Sunday, January 6, 2013

Edgy Writing for Good Girls (and Boys)

I'm one of those “good girls.” I don't party, I don't smoke, I don't do drugs, I rarely drink. I only swear in front of people if I know they won't be offended by it. In general, I'm quiet, polite, considerate, demure. I certainly never do things I think I might regret later.

I'd make one boring heroine, lemme tell ya.

I write heroines who are very different from me, or who start out like me but change dramatically by the end of the book or story. A meek little mouse living her nicey-nice life is all well and good in the real world, but in fiction, it's brain-drainingly dull. Fiction, especially genre fiction like fantasy and sci-fi, requires action, conflict, risks, mistakes, redemption. This is hard for people like me, whose conservative communities are generally not in favor of bad girls, or even good girls who occasionally stray from the beaten path.

It's a constant struggle for me to know when I should turn on, turn off, or adjust my “filter,” the gatekeeper between my mind and my keyboard that lets certain things out into the world and keeps others locked away. Every time I do something like drop a curse word, give a character a bloody death, allude to something sexual, address some social taboo, etc., I agonize over it: Is this gratuitous, written only for shock value? Is it necessary? Somewhere in between? Is it tasteful or disgusting? Is it appropriate for my target age group? What will Mom say?

I've come to the conclusion that the only important questions are those concerning craft and character. If in your gut you know that this character curses like a sailor, then censoring her would be unfair to the work and to yourself. If two characters want to have sex, let them have at it, and describe it as little or as much as you see fit. If you're writing frank, adult material, let it be frank and adult-- let it reflect what real life is like. If you're writing for middle grade, you'll want to be more cautious. It sounds like common sense, yet it can be an extremely difficult thing to judge, especially for less-experienced writers like myself.

And here's a tip from me to you: If you absolutely need to write that slow, torturous death or f-bomb-laden tirade or graphic sex scene even though you're pretty sure it doesn't belong in the piece, pull out a notebook or open up a new document and write the damn thing. Get it out of your system so you can move on. Even if it never sees the light of day, it might open up unexplored avenues in your plot or reveal a hidden facet of some character's psyche. I think I have as many of these documents as I have actual projects.

Finally, if your friends and family are offended by your material, they don't have to read it. And if they think that you do questionable things just because your character does, then they're grossly mistaken about how fiction works. Explain to them the necessity of how you've chosen to tell your story, and if they don't get it, they don't get it. What matters is that you've put the best and truest writing out into the world that you can.

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