Wednesday, June 23, 2010

An Invitation to the Dark Side

I’m partial to stories with a dark underbelly, to read and to write. When writing, I aim to weave a sense of menace from the beginning straight through to the end. In my work-in-progress, Common Ground, physical abuse plays a major role.

The fortunate people among us don’t live with the threat of violence. They don’t brace themselves against it. They don’t peak around corners checking for it. They see no need for a Plan B. And they don’t expect to step out of a door and crash into it.

That is the concept for Common Ground, my work-in-progress. Pitting someone, for which violence exists as a way of life, against someone who has absolutely no experience with it. At a past Saskatchewan Romance Writer’s meeting we submitted a snippet to be critiqued. One of my fellow members laughingly said she had no wish to read the whole story. Not her kind of book - too violent, too chilling, too uncomfortable. I took it as the highest compliment. I’d succeeded.

The idea, for me at least, is to create a situation based on grave reality or human suffering and to counter that with heroes and heroines who act with honor and compassion unique to their personalities. Whether they want to or not. They’re not perfect, but neither are they one step away from being the bad guy. At this point in time, that’s important to me. But that might not be the case, or important, to another writer drawn to the dark side. Gritty and raw are relative.

Life is hard and often ugly. Pick up a newspaper or watch the evening news. And some people have only to step out the door or close it behind them to find it. Humans, as a species, are capable of causing huge suffering to others of their own kind, not of their own kind, and to the very earth itself. The story possibilities are endless…and frightening. But what does dark and edgy mean for the feel-good, happily-ever-after expectation of the romance novel? It’s still there. Love and hope exist within in the darkest of circumstances, are perhaps intensified by it. They may no longer be the cure all of the past, but they do enable the reader to envision a future for the hero and heroine beyond the last page.

So how far is too far? Every writer has lines they are not prepared to cross. And ones they will. As a reader we can decide to read or not to read a book. No doubt about it, some books out there are breaking all the rules, pushing boundaries, and moving into uncharted territory. They are not for everyone. Because I’m an armchair thrill seeker, I enjoy those reads. That doesn’t mean I can’t find raw and gritty, on a different level, within the inspirational genre and others. As for my writing, it doesn’t contain explicit violence, buckets of gore, blurry or non-existent lines of conduct. But I’m not ruling it out for the future. I kind of like the idea of some future reader lifting her eyes of the page, staring into space and thinking, “Holy crap, did she just go there?”

Holding nothing back. There have been a few scenes I’ve given serious thought to toning down. One scene in particular comes to mind but I keep resisting because I feel it needs to be there, it has value as it stands. It is truly the point in the book in which the hero’s worst nightmare becomes an almost certain reality and he loses it. Some would think it tame and some would not. In the context of the rest of the book it’s intense, but it will be far easier for me to tone down than dial up in possible future revision requests. Also, if I compromise on this scene will it become easier to compromise on others, until I’m left with a lukewarm, watered down version of original idea? As long as the scene fits the storyline and is not used as ‘shock value’ I think it’s important to go with your gut, with your first instinct, and see it through. In the end, trusted critique partners, beta readers and editors will offer opinions on whether they think it works or not. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Reader Backlash. Not everyone is going to like your book. Thank goodness, or we’d all be fighting over the same ones. Hopefully, your cover and back blurb will give the reader a strong sense of what to expect on the pages inside the book so they don’t end up with a book they cannot or will not finish. We’ve talked a lot here on the Prairies about that all important first page which should also clue the reader into what they’re getting. Your website, free reads, newsletters and other promotional material should make it plain to potential readers what awaits them between the covers of your book.

In the end, the only thing we can do as writers is please ourselves first and foremost. I can’t write with my parents, in-laws, neighbours, or anyone else in mind. I like to embrace the dark side. I haven’t immersed myself in it completely. Here I go again with the word, yet. Because there’s potential lurking there that appeals to me.

What are your thoughts? Are you drawn to the dark side? As a reader or a writer? Do you have a favourite author you’d like to mention who likes to cross lines? As a writer, do you nudge certain lines?


Joanne Brothwell said...

Karyn, I knew who wrote this post by the title alone - I think we are starting to get to know what you offer as a writer - and I, for one, love it!

I also got the same feedback at that meeting on my snippet, although I can't say I felt it was a compliment! I guess I need to keep on building that tough outer skin every writer needs!

Great post!

Nicole Murray said...

I too feel a sense of pride when I spook a bit more delicate a being. With my writing on occasion, my taste in entertainment, my wardrobe 50% of the time, my taste in home decor or just my patented death glare when its warranted. I have been me since I was in dark pigtails and that has not changed.

And I love dark characters. Difficult, wrathful, regret filled, demon carrying, tough, sardonic characters that even with the shroud of darkness around them there is a burn of light and goodness, either in their actions or burried deep within where only a flicker shows on occasion.

I enjoyed your post.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
Like you said, every reader and every writer has different tastes. How boring would it be if we didn't have variety in our lives.

I can't say I never read books with a dark side. It depends how dark. And who is in jeapardy. I find it hard to read about small children in trouble. Ironically, in my own romantic suspense, "Seeing Things" the hero's nephew has been kidnapped. Some people found that hard to read about. But it was crucial to the story I was writing.

I don't think any of us should limit ourselves because what we want to write is too dark, too painful, too intensely emotional. It's that passion we feel for the story that will make it special. If we hold back, we end up with a lukewarm story that we can't believe in anymore. So just write what you feel passionate about, what gets you excited. It'll shine through.


Karyn Good said...

Hi Joanne. Thanks for the compliment!! Right back at you!

Tough skin? I'm working on that one, too!

Karyn Good said...

Hi Nicole. It's downright fun to take the path less travelled.

Love your descriptiono of dark characters! Fantastic!

Karyn Good said...

Hi Jana. Thank goodness for variety. It's interesting is see where uninhibited writing takes us. Your example is perfect. Even though you found a particular subject matter disturbing you were willing to go there for the sake of your story!

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Karyn, you're right. From experience I know, there is no way you're going to please everyone. And it'll be that small percentage who doesn't like your work who will raise the biggest stink. However, these days, that's not a bad thing for getting the word out.

No, I'm not drawn to the dark side at all. I've been on the receiving end of too much violence (as a child) to think it's entertaining, so I don't seek it out. But in some books, the reader needs to know. In others, meh. So, I weigh each book on it's own merit.


Janet said...

Also, if I compromise on this scene will it become easier to compromise on others, until I’m left with a lukewarm, watered down version of original idea?

THIS speaks highly of your growth and maturity as a writer - you don't want to go there, let alone question it. You know your story, you know your characters, you (alone) knows what you're willing to compromise and I know that ending up with a watered down version is not in your nature because you know who you are as a writer. I applaud you, Karyn :)

I love dark and twisty - sometimes, the darker the better. Alice Sebold comes to mind - her The Lovely Bones was very dark, but the follow up novel The Almost Moon pushes an envelope I didn't think I was going to be able to open. She takes you where you never thought you wanted to go, but when you get there, you recognize a bit of yourself in her main character. Chilling!!

Excellent post, Karyn :)

Karyn Good said...

Hi Anita. Nope, the dark side isn't for everyone for very good reasons! Nobody wants to read something that will further traumatize them. That's why it's important to market yourself properly, so no one will make the mistake of picking up a book not suited to their needs and tastes.

Karyn Good said...

Hi Janet. Thanks for the compliments :)

I loved The Lovely Bones, too. The way the author penned the story and dealt with a worst nightmare subject matter and made it a fabulous read, amazes me. Too scared to watch the movie though, in case it doesn't live up to the book. But, oh, haven't read her follow-up novel. Now, I must ...

JessicaE said...

Hi Karyn,
Great job taking a stand on what you believe in! That's awesome! :) I really like what you said about the story you're writing you really have to feel passionate about. I definitely agree. I think it's the passion of the writer, as you had also said, that allows the reader to definitely believe in the story, believe in the characters and it's what impels the writer forward in those times when he or she wants to simply give in and water it down! Very intriguing and insightful post.

Karyn Good said...

Thanks, Jessica. Believing in the story, it's characters and believing in yourself as a writer helps bring it alive for the reader and brings them along for the ride.