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Writing Dark Stuff

Writing Dark StuffAmanda recently wrote a post on getting rid of our writing filters and I’m still thinking about the topic.  My writing friends are not surprised when I pull a twisted, blackened story out of the stuff between my ears, but my relatives are always taken aback. I’m the responsible one, the nice one, the compassionate empathetic one. I laugh easily and smile often (regardless of my perpetual RBF). I look harmless.

But there’s a part of me that is happy to write stories that horrify my mother and make my children a little nervous. I research serial killers and psychopathology. I spent several months learning all I could about long-term captivity and Stockholm Syndrome. I don’t mind talking about autopsies and the Body Farm at dinner (I assure you they very much mind listening).

Joanna Penn has commented several times on her videos that people ask how such a happy, smiling woman can write about things like corpse desecration.  I understand how she feels. There’s something about the dark side that feeds my inner storyteller. I wish I could remember who said this (if you know the reference, please let me know), but someone commented that comedians are often quite depressed and people with bad childhoods often learn to entertain. He or she posits that people with normal lives or happy childhoods might wander into the blacker side of storytelling. I suspect most horror writers are quite normal. I don’t think, if you met me in person, you’d suspect I’ve written about a serial killer’s first time or the calculated revenge of pets.

My filters are to avoid writing anything that might offend family and more delicate friends. For the most part I don’t write gruesome, but turning off that filter on occasion has led me to a few pieces I’m quite happy to have written. The freedom to write what comes to mind is the best writing gift I’ve ever given myself (and credit is due to the Muses for encouraging it).

So why am I telling you this? It’s because I hope all writers will allow themselves space and time to write what comes. You don’t ever have to show it to someone or publish it, but putting the words down is a gift to your inner writer. I think there are two reason for that. The first is that you are getting beyond your filters and thoughts of “I can’t write that!” The second is  that, since writing begets writing, you are opening yourself up to other story ideas if you let yourself go.

I do have hard lines I don’t cross. Ever. But they are a choice rather than a filter imposed upon me by someone else. I hope that makes sense. This post is as much my reaction to Amanda’s encouragement as it is my hope for fellow writers. It’s written in first person because I believe we are not alone in our anxieties when it comes to the words we write. It won’t kill me to be vulnerable, right? And if it helps someone, so much the better.

What I want to say is to write what is in you to write. If that’s zombies, cannibalism, human experiments a la Dr. Mengele, or (insert squeamish thought here), then write it. Leave it in a corner of your hard drive forever if you want, but all writing is good practice and opening yourself up to writing without filters teaches your writer brain to be more forthcoming.


Have you written anything you feel might horrify someone close to you? How difficult was it to write?

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17 thoughts on “Writing Dark Stuff

  1. Hi Robyn, you’ve read my manuscript, so you know my novel is dark. I don’t know what my family/friends think because they haven’t read it yet. I’ll find out in January 2016 when I publish it. I stand by my story, because I didn’t write a dark story for gratuitous reasons. I wrote the story as it was meant to be. There’s darkness in this world, as well as incredible light.

    • Your novel is a great example, Marcy, and you do a great job of maintaining a balance between innocence and awareness. People react how they react. Some will see the the surface of a story and some will see the deeper truths. Hold out for the latter. 🙂

  2. Aloha Robyn,

    Good piece! And yes, I remember Amanda’s piece on filtering. You ladies have me questioning myself – good job!

    I was feeling bad about the filtering until I divided my writing into “things I write for other people” and “things I write for myself”. That cleared things up for me, somewhat anyway.

    The “things I write for other people” are mainly golf courses asking me for articles. Are these filtered? They are if I ever want to see them in print. Does this mean I am a “word whore”? So be it, it gives me friends in positions to help me.

    I also write newspaper articles – those should be unfiltered, right? Not a chance, there are style and language considerations. And there is never enough room, if I don’t filter it down to the desired word count the editor will.

    The ”things I write for myself” are currently short romance stories. Not many, but there are a few requirements on these stories – a 6,000 word length (required by me), no sex scenes (required by my marketing plan), and a happy ending (I believe required by the genre). Now 6,000 words is plenty of space to develop a character and show her overcoming some problem to find her happy ending, that is not a problem. And I believe she can convincingly get there without a sex scene. Is that filtered? If pressed, I would have to admit that it is. Oh my goodness, am I writing for a perceived market? Yep, I am.

    I write a blog too ( http://www.kauaigolf.me ). There I should be able to write whatever I want, totally unfiltered. But wait, one of the purposes of the blog is to give visitors another thing to show their friends back home. I have to make it upbeat and happy. So even that is filtered.

    Robyn. Amanda. The more I think about this filter thing, the more complicated it gets. You ladies have put me in a bind. I thought I did, but now I suspect that I don’t write anything totally unfiltered and simply for “myself”. I am going to have to sit down and try that, just see what comes out.

    A Hui Hou,
    Wayne

    • I agree that most of what we write is filtered. Certainly most of what I want to publish is filtered. These filters are expected and okay. Like you, I separate into “for others” and “for me.”

      I admit it took me years to be comfortable writing some of the dark stuff in my head and boy was I nervous the first time I let someone read the killer story. Fortunately for me, the first feedback I got was on the writing, not the subject, which allowed me to be more comfortable. I’ve grown as a writer because I let myself write these pieces.

      My real breakthrough in terms of unfiltered writing comes from keeping a regular and prolific journal for 32 years. Once I got over the fear that someone would read them, I could let it all hang out, as it were, and just write whatever came including ugly thoughts and attitudes I would never reveal to anyone. Still doesn’t make it easy to write fiction that would curl my mother’s hair, but I hope it will in time. 🙂

      We have to deal with the anxiety of someone else possibly reading what we or others consider “unacceptable” to get beyond the filters, but that doesn’t mean we don’t or shouldn’t apply our own standards to what we share with the world, right? I just think we’d do better to draft in total freedom and apply the restrictions of our choosing (rather than those of others) during revision.

      Authors publish for readers…an audience. We get to choose what we share, though. 🙂 I’ll keep writing the dark stuff as it comes because I know I”m learning better techniques for enhancing suspense and not revealing things too soon for the reader.

    • Aloha, Wayne!!

      I wouldn’t say that the pieces you have in the category “Things I write for others” as being filtered, but being more tailored to that audience with the voice YOU want to portray to them. You are writing those pieces for a purpose. Having a bunch of swear words scattered about really doesn’t help move the piece towards your goal because that isn’t your voice. However, if you are the “Howard Stern” of golf, then you are going to want to have that kind of language. And, with what you say about writing newspaper articles, you are right. You can write that article the way you want, but sadly your editor is going to hack it to the agency’s standards.

      When you write in the category “Things I write for myself”, I don’t think you are filtering yourself there at all either. Not wanting to add a sex scene to your romance piece means that you don’t feel that scene will move the story. To add it would be wasted writing space. So I am going to tell you — NO, you are not filtering yourself. You are writing for the needs of the story. Now, if your MC is some kind of succubus daemon, you and I would be having a different conversation because sex and manipulation is the pure makings of that creature.

      By the way, I completely believe that a female protagonist can achieve her HEA in a Romance story without having sex. That is not filtering, that’s my women’s liberation speaking unfiltered!

      You are right, this is a complicated, grey area to writing. The writing process isn’t black and white because everyone is unique and has different perceptions. And everyone has different lines in the sand that they won’t cross. I will continue to say: Do not allow others to tell you what lines you can or can’t cross. Write the story that YOU want to write. Cross whatever lines YOU want to cross.

      Have a great weekend!!

  3. I have just recently written my very first horror scene. And although I may never release it out into the great big world for others to see, I know inside that it was the right thing to do, to expand my boundaries, remove those filters, and experiment in a genre that has always been “taboo” for me, for whatever reason. The funny thing is, it wasn’t the actual content that emerged the surprised me. Rather, it was the acknowledgement and willingness to go places that have not yet been explored that proved to be most enlightening. Thank you, Robyn – and Amanda 🙂 And great reference to Joanna Penn! She is also a wonderful resource and a delight to listen to – in her creative freedom course, podcasts, and other material on her site!

    • Congratulations, Dave! I am happy you were able to allow yourself to go there… wherever your expansion of boundaries took you. It is perfectly acceptable if you never share what you wrote to the masses. However, I’d love to read what you wrote 😉

      • He he he, well dark to me is probably sugar plums and fairies to you 🙂 That’s a compliment, by the way! But, maybe I will post that scene somewhere along the way, who knows? 🙂 Thanks for the inspiration and motivation, have a great weekend!

        • I like those kinds of comments! Thank you 🙂

          When you do post it, make sure you send me a link so that I know. I have been slacking a bit in keeping up with reading everyone’s blog. I’m a bad person…

  4. Great post and thank you! I am very happy you dropped your “filters” because you have some good dark thoughts that need to be shared with the world!

    You nailed exactly what I was alluding to in my last post: “It’s because I hope all writers will allow themselves space and time to write what comes. You don’t ever have to show it to someone or publish it, but putting the words down is a gift to your inner writer.”

    Writers should stop writing what the world is telling them to write, and write what THEY want to write. And it is perfectly acceptable to have lines that are not crossed because YOU as the writer cannot personally cross them–not because *someone* is telling you to not cross. Believe it or not, I have lines that I will not cross and that is because I cannot personally write on those topics.

  5. I just want to note that there are many topics people might consider taboo. The trigger warning topics of abuse, molestation, rape, and others, of course, can make a writer anxious. Then there’s killing, dismemberment, and the bloody fare of horror. Sex, shame, terminal illness, demons, depravity, revenge, dark rituals, drug abuse, homelessness, ghosts, cults, infidelity, and the common horrors of being eaten by animals or buried alive. And so much more.

    As a writer, part of me thinks “people will wonder how I know that feeling,” or “people will think this is autobiographical,” and that’s possible, but not so likely. As writers we can assign an emotion we’ve felt to a character in an entirely different circumstance. That’s what “writing what you know” means to me.

    Being willing to delve into those emotions and topics if so led are what it means to write without filters. Sometimes it’s just cathartic scrap paper. Sometimes it’s a powerful scene that sucks a reader in.

    Dave said “The funny thing is, it wasn’t the actual content that emerged that surprised me. Rather, it was the acknowledgement and willingness to go places that have not yet been explored that proved to be most enlightening.” That’s exactly right. It’s like giving yourself access to hidden material you never knew existed. More importantly, it stretches us as writers. I’ve learned a lot of craft in terms of foreshadowing, keeping the reader in just enough dark, building tension, and more.

    It’s hard (and scary) to write beyond our natural filters, but sometimes that’s where the best stuff is.

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