1. zoupskim
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    zoupskim Contributing Member Contributor

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    Violence, self-censorship, and publishability

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by zoupskim, Jan 26, 2016.

    In my story a negotiation goes bad an both sides open fire.

    A building gets set on fire and many people get injured, including children and elderly. I describe the atrocity with a lot of detail, including the rescue of amputees and burn victims. Here's a small sample:

    The mass of burning and melted material assaulted her senses as soon as she entered the room. The large area she swept her weapon into had no shape anymore. It was a burning nightmare, the screams of dying and burned people filling the hot air. Dozens of blasted men, women, and children lined the walls and floors. Some were already wounded, casualties from the scuffle in the station house, while so many more were fresh. It was chaos. Unhurt people scrambled around madly, trying to help the people burnt from the grenadier barrage. Countless men and women were laying on the floor in pieces, their bodies seared in half, arms missing, legs split open, heads missing. Many were screaming, some were already dead. One woman struggled to reassemble her blasted child. An adolescent stared at a burn mark on the floor.

    My question is about publishability(is that a word?) Do publishers shy away from grotesque descriptions of things like this? My story is about war and all, but my goal is to get it published. Should I refrain from extreme depictions of violence? The entire scene is literally about five paragraphs, then we pull back to character interactions and reactions. The violence is viewed as horrible by the characters, but is that justification for actually writing it?

    I know worse things have been depicted in media, but I am going to be trying to sell my first book. I don't have any clout to back up my work.
     
  2. LostThePlot
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    LostThePlot Contributing Member

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    In this day and age I would say that it's less about an abstract idea of what is and isn't o, it's about the tone and theme of your book. If it's a grim and gritty story, one with horror themes or touching on man's inhumanity to man? Go nuts. If not, eh, maybe less so. Even if you are setting up a really sharp contrast between the kinda happy go lucky parts before violence and the stark horror of people dying beside you; I would probably say you can go too far in pushing the horror. At some point you go out the other side and it becomes ludicrous and funny instead of all serious, so especially when you are contrasting it with something more fun or even funny, yeah I'd step back a little to make it clear that it's supposed to be a big deal not an Evil Dead movie.

    In short - Most of the time when someone is asking you tone stuff down they aren't trying to censor you, they're trying to tell you that it just doesn't fit. Don't even think about censoring yourself, think about writing a good book with cohesive themes and consistent tone. As long as the action fits your book you shouldn't have a problem. Some agents and publishers simply aren't interested in grim and gritty stuff no matter what but it won't just be the violence that's the problem IMO. You can get books set in Birkenau and Rwanda published; it's context that matters.
     
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  3. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    There are lots of books with disgusting passages - I don't think it's a bar to publishability on its own.

    But I do think you need to be even more careful that you do things well. Whenever you call a lot of attention to something by including details, a lot of attention is going to be paid. So in your passage, for example, I'd want it to be more clear what's going on. I might have got that from the context, but based just on the passage, the building's still on fire, there's apparently an exit (since the POVcharacter just came in) but there's no panicked escape attempts? And I've never been in a currently burning building, but my impression is that smoke generally limits visibility to a couple feet, so seeing a panorama like this feels unlikely.

    So, no, gory isn't out. But anything that's written in detail has to be written with good details, so if you're unsure of things, less detail might be better.
     
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  4. Raven484
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    Raven484 Contributing Member

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    In the real world, how would you describe a scene of a bombed building without being grotesque. Carnage is carnage. The more real you write the scene, the easier I think an editor will except it. Just as long as it is not a young adult story, you should be fine. Nothing above offended me, I think you described it well, I have a distinct picture of your scene in my head. I think that's what you want a reader to have. Just my opinion.
    I also agree with Bayview in that you would probably not see as much if the building was still on fire, the aftermath for sure.
     
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  5. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Judging solely from the paragraph you posted, I'd say definitely shorten your description. 5 paragraphs of the same is too much. I don't mean too much violence. I mean too much detail and it's gonna get boring - you'll lose the impact you're going for if you harp on about it too forcefully. The paragraph you posted also sounds a little like a list at times.

    I've highlighted in red what I think amounts to repetition, as well as a generalisation that, while it is not unsuitable, does not necessarily have the impact you're going for when used so many times. The fact that the sentence structure you use is very similar in every sentence is what makes it sound a little like a list. Your paragraph below:

    The mass of burning and melted material assaulted her senses as soon as she entered the room. The large area she swept her weapon into had no shape anymore. It was a burning nightmare, the screams of dying and burned people filling the hot air. Dozens of blasted men, women, and children lined the walls and floors. Some were already wounded, casualties from the scuffle in the station house, while so many more were fresh. It was chaos. Unhurt people scrambled around madly, trying to help the people burnt from the grenadier barrage. Countless men and women were laying on the floor in pieces, their bodies seared in half, arms missing, legs split open, heads missing. Many were screaming, some were already dead. One woman struggled to reassemble her blasted child. An adolescent stared at a burn mark on the floor.​

    I'd personally say keep it succinct. It's ok to be graphic. What you have written is not really graphic per se - you make graphic suggestions, but due to the sweeping generalisations you make, it is actually not very graphic at all. The most graphic sentence, for me, was: One woman struggled to reassemble her blasted child.

    That line is succinct, physical, and I can see it all too well. That's graphic. That horrific hone of attention onto a single piece of detail that you cannot get out of your head. That's graphic.

    "People screaming and bodies strewn the floor" is not. (I know that's not your exact phrase, but what you wrote amounts to something similar)

    Anyway off to bed so sorry if my tone's a bit short. I actually rather liked what you wrote :D The blasted heads and limbs line was nice. (eg. a generalised description that works well I believe)
     
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  6. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Personally, I didn't find that paragraph all that horrific, although I'm sure the incident itself was. The problem is that the tone you've chosen reads like a report in a newspaper, and there is virtually no emotional reaction to the scene by your POV character. It's impossible to tell from that paragraph what this woman who is holding the weapon's thoughts and feelings are. The tone is far too impersonal to elicit any real feeling of horror in the reader.

    If you were to describe what the woman who was attempting to reassemble her blasted child was actually doing, this might be an image that would never really leave the reader's mind. What did the woman's expression look like while she was doing this? What parts of the child was she trying to put back together? Was she trying to tie limbs back on? What, exactly, was she doing? If this is told strongly, with detail, through the viewpoint of the POV character, it will have more impact.

    (Character's name) finally realised the tiny woman with the charred face and missing upper lip was painfully attempting to fit a child's eye back into its socket. The eyeball kept oozing back out. It was coated in dirt from the scuffed floor, and it was no longer possible to tell what colour the eye had been, but the woman seemed unable to stop trying. (Character's name) narrowed her own eyes to slits, in a vain attempt to shut out the sight. She had allowed her rifle sag almost to the level of her knee, but she lifted it again in a show of determination, in case (her supervisor) was watching. Its weight was now almost too heavy to bear.

    I think any depiction of violence is acceptable (and publishable) in a story if it isn't there just to give readers blood and gore to slaver over :( but is put there to add meaning to the story. The stronger the reaction you can provoke in the reader, the more you can do with that reaction as the story progresses. If you just tell us that limbs were lying around and people were screaming, etc, that doesn't do much to get us upset. The violence that gets presented to us in detail via a POV character's emotional reaction is the strongest way to get us to react as well.
     
    Last edited: Jan 26, 2016
  7. Cave Troll
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    Cave Troll Bite the bullet, do your own thing. Contributor

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    There is viable violence that is a part of the plot or the characters traits. And then you have senseless violence for shock value, that has little to no reason for being there in the first place.

    I am still working on a war story where the violence is primarily tied to the plot and is not done for shock ( and it gets fairly graphic). As well as having a character that is trying to reform from their ways of being a sadistic being, but slips up on occasion due to emotional triggering based on the situation and needs. Again this is a part of who the character is despite trying to abstain from being that way.

    Make it fit in and have purpose, have a tone and don't use it to simply use it. (the same could be said for sex, but that is for another day) :D
    So use it all you want as long as it has a point. Nobody likes pointless things.
     
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  8. zoupskim
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    zoupskim Contributing Member Contributor

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    First draft, so you cannot offend me. :D
     
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  9. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    Your story is about war; I'd be a bit put off if it pretended it wasn't graphic and gruesome. I'd worry primarily about redundancy, as others have pointed out - it could come off anvilicious if you go on and on about how horrible it is, and I find that brutal minimalism is more likely to have the intended "oh god that's horrible" effect, like Mckk said.

    As far as publishability goes (definitely a word) - realistically, unless your manuscript ends up chock full of this kind of thing to the point that it's defined by descriptions of gore, it'll just get a note along the lines of "let's dial this back a bit". It's not the kind of thing that gets you rejected until it becomes a novel about what viscera and recent burn victims look like. Though hey I'm sure there's a market for that too if you want to go all in, hahah. Don't sweat it.
     
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