Writing notes, and also some thoughts on horror vs. horrible fiction

>> Sunday, August 08, 2010

By way of writing news or updates or whatever, "The Fox Sisters," a short story, has been sent from the coop into the wilds, or rather submitted. We'll see how that goes.

In the meantime, I'm struggling with a draft that I may set aside for awhile, and have another finished one I'm revising that's causing me some problems.

The one under revision, "That Big Ol' Dog" is one I'm happy with--really happy with, but it's presenting me with some problems, or really a problem. The story is mostly a conversation between two men drinking beers, and the conversation is related to the reader very indirectly--we get a summary of what is said as opposed to whatever was actually said--until one of these two guys makes a confession (maybe), whereupon the story switches to a very traditional, direct mode for several paragraphs.

Now, here's the thing. What the guy has to say is pretty damn ugly. The story is a horror story, because that's the kind of thing I write and because that's the point of the whole thing. The guy's lines have gone through two versions already, after I decided the first time through that the stuff wasn't ugly enough. Now it's uglier, and I fret that it's too ugly.

So I'm thinking. And thinking. And thinking. I'm sure I'll have an idea soon--probably I'll step it down a notch.

But it raises an interesting question about writing (and perhaps reading) horror: at what point is there a line, or is there a line, between something being horrific and merely hideous? And on a related score, when is it more important to be fictional than true?

That last question may seem kind of strange to people who aren't artists and people who are for different reasons. The less artistically-inclined may be thinking that fiction by definition isn't true, while the artistically-ambitious may be thinking that all fiction is trying to get at capital-T Truth and fiction that isn't true therefore fails.

But a story is also, presumably, supposed to be entertaining. Unless one is writing exclusively and selfishly for oneself--masturbating, basically--you want somebody else to read (or listen or watch, depending on your medium). In a horror story, you might want the audience to be disgusted but not necessarily repulsed, horrified but perhaps not appalled. You want your reader to shiver and, if you've acquitted yourself well in the struggle to get words down, perhaps read the damned thing again; you don't really want the reader to feel like they need a shower or to wonder if they want your story even in the house.

Or probably you don't. I mean, this is (as a f'r'instance) my big beef against Chuck Palahniuk, probably best-known as the author of Fight Club. I wish I was half as gifted with a turn of phrase as Palahniuk is, and his take on postmodern angst is frequently interesting. And I love his embrace of a kind of tabloid-and-conspiracy-theory-fueled magical realism that owes more to the Weekly World News than it does to Gabriel García Márquez or whomever. But several years ago, specifically with the appearance of the short story "Guts" in Playboy (it later showed up in the anthology/novel Haunted (2005)), it seemed like Palahniuk had, for whatever reason, gone from using disturbing events in his work for artistic purposes to making them the entire point of the work altogether, in other words that all he was trying to do was get a rise out of the audience--preferably a rise of vomit at the back of the throat. (Which "Guts" allegedly has in fact provoked at some readings.) "Guts" is a vile story as opposed to a story about vile things.

I don't mind squicking out an audience, but I'd prefer them to get something else out of it, too.

In "Big Ol' Dog" I have a character who is a horrible person so he says a horrible thing, and at one point he's fairly explicit in his horribleness. This is a true moment when he does so, in that I think it's exactly what he would say and how he'd say it. So I can justify it, as far as it goes. But I also have to think that a reader is reading to get something more than that out of it, and having a fictive horrible person say the horrible thing a real horrible person would say may not be the best way to give the reader something more.

I'm not sure if I've conveyed that as well as I might, but maybe it's a starting point. At any rate, it's my current Big Writing Problem, moreso than pokiness about what else to write in the meantime as a next project, short or long or whatever.


Mrs. Bitch Sunday, August 8, 2010 at 5:59:00 PM EDT  

Fine Eric. Torture us with wondering if it's as bad as you think.

Actually, you bring up a really good topic here. Some of the most graphic, ugly stuff I've read in some really graphic, ugly thrillers/sci-fi books has kind of made me go, oh icky-poo!, shrug it off and continue reading without ever thinking about it again.

OTOH, things have stuck with me for, literally, years after I've read them (even well after I remember the book or author). One example was a story of a woman in an abusive relationship whose husband took her and her new puppy out for a boat ride. Of course, the LD'ed eunuch tossed the puppy overboard and motored away while the woman sobbed as she watched it swim helplessly after them until it was gone from sight. Not graphically violent, probably not horrifying to anyone but a dog lover, but it read true and sad and horrifying enough that I've always remembered it (from probably 25 years ago).

I think you're pretty safe in fiction getting just about as ugly as you care to. At least, I've always been able to separate fiction that MAY have some loose basis in reality from, say, a non-fiction account given by torture survivors. One is like watching Saw or any slasher flick - gross, but I won't lose any sleep over it. First-person reminiscing by Nazi death camp survivors or POW's is much, much more terrifying and horrifying to me.

Rachael Monday, August 9, 2010 at 4:14:00 PM EDT  

It's a tough call, particularly when you consider that your horribleness threshold is not going to necessarily be the same as some of the potential readers you want to reach.

I don't read a lot of horror because I'm kind of a wuss, so this isn't an issue I come across too much. The only example of something crossing the horribleness line for me was when I read American Psycho. There were two chapters in that book that made me - and I am not exaggerating here - physically ill. I couldn't get that book out of my house fast enough after I finished it.

But that's the thing. People still read it. A lot of people still read it. And while I actually read those two chapters in the bathroom because I thought I was going to throw up, they did work in the context of the book as a whole. I'm not going to go as far as to say that the story could not have survived without them, or even would not have been better without them, but they certainly made an impression about the main character that no other chapters made.

Me, personally, I never want to make my readers barf. But then again, I know other people who have read American Psycho and didn't have quite my reaction to it.

So the thing you have to ask yourself is really if the horribleness of the horrible thing the character says is:
1) Necessary to the point of the story.
2) Necessary to the character.
3) If your own personal discomfort is the sort of reaction you'll ultimately be looking for in your audience, and if so, are you really serving your story or your audience by toning it down?
4) Does the horribleness contribute or detract from the entertainment value of the story?

Particularly if the horribleness is a "yes" to 1 & 2, it's not really gratuitous then, I think.

Eric Monday, August 9, 2010 at 5:42:00 PM EDT  

Y'know, Rachael, your #3 strikes me as something I need to consider with "Big Ol' Dog," the story I've had misgivings about. I've taken out the lines that I worried may have crossed bounds and will probably see if anyone would accept the story without, but maybe I should consider putting them back in. #1 and #2 aren't at issue, I don't think, and I've been worried mostly about #4. But #3... hm....

Thank you for pointing that out!

Rachael Tuesday, August 10, 2010 at 12:42:00 PM EDT  

It also might help to get a second opinion. But the horribleness in and ship the story off to a volunteer to take a look at and see what he or she thinks. I bet you've got a lot of blog readers (including myself) that would be willing to take a look at it for you.

In my experience, random friend (or blog reader) type people aren't necessarily good for general proofreading, but they're GREAT for specific questions like, "Here, read this, does X thing in the story work for you?" And sometimes you really need someone outside of your own head to take a look at things and provide perspective.

mattw Tuesday, August 10, 2010 at 1:04:00 PM EDT  

The one thing that pops up when I think about something I've read that really turned me off was in Joe Hill's Heart Shaped Box. (editorial note: I was listening to the audio in the car, and I know that's a different experience than reading, but the words are still the same.)

This particular scene made me really uncomfortable and, while I didn't stop listening, I did think about it, and my opinion is that it was still way over the top.

OTOH, when I write, I try to be conscious of when I'm pulling my punches. I don't want to hold back like that in my story telling. I think it makes for a better story, and no matter what I write, there are going to be people that don't like it. Then again, gratuitous voilence, ugliness, vileness, is pretty obvious in story telling, film, etc.

I can count on one hand (and still have a couple digits to spare) the number of times I've attempted to write horror. But I do read horror from time to time. There are legitmately scary things out there that don't need that ugliness, and there are things that do. And people are ugly. People do ugly things to each other.

One time we went up to Lake Geneva for the day and there were a bunch of abortion protestors up there. They had a sign truck with big pictures of fetuses on them. At least one of the people I was with (another wannabe writer) was surprised that people would not only take pictures of that, but that they would display it in such a way. I wasn't surprised.

In the end, know that you can't please everyone, and you should do what's best for the story. But then I've never had a story published, so take that for what you will.

Eric Tuesday, August 10, 2010 at 4:38:00 PM EDT  

Having become a little bit of a Joe Hill fan (say, is the third volume of Locke & Key out yet, by the way?), which scene in Box was it that squicked you, Matt?

And Rachael: I may take that advice and see what folks think of the original.

And a big thank you for everyone--y'know, how the hell did I ever get such great folks coming 'round so often?

mattw Wednesday, August 11, 2010 at 12:24:00 PM EDT  

It's been a while, but if I remember right, the main character was kind of under the ghost's voodoo and his girlfriend was maybe performing oral sex on him and he was holding a gun to her head, something like that. He might have been watching a snuff film at the time too. Maybe I blocked the specifics out.

At the very least, that scene made me pretty uncomfortable, which I'm sure was the intention.

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