“I’m fortunate because I don’t have to be successful as a writer. I have the luxury of writing only what I’m proud to write and don’t have to compromise. But, I think people are more likely to respond to writing if you love what you write, if it really speaks from your heart. In the end, I don’t think compromise gives you the kind of readers who will love your writing the way you want them to.”
Writer friend, Jennefer Rogers also gave me her answers:
“Every age has had people who wrote for the morality/trends of the day, and those who pushed the boundaries. There was a time when books by women weren’t published, and there are still places in the world that will harm authors who pose concepts that stray from the Religion of the area. We’re lucky enough to live in a part of the world that allows us to express ourselves fairly freely (Canada does not have the same rights and guarantees on freedom of speech that the US does).”
“It comes down to this – are you a ‘bread and butter’ author, or are you someone who doesn’t have to rely on it for income. Hearing the phrase ‘writing is a hobby’ has always annoyed me – authors and other creative people are pulling double duty to pay bills/hold down a job, and answer the call of their muse. The last time I made a reliable income from my authoring or art was in the 90s. Sticking to what’s safe isn’t a crime – you are guaranteed to find a following, but there is no shame in choosing to push boundaries and potentially make people angry – or generate constructive dialogue and address problems/raise awareness. There is wiggle room between the extremes; I’m sure we could come up with some sort of Venn Diagram to demonstrate the sweet spot. I’ve seen a number of articles that are upselling the idea of using algorithms to compose bestsellers. It’s not a new concept – Romance novelists have been following the same flowchart for decades.”
I’m in a rare position, I don’t need to make money from my work (I’d love to, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t have to) – I’m supported financially in my creativity. As a result, my book (soon to be series) is edgier. I’m writing a story I would want to read. I too don’t enjoy graphic/gratuitous scenes of violence, rape, torture, but they are elements that can be used if done artfully. The best old movies often had things happening off-camera. We all knew what was going on, our imaginations filled in the blanks – we didn’t need to see it. Someone told me to add more of an erotic element to my book, but I declined. Not because I’m offended by it, but because I felt it didn’t fit the narrative. Similarly, I delved into the motivations of my protagonists and antagonists to demonstrate that no one sees themselves as ‘evil,’ and that even good people can fall prey to the abuse of power.”
“My advice to any author – Remain true to yourself and your vision of your story – then listen carefully to what your beta-readers have to say. Somewhere between the two lies the ‘sweet spot’ of success.”
So, we writers face similar questions as members of other professions. How to meet our goals and keep faith with our ideals and ideas. We will continue to struggle with these questions, and hope that the output of our struggles will entertain our fans.