Tuesday, September 27, 2011

When to Hit the Backspace Key: Controversy in Your Writing

You’re relaxing on Twitter or Facebook, or surfing some blogs, when you see a post that catches your eye. Smiling, you type out the witty comment that popped into your head…

                And then the doubts take hold. This isn’t as funny as I thought. This reply is dumb. This person probably doesn’t want me commenting on their status anyway. What if it actually offends them?

                You hit the backspace key, and flitter over to another site.

                I’ve been doing this a lot lately. And for the most part, I think it’s probably smart that I’ve been doing this. In real life, I often blurt things out long before those doubts pop up, and usually get an odd stare or two because of it (because people at my school  don’t understand things like Nerdfighteria, or the wonders of writing-talk… Or because I simply said something dumb). On the internet, I can usually check myself before saying something too stupid.

                But there are those statuses on Facebook, and those comments on blog posts where I spend more than a few minutes writing my comment, altering word choices, trying different variations in the hopes that one will sound better… And then I just give up, and go to some other site, and feel a little hollow for a while. The double-doubts set in. Well, there was two minutes of my life I’ll never get back. Maybe I should’ve posted it after all. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought. And it wouldn’t have really mattered even if it was dumb; I’ve said plenty of dumb stuff before.

                That’s for the little things. A mere two wasted minutes. Then there are the bigger things. Rough blog posts that never make it online. Short stories that fizzle out after a few mediocre pages. Most recently, my Choir teacher put out a call for people involved with the musical to try their hand at making a shirt design for our production of Alice in Wonderland.

                Lots of heads turned my way. The girl next to me elbowed me a little. And I blushed, and thought “Nah, I’m not gonna do that.” Then I started doodling later on. And I started to think, “Well… Maybe I will try it.” Approached my Choir teacher, promised to whip something up over the weekend.

                Got home and realized it was going to be much harder than I’d imagined.

                I’m still not entirely happy with how it’s turned out, but I showed it to my choir teacher on Monday anyway, despite those doubts that converged on me ever since I began. If my design turns into the shirt design, my classmates in drama will be wearing it. On their bodies. And if they do not like the shirt, they will kill me and devour everything I love. O.O

                Can you tell I’m a little stressed about this possibility?

                Putting a design on a shirt feels infinitely more solid, and tangible, and permanent than a dumb little one-liner on Twitter.

                So what about novels? How much more stressful is it to be spending so much time on this thing, with no guarantee that it will be accepted by readers, publishers, agents, friends, or family members. How can we write dark dystopian stories that we might have to explain to our grandma someday? Should I write characters contrary to what I believe, just to relate to another demographic? How can we make a character like this without offending all the living, breathing people who go through the same things every day? Maybe I should just forget about this story, and go onto something else.

                Something less controversial. Something ‘safe.’

                So. When do we stick with something, regardless of who’s going to see it, and when is it best to hit the backspace key?

                Like I said, this is a topic I’ve been thinking about more and more lately. I’m still trying to find my balance. On the one hand, I think we should write for ourselves first and foremost. Get our thoughts on paper, and don’t worry about what other people will think just yet. Wait for that until revision.

                But on the other hand, I don’t think we should just plunge into a topic completely disregarding our potential audience. Certain things are taboo, and if you write about them you’re just asking to be challenged.

                For example, addressing serious, controversial topics in graphic detail – in a children’s book, or writing about how Hitler is the greatest hero the world’s ever known. Books like this might show up, but they will no doubt offend people. If you plan on publishing your book, think about how much controversy you’re willing to handle. If your book addresses something very controversial, think about whether you’ve handled the subject appropriately. A book that places Hitler as a hero or a victim might be interesting, if handled the right way, in that it would shove your mind into another point of view. But a book that celebrates the acts Hitler committed and implies that the author truly thinks he was in the right…

                Sometimes, it’s necessary to make a judgment call.

                So, some questions to ask yourself during revision, when you’re thinking more about your audience:

1)      Am I going to offend a majority of people (or, quite literally, everyone) with this?

2)      Am I addressing sensitive topics as tactfully as I can?

And now, some more questions:

How do you handle controversial topics in your books? Do you handle controversial topics in your books? How do you find balance? Do you worry about it while you’re writing, or think about it more during revision, or do you not think about it at all?

PS. Apologies for the bleh-ness of this, and for the fact that it's been a while since my last post. School musical, college applications, etc. I'm lucky if I have time to work on my novels, let alone write a blog post. I'll try to continue updating regularly, but at times once a week might be about as much as I can handle. XD Thanks for reading!


  1. In regards to never posting a comment (or 10) - been there, done that, will do that again. You're not alone in that at all!

    To think deep thoughts: Just about anything you write could be considered controversial. So, you write Hitler as the spawn of Satan - but there are people out there who think Hitler was wonderful and that he was doing the right thing. In their minds, the controversy is you portraying Hitler as anything other than wonderful.

    I think what you have here is a post that alludes to a previous post of yours: "A Character's Class Schedule: History." To quote you to you: "A layered history can add so much depth to a story, and to a world, and to a character. I mean, hello, Darth Vader and Gollum, anybody?"

    You can write Hitler as the hero or the villain - whatever you want to do - but just don't make him a cardboard character. Give him depth. He isn't just good or evil - there's a reason why he is and it's your job as an author to tell the reader what those reasons are.

    This goes for any subject, really. If you're going to write about... the death penalty or homosexuality or war - then it can't just be right or wrong, there has to be reasons why it's right or wrong. You just have to face the fact that not all readers are going to agree that your rights are right and your wrongs are wrong.

    Wow... I'm not sure if that all makes any sense or not. I'm highly tempted to delete this and move on, but that would be just too ironic for me today! ;)

  2. No, I get what you're saying... And yeah, I think I agree. There has to be enough logic to the point of view you're putting forward that someone can follow it, even if they don't necessarily agree with it.

    Like I said, this is still something I'm kind of working out for myself. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. ^^

  3. I know how you feel about this, as I've experienced this myself. In my opinion, what we write in fiction is different than how we write comments or tweets. With fiction, if a subject is controversial, it works if it fits within the story. With social media, I think we need to remember that everything we say is out there forever. At least that's how I look at it!

    And good luck with the shirt design. I'll bet it'll be amazing!