This is the second post in my series recapping the Life, The Universe, and Everything 2017 writer’s conference held in Provo, Utah earlier this year. Part 1 is here.
Tackling Sensitive Subjects
This was an interesting panel addressing the question of how writers should deal with sensitive subjects in their fiction. (Hopefully, I haven’t misrepresented anyone’s views due to my hasty note taking.) The first point is that things that don’t matter aren’t sensitive subjects, so if you’re writing about something that matters, there’s going to be potential for readers to get upset and you should be prepared for their reactions.
Mary Robinette Kowal said that when women are harassed the first time, they usually freeze up because they don’t know what to do. Writing about sensitive subjects gives readers a script so they have a better idea of what to do when they find themselves in a situation like this. (She also likes to write about happy couples because that gives readers a script for how to have a happy relationship.)
However, you shouldn’t make your message too obvious because readers will push back against it. It’s better to be subtle. Raise questions, but don’t feel like you have to answer them. No subjects are off limits when it comes to fiction, but that doesn’t mean every author is qualified to write about every subject. Write for people, not about people.
Sandra Tayler said issues books aren’t for the person who is mentally ill, but for their friends and family. Be prepared for reader reactions to sensitive subjects. If something is hard for you to deal with, you’ll need to deal with it again each time a reader talks to you about it. Schizophrenia is different for everybody, so don’t try to make it universal, make it a particular person’s story. If you want to write about a particular mental illness, online support groups are a good place to research.
By way of illustrating how influential a book can be on society, Dan Wells said One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest seemed to present mental illness as a choice and this led to society not caring about mental illness as much, which led to Reagan defunding state institutions. (I’m a fan of Cuckoo’s Nest and don’t think it presents mental illness as a choice, so I looked this up and came across an article that said Cuckoo’s Nest may have contributed to the decline of state institutions because it showed what horrible places they were, not because it made light of mental illness. Either way, the point that literature can have an impact on society remains.)
Not only does fiction change the wiring in our brains, but people also pattern their lives after fiction. Danny Potter said romantic comedies contribute to divorce since they present people breaking up any time a relationship is less than perfect. He also said that method actors and method writers sometimes get so deep into a character that it rewires their brain.
Danny Potter also said you shouldn’t write when you’re angry because anger limits your cognition, reaffirms your current view, and limits rationality. You’re more likely to view your opponent as evil and not respect their right to have a difference of opinion. We should all seek to understand before seeking to be understood. People won’t listen to you unless you listen to them first. (Mary Robinette Kowal replied that you should write angry because anger is honest, but you should edit while calm so people will actually listen to you.)
I didn’t take as many notes for this panel, but it was about the difficulty of classifying works that don’t fit exactly into one genre or another. L.E. Modesitt Jr. said that Anne McCaffrey insisted her dragon riders series was Sci-Fi, not fantasy. He also mentioned that having worked in government, he knows that Washington D.C. is a safe zone where spies never get killed, but books get this wrong all the time.
Dan Wells said Dune is fantasy, David Boop said Star Wars is fantasy with a Sci-Fi feel. David Boop also mentioned that The Big Lebowski is a comedic retelling of The Big Sleep, which I hadn’t heard before, but makes a lot of sense.
It’s a good idea to mix genres together to avoid cliches, however, if a book is too unique, it’s hard to sell to traditional publishers. If you end up with a book that’s too unique, you’ll need to self-publish it. Most readers don’t like it if you diverge too much from a genre, so give readers hints along the way if there’s going to be a twist (such as a realistic story suddenly becoming supernatural half way through).
Making a Living on the Macabre
This was another great panel that I didn’t take too many notes for. Cheree Alsop said writing is personal. You shouldn’t critique to tear down, but to help. Writers need to have a thick skin. David J. West admitted he killed off someone in a book who left him a bad review once.
Courtney Alameda writes horror partly as a way to vicariously deal with the horrors of real life. Her forthcoming novel Pitch Dark is partly a reaction to Trump’s negative comments about Mexicans, which made her upset because she has Mexican family. She’s often asked how an LDS woman can writer horror. She said the reason is she was raised half Catholic and Catholics focus a lot more on evil. The scare is only part of horror though, there’s also the release, the feeling better when it’s over.
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