Tag Archive: controversy


The Shock Factor!

Nudity. Graphic violence. Rape. Sex. Mass killings. Pedophilia. Extremely harsh language. Dark humor.

No, this isn’t a list of my favorite things, just a few examples of what we see in movies, read in books and hear in music. It’s an undeniable fact that the shock factor is a good way to get butts in seats, books off of shelves and music churning through headphones. It’s certainly not unusual to be shocked, appalled, disgusted, and mad as hell at an author, or rather at what an author writes.

But how far is too far?

How much is too much?

And are writers allowed a “get out of jail free” card for the actions of their characters? After all, if their main character is a murderer, the reader shouldn’t be surprised when that character slams a dull pencil into his disabled mother’s eye…right? If one of the characters in a book is a drug addict, then the reader has no right to be upset with that character is willing to give up their body to everyone they pass in a dirty alley in exchange for drugs…right? Neither does the reader have a right to be upset if the author chooses to go into great detail when describing how that character earns their drugs.

Where is the dividing line between sensationalism and true art when it comes to writing? There’s always been a debate about whether or not paintings of nude people is art or pornography, but I want to put the focus on writing.

I remember back in ’09 that I read a book by Samuel R. Delany called “Hogg.” If you know anything about the book, then you know it’s become extremely well known for its depictions of gay sex, incest, murder, and a full laundry list of taboo subjects. I honestly couldn’t make it through the book. It really wasn’t that I couldn’t stomach the content, just that I couldn’t grasp the story. It might be one of those books you have to stick with in order to fully enjoy, but to me it simply got too repetitive. So did Mr. Delany write “Hogg” because he truly had a story in his head, or did he write it to give people and critics something to talk about? Were his book sales dipping and he needed a way to inject some adrenaline back into his career using any unsavory means necessary?

I can’t help but wonder if I were to write the next “50 Shades of Grey” if that would get publishers and agents interested in me. Interested not because of the story, but because of the subject matter and the potential dollar signs. We all know that the publishing industry is a business, and just like any other business money is most often the biggest factor when deciding whether to go left, right or stay in the same position.

I realize that I’ve posed several questions here and I have yet to provide you with a concrete answer as to whether or not I think the shock factor should be justified or vilified. In some cases, I think going for the reader’s throat is a good way to make them aware, get them talking about things that they’d much rather sweep under their tidy societal rug. I also think going after the reader’s throat can at times be a cheap and lazy trick to keep them interested, to move the story along when you’ve run out of ideas. Cheap and lazy, but still effective.

It’s also quite possible that the author had no idea that they were writing material that might be considered shocking. What makes you uncomfortable might not even make them bat an eye, and what they find disgusting you might call everyday life. So it’s only really shocking if you aren’t familiar with it.

What’s the most shocking thing that you’ve ever read and why was it so jarring to you?

Next post: Writing for fans you don’t yet have. Good idea, or waste of time? 

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I know that it can be hard to be a woman in this day and age, and it can be just as hard for male authors to write female characters. I’m not saying that as a gay and black male writer I’ve got it just as hard as my female friends who also know what it’s like to be treated like a second-class citizen who has no rights, but I always proceed with the utmost level of caution with my female characters.

Take my Furious character Bisset Torres. Bisset is a modern-day black woman who has wings, the ability to heal, and wields a sword that can cut through anything, but she’s only this person during the day. As soon as night falls, Bisset’s other personality, The Dragoness, takes over. The Dragoness believes that there is wisdom to be gained in mental/physical/emotional suffering, can withstand being hit with a missile, breathes emerald fire, and is an all-around bad mammajamma…at least I think so. Even though Bisset is the only female member of The Furies, she’s actually three characters: Bisset, Seraph, and The Dragoness. Through her I get to explore three different female perspectives. Bisset feels a bit like a teenaged girl for the second time who is adjusting to the mental and physical changes she’s experiencing, Seraph is the nurturing mother, and The Dragoness is…well, you’d probably think that she’s just a super-powered bitch until you get to know her.

I don’t set out to make all of my female characters badasses, nor do I set out to make my female characters victims, sex objects, powerless, nurturing, nerdy, gamers, geeks, powerful, angry or anything else. What I do try to make my female characters is genuine. I don’t want my reader to feel as though I’m forcing certain traits on my female characters, nor do I feel that I have to write a female character a certain way just because it’s popular and something that moves books off of the shelves.

Rape and abortion are very much hot button issues right now. I don’t like to shy away from any kind of subject matter as long as it’s relevant to the story, but I don’t want to include a rape or an abortion strictly for the shock value. Readers can tell when writers are going for the throat, and a writer’s female audience might become deeply offended if the attempt isn’t particularly well done. Not to lump all women into one category, but when a woman doesn’t like something, she’ll most definitely find a way to let you and everyone else (like the rest of your readers) know. This isn’t to say that writers (both men and women) shouldn’t let the story have its say, just that the story should have its say in the most conscious and cautious way possible. While there’s nothing wrong with having an opinion, a writer who hopes to become successful has to always keep their audience in mind.

I don’t ask my female friends to tell me what they think of my female characters and if their actions are what a real woman would do. Since I’ve always had more female friends than male friends and I’m in touch with my feminine side (yeah, I said it), I feel like it’s no problem for me to put myself into my female character’s high-heels, combat boots, bare feet or whatever other kind of footwear she might be wearing. Even though it’s easy for me to write female characters, I’m still quite careful to make sure that I’m not subconsciously using my female characters as a response to or a representation of current events. At the end of the story, I feel that what’s most important is that I write human characters.

Have you ever struggled to write characters of the opposite sex? Why or why not?

Next post: The Shock Factor: Does it sell books?

Mum’s the Word

Controversy.

It’s a word that sends images and words hurtling through our minds. It seems as if we can’t go a single day without experiencing, reading or hearing about some sort of controversy. We may lock ourselves in our homes, cut off the TV, take a hiatus from Facebook and Twitter and escape to the fantasy world of a book. Only to find that our escape isn’t an escape at all, but another quagmire of controversy.

As writers, we may not want to upset or alienate our readers. They give us their time, money, attention and hopefully their praise. We don’t want to dissolve that tenuous tether of trust by having our characters deal with something like abortion, race issues, homosexuality, rape or anything else that the public feels strongly about. Even if we don’t outright announce our stance on the issue, we don’t want to run the risk of scaring off potential readers by bringing in real-world politics or have a character who is thinking about having an abortion.

I often find one of the best ways to unravel my emotions and thoughts is to write them down, put my characters in a similar position and allow them to show me the way. Sometimes I’m shocked at how intelligent my characters are, just as I’m stunned by how cruel they might be. Even though it’s me writing the story, I’m not the one telling that story. I write about characters who share my personal views and beliefs, and I also write characters whose beliefs I don’t agree with. And sometimes it’s the characters whose views aren’t my own who are the most enjoyable to write.

Imagine that.

Controversy is something that I feel cannot and should not be ignored. Writers are nudists. We show our naked flesh on the page, the ink becomes our scars, moles and stretch marks, the creases in the book are the creases in our skins. We offer ourselves up to our audience and hope that they will be gentle. Sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t. All of that being said, what’s the true risk in including an inter-racial couple, gay couple or a noble cheating spouse in your work? Not every reader will like what you write, even if they are fans of your genre. You have to ask yourself, are you writing to get your ideas out into the world, or are you writing to get a paycheck in your hand? Usually the answer is both, and it’s entirely possible to do both and still remain true to who we are, all with a little ingenuity.

As a gay African-American author, I know that there will be times when I’ll have to decide how much or how little of certain…possibly controversial subject matter I wish to put on the page, something that I’ve encountered already with writing my first novel. I’ve decided to not shy away from it, but also not to take it to the extremes. I enjoy creativity, and I want to not just put my own beliefs and views on the page, but do it in a creative way.

Creativity. Controversy. Creative controversy. Controversial creativity.

Blending them together gives them a totally different meaning, don’t you think?

Take care out there.