Friday, October 2, 2009

Don Your Armour: Safety in Writing

As I've been exploring the content of my WIP, and thinking about the best way to write my characters' story, I've considered the hard stuff. You know, emotion. Contention. Stuff even, perhaps, of controversy.

Once upon a manuscript I wouldn't touch any of it, wouldn't go so deep. I thought I had to stick to light, fluffy, superficial. I thought I had to write about what's right, about what characters should do, how they should be.

But first of all, how cramped-in-a-box is that word right? And who am I to manipulate my characters? They live their own lives, individual of mine.

I'll be honest, this back-and-forth in my head is because I'm a Christian. I have a particular set of beliefs, and they shape who I am, personally. It's worth saying that extends to my writing. But I once believed it meant I had to stick to a certain kind of content; the heartwarming, the redemptive. Safe.

While there are some lines I won't cross, there are others I've discovered I'm willing to throw myself past. Why? Because writing doesn't have to be safe to be good, or filled with meaning, invoking. Stories are about what people - all of us - go through. The challenges, the uncertainty, the disappointment, loss, struggle. Little of it's pretty.

And is life?

It's from out of all that mess that the most feeling, the most redemption comes. It's when you feel most rooted to your beliefs, perhaps more heavily convicted.

That's what I've found, and it's what propels my writing.

Tell me, do you agree or disagree? And how about you, do you write safe? If you're not a writer, do you read safe?

For my initial look at this line of thinking, view a previous post, Christians Who Write.


Unknown said...

Too funny. I wrote about controversy over at If You Give a Girl a Pen today. We must have been on the same wave length.

I've recently decided to step out of my comfort zone. I hope I don't step on TOO many toes ;)

Unknown said...
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Rebecca Nazar said...

My characters, so far, "rage against the machine". They are geeks who do good, not flawed souls.

Sometimes characters need to be dark, wrestling with inner demons, to advance the plot--Snoreville if all is hunky-dorey. Overall (I'm also a Christian ) I feel if my story is entertaining, I'm doing my job. Uplifting or enlightening or cautionary, without being preachy, is an added, but not always vital addition.

The best work is never safe, but honest: a writer's most genuine expression of how they perceive other's souls and/or society.

Great question. :-)

Author Jessica Nelson said...

I agree Janna. The darker it is, the stronger and brighter the redemption. :-)

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I think some of the best writing is risky and dangerous.

Jesus was the biggest risk taker ever.

~ Wendy

Joanne said...

Some of the best writing is risky and dangerous. It brings the reader there, too, perhaps to a place they've considered but would never actually go. A way to explore safely.

Diane said...

I think to write to people where they are, you have to be relevant too. It's a hard balance. :O)

Kristen Painter said...

One thing I learned early on is that I am NOT my characters. They do plenty of things I wouldn't and I'm fine with that. Yes, there are certain lines I won't cross, but that doesn't stop me from telling stories that have depth and shadows and hard edges.

The Hat Chick said...

In reading, there are some lines I can't cross. I think there is plenty of real pain in the world as it is and I don't need to read about fictional pain. That's also why I don't go to horror movies.

I like deep characters. I just don't think that sinning makes a character deep.

Unknown said...

You pose a really tough question for the Christian writer. How much is too much? How much is not enough? Where do you let your character go? How far do you let them slip? How do you bring them back? These are all questions that I have struggled with from time to time. I've read stories that have gone too far one way or the other. It always amazes me when an author can get into the head of a troubled character and make them really believable. I know there are lines that I won't cross as a writer, but there are also lines that my characters will cross that I stay away from in my personal life.

Great converstation going on here. I love your blog! :)

Janna Leadbetter said...

Marybeth - Where is If You Give a Girl a Pen? I couldn't find it through any of your links.

Becca - Honest. So important.

Jessica - Thanks. :) I do want to clarify, I don't write dark, just real.

Wendy - "Risky" is a good word to use, too. I agree.

Joanne - I hadn't thought of it, but exploration is a big part of it, too.

Diane - And yet another issue for which we come back to balance. ;)

Kristen - It's important, I think, to pull our own judgment out of it. Not everyone in real life behaves as we do; we can't expect it from our fiction, either.

Hat Chick - I certainly recognize your point. I think where I'm coming from is, reading about fictional pain helps the real pain heal. At least, that's the truth form. And I don't do horror films, either. ;)

Stina - I guess we each have to be mindful and prayerful, and find out how we're to handle it individually. You know? And thanks! I love that you love my blog! :)

Janna Leadbetter said...

Gah. In my response to Hat Chick, "that's the truth form" should have been "that's the truth for me."

Tamika: said...

Janna, I think I read safe, more than I write safe. Does that make sense? I should probably try stepping out of the box in that regard, but not too much.

I love writing about the stuggles of my characters because there is so much redemption in their stories. I know there is in mine.

Blessings to you...

Melissa Amateis said...

I've been struggling with these same issues, Janna. I think for answers we should turn to the Bible itself - the stories in there are certainly not "safe" - there's murder, prostitution, war, etc. Some of the most fascinating characters in the Bible were all sinners - Sampson, Moses, etc. In the end, we must write what God presses upon our hearts to write. Whether he wants us to write "safe" or not, I think we should heed His voice.

JLC said...

This is a great topic! Something that I have been thinking about too. Only, the opposite. I kept wondering why I always wanted freaky things to happen in my stories. Why I was really pushing that envelope into a world of evil. But I quickly realized that its a bit like waiting in line for a roller coaster. You feel nervous to step on-board, perhaps something horrible will happen, and your heart races, but if you just leave the line... you'll have a boring/safe story.

I think the important thing to realize is that you are not your story. If you cross the line in your book, it doesn't mean you would in real life. In fact... if a scene makes your stomach turn.. that is a good sign that you still have those morals. In the meantime though, your readers will have a great roller coaster ride when they read it.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Good question! Like Rebecca says, the best work is never safe, but honest. I think the most honest we can be the better. I'm going to do some posts soon about writing sex scenes. This has been a HUGE problem for me on so many levels. Honesty plays a huge part.

Tana said...

I probably write a lot safer than I read. My challenge this year is to be a daring writer. It is after all what I like to read so it only makes sense. Great post!

Anonymous said...

What a good topic you hit on!!

I struggle with the same thing in reading many times. I read a variety of books, not all I would recommend, but there are also many that I only read to a point and then put down. I feel like they've crossed the imaginary line for I just don't need to be reading know what I mean? I know so many who would not think my choices for reading material appropriate, but like you said, life isn't always pretty.

I don't read books about witchcraft...that's a real line for me. For many it's not a problem, but for me, I can't cross the line. I've seen some real-life bad stuff and I don't want to go there.

Man, we could talk about this all day. I need to read the other comments, so I'll stop now.

Melanie Hooyenga said...

Based on my two novels, I'd have to say I do not write safe. I'm glad you said at the end that it's the "unsafe" topics that show a person's true character in the long run. Without some floundering, how can you show that without them sounding high & mighty?

I'm so glad you're pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone.

septembermom said...

I think you will push yourself to the point where you still feel comfortable in your beliefs. It is a balance. I know in my reading I generally play it safe. I can see how a writer must consider playing on the "dangerous" side once in a while to show all potential sides of human character. Good luck Janna!

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Janna, this post is so perfect! One of the biggest things I've learned this week is that I am scared of taking risks with my writing. I linger on the safe side as much as possible. Because it's "right", because I want to do what I'm supposed to, because I think that's what readers want.

Breaking down that box is freedom and it doesn't have to be wrong. It can be amazing!

Jody Hedlund said...

It's easy to think that there are taboo areas to write about as a Christian. But I think it's how we handle those areas and the way our world view colors our writing that makes the difference. So, yes, I do want to be very real in my writing, if not always safe.

Jill Kemerer said...

Who wants to read about perfect people? Not me! Yuck! My struggle is keeping the problems but making the characters sympathetic. I'm making headway with this book and it feels terrific.

Have a lovely weekend!

WendyCinNYC said...

I neither read nor write safe. If I'm having problems "going there" when it's important to do so for the story, I look to others who have done it well for inspiration. And guts!

Janna Leadbetter said...

Tamika - Welcome! Thanks for chiming in. I think we all need that redemption at times.

Melissa - You bring up such an important point. And I take it to heart that I can call on and expect His guidance. It's very important to me.

JLC - "... a good sign that you still have those morals." Absolutely. Thank you for pointing that out.

Lady - Wow! Brave girl, can't wait to see what you share about it.

T. Anne - I think it's good to have such goals. Go you!

FG - Certainly, some lines are double-bolded. I guess I could say those I beg to cross now are specific in relation to the human condition.

Nadine said...

I won't write what I'm not willing to read - a lot of stuff bothers me or makes me uncomfortable - but everything else is fare game.

Janna Leadbetter said...

Melanie - Me, too. I want to try getting at the root of people and their character. It's just good story-making stuff.

septembermom - Well, yeah! ^ That comment applies. :)

Cindy - I've been caught their, too, worrying what my readers will think. But maybe we should flip it a bit and say, We WANT our readers to think. Isn't that what it's about?

Jody - That word "real" keeps coming up. I'm flagging that as one of the most important factors.

Jill - I'm so happy for you! Keep up the good work.

Wendy - You've never struck me as one who'd hold back, and I admire that in many ways.

Janna Leadbetter said...

Nadine - You make me think there's something to be said for the difference between topics (like witchcraft) vs. a character who make a poor life choice. I know that seems generic, but we've all been there. Or know someone who has. And that's the kind of deep stuff I mean, not that everybody's boozing it up and calling hookers. But no one's life is perfect, and our characters' shouldn't be either.

Thanks for making me think of that point. :)

Janna Leadbetter said...

Well. That ^^ was a ramble. But maybe you can makes sense of my mispellings and the like.

Anonymous said...

I probably write safer than I read. I read anything, and the more dangerous, the better. I have trouble putting conflict in my stories because I'm a "fixer" in my real life. I want to make things better, so in my writing, I used to make everything very tidy and neat and it was booooorrrrinnnggg. I have come a very long way and while it is still outside my comfort zone, I've learned to make my characters' lives uncomfortable.

My first book had a sexual assault in it that felt very real. It was difficult to go there, and wore me out emotionally, but it gave the story the meat it needed.

Of course my need to fix things made me stop short of the actual act and rescue the woman seconds before... LOL

Karen said...

Good post. There are lines I won't cross, but without conflict and wrong, where is the problem? The scriptures are just full of them.

Must ponder on this for my characters.


Rosaria Williams said...

Yes, characters have their own lives, their own way of solving problems.

It's good for writers to stretch their wings.

Linda Hoye said...

I hear you, Janna. As a Christian I want to always be conscious of maintaining my witness in whatever I do. That said, there was only one perfect Person, and I'm far from that. I think that people relate more to what's real. And real life is not always picture-perfect.

Angie Ledbetter said...

Janna I'm doing the virtual Snoopy dance for you! You've sailed over a major hurdle. Dig deep and find those things all of us can relate to, the things of life, with all its warts and zits. You can do all that and still have your lines in the sand. Bra.vo and write on!

Lori said...

That's such a great question, Janna. I certainly do not read safe, because I like to be exposed to very different ideas, but in writing... I don't know, I probably stay safe, because I want to be liked, because I don't want people to think I am that kind of person... yeah, you've given me some food for thought.

Analisa said...

I too christian and at first I wanted all my characters to do the right thing.

I got free when I read Walter Mosely's book on writing called "This Year You Write Your Novel" He spoke about things that restrain our creative impulses. It let me know my characters do not have to always be likable, do the right thing or be safe.

Of course their are some things I will not ever write. There will be no sexually explicit scenes or cursing. It makes me more creative not to take what is really the safe route. My character has to be livid and convey anger without cussing. I have to talk about an affair in a way that is not explicit and doesn't glorify it and so on.

I think it actually makes us more creative. We buck the norm of what is often pushed into movies and books.

Deb said...

I think about this alot and worry that I have a tendancy to write a little too safely. Life isn't always safe and nice and to only show it as such isn't really an honest portrayal.

Joshua said...

darker is better

Kathryn Magendie said...

I think I used to write constrained or safe, but not any more....although, to some extent we are constrained to write "what sells" or what an agent or publisher will want....

Beth said...

Wow, Jana, love this post. I have struggled with some aspects of this dilemma as well. My characters are flawed and deal with their own demons (as we all do). I enjoy delving into different aspects of human nature and behavior and crafting believable characters that I weave into my storyline.

Deb Shucka said...

I think safety gets in the way of truth, but on the page and in life - regardless of your belief system. As always, I really thought-provoking post.

Janna Leadbetter said...

Sharla, that's interesting, how our personality - and to fix or not to fix - might play into our writing like that.

Karen - Oh, absolutely, because as the scriptures say, without the bad there would be no good. Good point!

lakeviewer - I for certain want to stretch mine.

Linda - Yes, we have to realize that; nothing is picture-perfect, and that's what makes it life.

Thanks, Angie. I appreciate it. :)

Lori - That may be one of the biggest hurdles as writers: realizing our writing doesn't define us.

Analisa - It's a healthy challenge, right?

Janna Leadbetter said...

Whether each individual likes it or not, Strange Fiction, right?

Josh - Why am I not surprised? ;)

Kat - Well, of course, that's a whole new ball o' wax!

Beth - I think we owe that to our readers, don't you?

Deb - Another true thought. Thanks for sharing. :)

Angie Muresan said...

I am a Christian too, but I'm also human. Life isn't safe, and anyone who thinks so is delusional. Things happen and we respond. It is such in life and it is such in books.

Jewel Allen said...

My last ms, I had my writer's group look at each chapter as I churned it out. I belief I wrote safe then, thinking of my immediate audience.

This time, on this novel I am writing, I have decided to write the first draft through without ANYONE looking at it first. And I am writing edgier than I normally would.

Janna Leadbetter said...

Angie - Blunt, and I like it. Very well put.

Jewel - I've learned that helps me, too. That I can better explore and find the edge if I don't have someone looking over my shoulder during the process. Good luck to you!