Wednesday, January 23, 2008

I Can Has Edge?

I'm not an edgy writer. I like happy things, which is probably why I'm writing about gophers and talking trees. This topic was a little difficult to blog about, so I decided to put a little twist on things.

One of the major debates I had with myself while editing WIP#1 was whether or not to make the drug abuse more explicit. Drug abuse, you say? How can that be un-edgy? Well, it's not a drug... it's fairy dust, which just happens to have some properties of cocaine. The similarities are intentional. I spent a good portion of last summer researching cocaine and its effects on the brain (Using the internet, people - the internet! God, I can hear Hannah snickering from twenty miles away...) in order to make the character's addiction believable.

And then I ran into a snag.

I've never read a cocaine-snorting scene before in my life. I have no desire to. I find the whole concept of drugs icky. Who wants to stick things up their nose? Seriously... what is up with that!? Now I have to write about snorting fairy dust without ever reading this kind of scene. I am in a pickle.

I tried to reason with myself. Maybe the book didn't need explicit scenes. I substituted the actual snorting with flashes of light, fade-to-blacks, and other gimicks in the hope that no one would notice a gaping hole in the story. After five drafts and multiple incarnations of the snorting-of-the-dust scenes, I can say with utmost confidence that I have to make these scenes as explicit as they are meant to be.

Sophie, who has no edge to speak of, is quite distressed.

And so I'm turning my dilemma into a discussion topic. How do you deal with writing those explicit scenes? When do you fade to black? And why?

26 comments:

althrasher said...

Generally speaking, I try to "fade to black" if it's something I feel really uncomfortable with. Although it sounds like with yours, you don't have much of a choice here. (I'm hoping that doesn't happen with my WIP.)

If it's something I'd absolutly HAVE to write, I'd just try to read as much as I could about it. I'd read other scenes by people, ask around if anyone I know has done it (unless it's desperatly awkward.)

In general, though, I'd just do my best to avoid it. I never want to write anything that sounds fake, and I'm afraid (for my part) that it would.

Vanessa Concannon said...

I go as far as my experience allows me. So...I don't write explicit sex scenes; my stories aren't exactly erotica in the first place. Explicit sex just wouldn't fit.

But my characters have sex from time to time. Weird huh? So I go as far as I feel comfortable. It's not really necessary for me to explain "penis into vagina". Anyone over twelve knows what happens next. And if they don't...well, whatever, I'm not responsible for corrupting them, and my books won't be banned in that household. It's not that I write WHOLESOME stories. But explicit sex wouldn't make my stories better. Especially not written by my uh, inexperienced self.

~grace~ said...

"fade to black" works for a lot of things--really, leaving things to the imagination of the reader can be quite effective sometimes.

you could find a movie in which someone explicitly snorts something (I know I've seen many--Goodfellas?) and just describe what you see...except with gophers and talking trees. ("Ray "Gopher" Liotta bent over the mirror...")

Or you can take what I call the "Clarissa" route, after Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (published 1748). For my 18th-century Britlit class, my classmates and I all dutifully read our assigned pages, and we went into class, and our darling professor was like, "so what did you guys think of the rape?" and we were like, "rape? what rape?" Except that we covered up our ignorance and said intelligent things. Apparently one sentence at the end of one of the letters (it's an epistolary novel) indicated quite obviously/subtly that Clarissa had been brutally raped. Flew over our heads entirely.

although I guess that won't work if you need it to be explicit. but that's one way to do edgy. obvious but invisible.

Jordan said...

Very good post, Sophie.

I am writing a story right now (not YA) that takes place in on Death Row. Prison Edge is as sharp as a knife, and yet...I really don't want an explicit story. That's not what it's about, in my mind. It's not ABOUT Death Row, the morality of the death penalty, the flaws of the system...although it addresses all that. It's about a guy and his relationships with those people he loves, and those maybe he shouldn't love but can't help it.

I worry that people are going to cite my lack of explicitness as a deliberate skewing of reality...that stuff really goes on in prison, Jordan, why didn't you show it?

Well, because...that's not what the story calls for.

The story tends to be a selfish lord, demanding certain things from its writer. My story demands subtlety--soft, deft strokes, intense yet understated happenings. Not rape in the shower.

So edge....? I still am not sure what that is, exactly. I want all my stories to be realistic, to never turn away from the truth. I suppose, though, that "realistic" means more what is realistic to the story, the characters and the setting, than what is realistic to...the general great wide world. Anything can happen out there. Story is a particularly narrow focus on that world. What is realistic tends to vary widely. I'm glad I'm able to pick and choose the elements that make up my story world and tell the story I want told.

Conman said...

The most "explicit" thing I've ever written was a character slitting his own throat with a piece of a broken sword. Yeah. It happened from the point of view of a different character, who was trying to avoid looking. So not detailed, but not fade-to-black, either.

Sage said...

I have trouble writing sex scenes (in YA or non-YA). But some of my stuff requires those scenes. Sometimes fade to black works, sometimes not.

But I'm not really explicit when they are needed to be on screen. I often write fantasy so sometimes it can be metaphored in (the girl is glowing and the glow spreads to the guy where they touch), sometimes sex is different (Angels can have sex the normal way OR by blending their souls while incorporeal; guess which way is actually used on screen). In the past I have also focused on the feelings involved instead of the actual sexual act.

And the addiction in my novels is to Heaven. Basically there's the trip and withdrawl, without the actual drug.

Sophie, do you really have to show the snorting? Since that seems to be the part you're worried about.... Can you get away with saying "used the fairy dust" or "took some fairy dust"?

Haphazard said...

Hmm. The last 'explicit' thing I had to do was some amateur surgery with eye removal. You know, holding the guy down. They didn't even get him drunk first, though they probably should have...

Anyway. That turned out, I guess I faded to black. Right at the beginning was a chapter break and the next chapter started with mopping up the blood and the girl that had to help out being fairly traumatized. Adding what happened exactly wouldn't have added anything to the story, probably would have freaked me out, and also I wouldn't have gotten it accurate anyway because I'm not an eye expert.

Fade to black works well unless you have to do something in the middle of the 'explicit' event. If somebody interrupts the character right in the middle of snorting fairy dust, then it'd be important to show the preparation, but if you have nothing like that, I wouldn't worry about showing it precisely. And it's not a drug in the real world, so why does it even have to have the same preparation? Fantasy does give you some freedoms that I try to enjoy every minute of.

hannah said...

Me likey.

In Pumpkin Patch Kids (the novel I co-wrote with Andy, one of our other bloggers)there's an abortion scene I was planning to have happen offstage. Once I got there, though, it seemed like such a cop-out. That scene is really, really important. So I wrote it.

And it wasn't comfortable. And it was gross. And it was positively sickening to write.

My director said something at rehearsal today. There's this one scene where we have to pretend to be models walking down a runway. And we're all really awkward, and we were just giggling and shuffling our feet.

And my director said, "Girls. Do it big. If it's comfortable, you're doing it wrong."

So that's my advice. And it's no absolute truth. But it's the way I know what's important, and what I really need to write to make a story work.

If it's comfortable, you're doing it wrong.

Jordan said...

I've had nightmares of being on Death Row for months now.

We've left the realm of comfort and are bordering on complete mental breakdown.

So is the way of artists...

hannah said...

This last week, all my dreams have been about having AIDS...

Sophie W. said...

Sagers, I'm using the "took a pinch of fairy dust" route, actually. I wasn't comfortable manuvering the dust around nostrils and such.

Haphazard said...

Hannah, I have to disagree, 'if it's comfortable you're doing it wrong.'

It's simply a matter of if it must be shown, then it must be shown, and if it's not, then it doesn't have to be. Comfort doesn't even factor into the equation. If it's comfortable, that's fine, but if it's not, tough cookies.

That said, what I'm writing now is just a thorn in my side because of the style. But it has to be done, so I'm trying my hardest.

SuzanneYoung said...

Love the topic! And I LOVE the fade to black.I use it often, because my books usually have a sex scene or three. I don't describe fondling or anything other than a kiss.(Boring, right?) Instead, I'll end a chapter with something like, "And then he kissed me" By the opening of the next chapter, yeah, you can tell they'd totally gotten it on. lol.

So for me, I use fade to black for things that I either can't describe because of the YA title, or because it's almost more romantic to let the reader imagine it in their head.

Don't know about the drug use, haven't gone there yet.

See, guys! I'm not nearly as edgy as you thought ;)

Sage said...

Soph, "took a pinch" sounds perfect! I think that's the way they deal with snuff in books, and that sounds about right for the fairy dust (even in boxes).

I agree with Hap about the being comfortable comment. Sometimes it's worth it to stretch things out to a high level of discomfort. Sometimes it's not. It depends on the book and intended audience and your goal with the particular scene. If you're focused on the effects of or the dependency on a drug, you don't need to detail the snorting of it. If you *want* to affect people by describing the act of snorting it, go that route. It just depends on your intention.

Sage said...

"So for me, I use fade to black ... because it's almost more romantic to let the reader imagine it in their head."

Yes, totally! Even though sex is often related to love (not always though), I do not find an explicit description of sex to be particularly romantic. That's just me, though

Vanessa Concannon said...

I also disagree about comfortable being wrong. If it's a necessary uncomfortable scene, don't soften the scene because YOU're having a hard time with it. It won't feel real.

But at the same time, everything doesn't have to be full-force just because it has the potential to be. Not every story dictates rape in the shower, like Jordan says. And actual sex tends to be way less interesting on the written page than it is either in real life or on screen (there's another post entirely) where you don't read "penis into vagina", in some form or another.

Sasha said...

Soph, I love this post and the discussion about it! I let the scene fade to black if it's something that doesn't move the plot along or add to character development. So a sex scene would fade to black if it isn't a book about sex.

I'm a big believer in the power of fiction to express the things we rarely talk about in everyday life. That means gritty detail sometimes, but only when it adds something meaningful to the story.

When it comes to something like fairy dust, the field is wide open. You're making it up, so you can describe it any way you like!

And Hannah, I love what your director said. I might just use that in my yoga class tonight. ;)

Andrew Carmichael said...

I've personally never had an issue writing whatever I felt a scene needed for a book. If that means sex, then I write sex. If that means drug use,then I write drug use.

I, personallly, never thought of doing a fade-to-black for drug use and one of my books actually features cocaine/heroin use and I don't do a fade to black. Honestly, the process isn't so mysterious and strange that it would take up a long description or even affect the character immediately. (I am not speaking from personal experience, only from extensive research). While sex is something that would need some explaination to have someone visualize it, and so might benefit from a fade-to-black, in my opinion drug use is something that everyone could pretty much guess about in the first place and anything I'm writing isn't going to be a shocking moment for the reader, even if they were way too young to be reading the topic in the first place.

hannah said...

My uncomfortable comment didn't mean that you have to describe the unnecessary details. Writing penis-into-vagina doesn't make me uncomfortable (please, I'm a high schooler.) Writing what's going through a rape victim's mind, though? Yeah. That's important and horribly awful, and yeah, it's uncomfortable. But if that's your ms, it's gotta be there.

I point to my abortion scene example instead.

And I also point to where I said that this was not a hard and fast rule.

Catherine said...

Interesting topic. I've done fade to black mainly for sex scenes that I felt were not necessary to go into detail with - the one's I have written needed to be there because of character growth, and they were very uncomfortable to write.

I also did it for a rape scene. Sorry. Just couldn't face it.

The hardest thing for me to write so far, and I had to put it in because the scene wouldn't have worked without it, was a man killing a baby. I had to get away and go wash my hands after that scene. Now I have a torture scene that I'm trying to avoid...

You could always try 'snorted a little dust', as well as taking a pinch. Funnily enough, I also have a magic powder taken like cocain and it hasn't been an issue. Then again, I had the joy of living with coke-heads for a few months, so maybe I'm just so used to the concept that I don't find it shocking.

Jordan said...

Interesting. Giving this a couple days' thought helps.

There's a murder/rape in my WIP, and while it "fades to black" (sorta), I felt that I, as the writer, needed to write the scene in graphic detail, as a personal exercise.

Plus my crit partner dared me.

So, while the actual act occurs off-stage, I have the scene square in my mind, all the grisly details and everything. And now I better understand why the character did it. Hopefully that will translate to the rest of the book.

If not, well, it was...fun?

bethany said...

Sorry, Sophie, you're too cute to have edge..... or am I mistaken? About the edge part, not the cute factor.

Andrew Carmichael said...

I think that the main reason I don't have problems writing what some people call "edgy" or "difficult" or "uncomfortable" is because people actually go through these experiences.

People do drugs and have bad experiences. People are assaulted, both physically and sexually. People get in accidents and have injuries and all of the other things writers frequently call too "hard" to write, or say that they just can't do it.

When I'm writing, I'm sitting in the comfort of my own home. I'm writing on my computer. I'm not actually experiencing these things. People, sadly, go through these things every day and live through it. To me, saying that it's too hard for me to write is like saying, Oh, I could never get through something like that. But I don't even have to, when other peopl do.

In my opinion, at least attempting to write some of the "hard" scenes shows some respect to the people who had to go through these things. If I can't even imagine it, then how should they feel after living through it?

I know that I could never capture the full emotions of someone who went through any of these things, but I feel like I owe it to the people to at least try and not say "Oh, god, that was sooo hard writing about that." I mean, like I said, I was sitting at my computer. I wasn't there. I wasn't actually hurt. Why am I crying and complaining?

Haphazard said...

Why are you crying and complaining?

A lot of writers are very empathetic creatures. Writing things that hurt like that, well, hurts, though not the the full extent that it hurts people who have actually been through these things.

Could never get through it? A lot of people say this openly. After assault, people's minds aren't usually in the best shape. Saying 'oh, rape, no problem' is also disrespect.

Then again, writing has nothing to do with comfort. If you can't flinch, don't freaking flinch.

The reason I can has no edge, though, is because I don't write things for which the story calls for edge. Even though it might make total sense for one of these 'edgy' things to happen at one point, if it were existing in the real world, the tone of the story insists otherwise.

...I totally have to write that hyperrealism post.

hannah said...

Andy--awesome comment.

Jordan said...

I second what Hap says about writers being very empathetic people. Not all of them, but for the ones that are...like me...writing these things can be very painful.

If it's too painful to write, how can you blame someone for not writing it? Just because people are attacked and raped and murdered and traumatized beyond repair doesn't mean the more empathetic of us necessarily want to experience it to! Sure, it makes for great fiction...but I am pretty positive that if you speak to these people who have gone through these horrible things, they would not want to relive it. They would not want others to relive it. They are horrible!

That said. I think fiction that addresses these issues certainly does a lot of good in bringing awareness to the general public. But still, it's hard to read, hard to write, hard to live with yourself if you're a victim. You cannot blame someone for not wanting to go through all that torture. Even though it makes great fiction (and if you really want to get controversial, great entertainment.)