Miscellaneous · Writing Tips

Writing Tips: Dealing with Controversy

I live in Kansas City, and right now, if you watch the news, I’m sure you’ve heard of the recent tragedies that have happened here. I drive on the highways where the “Highway Shooter” is every day, and I live less than one mile away from the Jewish Community Center where three people died. In fact, I heard the sirens from my living room when it happened, and one of the victims went to Blue Valley High School, the same school I graduated from in 2009. But this isn’t about me. It’s about the effect it has on the Kansas City community.

I am reminded of how quickly a community can change, how the feeling of safety is a fleeting comfort, and how important it is to come together during this time. But I wanted to discuss an aspect of a writer’s life that these instances reminded me of that I’m sure many writers struggle with:

When we’re writing about sensitive issues, and they occur in real life – and occasionally, right down the street – we question ourselves.

I went through this when I wrote “Sean’s Bullet.” My military fiction story that was published in 2013: A Stellar Collection is fiction, but it deals with real-life issues, including friendly fire and PTSD. My recently published YA novel, Seconds Before Sunrise, deals with underage drinking and reckless driving. During this past week, I am going through some of the same thoughts I had when I was writing these stories.

Am I being true to the story? Am I not being sensitive to the victims? Am I portraying this respectfully and honestly? Am I over-thinking this? 

These thoughts run rampant through an author’s mind when they are facing a story with controversial events, but the answers are harder to find when the events are right outside your window.

My current manuscript – which I have yet to reveal – has a few instances where guns are used. Being a Kansas City resident during a time where we’ve had recent shootings and murders, creates a sensitivity to these things. I am a fantasy writer, but things that happen in fantasy can still happen in reality, and when that happens, it causes this pause – this hesitation that seemingly stops everything. For me, this pause is caused by guilt.

I feel guilty for having scenes that have affected real people. I want to find another way to entertain people in my stories. I break away from my story and question whether it’s right or not. But, eventually, I have to accept the fact that my story is fiction, that my scenes with violence or pain are not creating what occasionally happens in reality – near or far – and that I am doing my best to be a respectable artist.

So what can writers do when they face this issue?

I can’t tell every writer how to approach this. There is actually a lot of debate as to how to handle many controversial subjects in fiction, but I am not going to talk about what I consider appropriate because that’s my opinion. Instead, I’m giving advice.

1. Step away from your manuscript – when there’s an event that shifts your emotions about a piece, take a day and forget it. Then, return and think about it carefully. Is this event directly related to your work or is it just similar?

2. Cope with your emotions – This can include many types of coping. For instance, you can cope with a real-life event and then cope with an event in your fiction. You might realize they aren’t similar at all, and your thoughts will help you realize if your opinions have changed (or even if your characters’ opinions have shifted.)

3. Consider the actual event carefully – what makes it controversial? Who is affected by it? Have you personally dealt with it? Have you researched those who are affected by it?

4. Be willing to change but also be willing to keep it the same – sometimes bad things happen. Just because it’s in fiction doesn’t mean that it is directly related to something real. But if your opinions change, you might have to find a new way to go about a scene, and both are perfectly okay.

These things are very difficult to discuss. Even writing this blog post was challenging because these moments are very emotional, and we all react in our own way, but – in the end – we want to be respectful while pursuing our art in a passionate way. Every experience in our lives results in a lesson, good or bad, and it creates who we are. Personally, I have used my mother’s death as inspiration. Does that make me a bad person? No. It allowed me to cope in a creative way. That is me. I shouldn’t feel ashamed of it. But – at the same time – I strive to use that experience in a respectful manner. That’s all I can do.

I can either hide behind my guilt or I can embrace my emotions and pursue my art.

There are limits, but they are self-imposed, and every artist must decide what is appropriate for them and their audience. It is a responsibility of an artist, and it is one to be considered carefully.

I discussed this today with a heavy heart, but I wanted to open a safe place to talk about this, because I know many artists who struggle with the same emotions. If you’ve had an instance where you have dealt with this, feel free to discuss below.


17 thoughts on “Writing Tips: Dealing with Controversy

  1. I am so sorry to hear about what has been happening in Kansas – – I know that when people get scared it really does change the atmosphere and the attitude, of everything. Interesting thoughts about writing as well. One thing I haven’t been able to get over is writing love scenes, simply because I know my dad would read them! Isn’t that crazy! I’m 43 and need to get over that one!

    1. It is a very surreal feeling to see your home on the news. I think it’s really interesting to talk about what writers struggle with and how they overcome it or adjust it. Thank you for sharing your story! I would probably feel the same way if my dad read. lol :]

  2. I’ve thought about this when I hit a controversial subject in one of my books. You give great advice on what to do about it. It really does come down to be respectful in the portrayal of the topic. Something I do to help with the topics is I do research on them. For example, I read a little on PTSD when it was coming up for a character near the end of a battle-heavy book. Not just the wikipedia page, but finding articles on the topic and reading the comments to get more insight. Delicate subjects really do require more knowledge and cautious crafting today.

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. Yes, research is really important. Vital, even. If we – as authors – can talk to someone in person about something they’ve gone through, that is even better.

  3. I don’t think you can throw a stone without offending someone these days. It’s impossible. My first novel dealt with slavery and the beating of said slaves. I’ve been told that some scenes are hard to read, but at the same time, the scenes build truth to my world because they are true to our history and they make the book feel more real. The novel I’m working on now is set during the Salem witch trials. I worry about offending people because I am dealing with very hot spot issues of religion and wiccan beliefs. Am I scared? Yep. Is the fear enough for me to not want to write the novel? Nope. I’m. Writing. It. But, I am proceeding with caution and thickening up my skin for possible backlash.

    1. That is an excellent point to add. No matter how much research you do, or even if a topic isn’t controversial, chances are, you will offend someone. Thank you for sharing your examples! I think it helps to see other authors and their stories about controversial topics.

  4. No matter the topic, writers who put there work out there are open to criticism. I think you’ve been very thoughtful in your response to a tragedy. You could let it stop your work, or you could go on. It takes a certain amount of courage to continue, and I’m glad you have it in you.

  5. I’m a Kansas City writer, too, so this was a thought provoking post. My soon-to-be-released book deals with angels and a secret society, touching on religious hot buttons. That fear of upsetting readers grips me sometimes. At the same time, it’s the reason we’re writers–to explore the tough topics and raise questions. For me, fiction is a safer venue than most to do just that.

  6. Thank you for your tasteful, gracious, and honest perspective here. I’d like to add that, as a reader, seeing difficult and sometimes controversial topics in fiction is actually a very good thing. It helps me work through my ideas and emotions before coming up against these things in real life and helps me be better prepared when they do hit. So keep writing about the hard stuff; there are readers who truly respect you for it.

  7. I really loved this! I deleted my blog accidentally tonight, please re-follow and I’ll be reposting old poetry as well as new things!

  8. It’s not quite the same, but I’m currently considering the inclusion of a transgender character in my WIP, and I’m dealing with some of the same concerns. It’s mainly because I’m not transgender, so I’m really concerned about portraying the character in a realistic and helpful way. In present-day culture, people’s reactions can make transitioning really traumatic and touchy, so I have some similar anxiety about hurting someone with my writing. I’ll probably post on it at some point soon, but right now I’m just trying to do my research and find out what people who ARE transgender want to see in fiction, and what that character’s life might be like in the futuristic world of my novel.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your current situation and how you are going about it! I think it sounds like you’re doing a fantastic job, but I also think the scariest part is knowing that you will always offend someone (and no one WANTS that.) But – my opinion, of course – if you have earnest, whole-hearted intentions, then you’re a good writer.
      Best of luck. Please let me know how it goes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s