So I started reading a very hyped and much-praised YA novel the other day.
I got five pages in, then I tossed it across the room and stared at it like it was a rattlesnake.
The book had almost immediately hit my personal triggers, bringing up painful feelings and wretched old memories.
Uhhh, thanks but no thanks, much-hyped author. Which brings us to a discussion of triggers and why you should gently work them into the novel and not, say, bang people over the head with them on the first couple of pages of chapter one.
Whenever you’re going to write about something traumatic, whether it be rape or child abuse, co-dependency or cutting, victimization or violence, you have a choice in how you handle it. Some readers will always throw your book across the room, even if you work it subtly into the theme and story arc. The chances of that are a lot less if you’re truly compassionate towards your readers and not, say, going for the juicy squishy eyeball-kicks and buckets of gore and disgust dumped out in the beginning to “wow” your audience and “hook” them.
Personally, I don’t think that it’s appropriate to write YA novels that normalize bad relationships. Bella and Edward? That’s a sick sick relationship, people. Ms. Meyer should be ashamed of herself for normalizing stalking, obsession, and victimization. It isn’t criminal, but it is wrong . . . why would we want to inflict another generation with stupid sick ideas? Shouldn’t we model healthy relationships for them? Shouldn’t we show that abuse is WRONG?
I feel that, if we are going to use abuse and victimization in a novel, it should be immediately apparent that it is wrong. It’s like the study they recently did on children’s television shows. The study showed that children’s cartoons spent 20 minutes or so on Bad Things Happening and then only 5 minutes on the resolution and Oh That Was Bad, This is How to Fix it. But, since the kids spent 4x as much time watching the bad behaviors, all they remembered from the episode was the bad stuff. They didn’t remember the “good” resolution.
The same thing is going to apply with YA novels. If you normalize the abuse at the beginning and only have your character “break free” or “wake up from it” at the very end, which message do you think you’re really sending to your audience? Or worse, if you have your characters never understand that what they’re living is full of squick . . . that’s a gross negligence on your part.
I know that my opinions on this sort of thing are strong . . . but that’s because we owe the younger generation a better deal than what we’ve been giving them. And we should keep our readers in mind when we’re writing. They’re real people, not just figments of our imagination. What we present and how we present it are important considerations.
Trust me, if I could go back and redact almost everything I wrote before the past two years, I would. I didn’t make good decisions and I didn’t write with any integrity. I can only hope that most of it is lost to time and won’t surface again. It’s just plain embarrassing to have written such dreck.
Aim high, and if you can’t aim high then just aim for humane. Consider if you’d want your great grandchildren to read a piece before you write it. Even if you’re not going to have any descendants, the thought exercise is good. Would you be embarrassed by this in a hundred years? Would you want to hide under the table if one of your writing heroes read it out loud at a convention?
Write well, and write with forethought. Some things, you can never take back.