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faq: what i write


A few thoughts about trigger warnings

My colleagues over in NIWA are having a discussion about trigger warnings on our Facebook group tonight. I’ve added a little bit to that discussion at the level I thought appropriate, and would now like to come over here into my own space to go into a bit more detail about my stance on the idea in general.

I have seen a lot of sturm and drang about what trigger warnings actually are and what purpose they serve. There are a lot of folks out there who have negative opinions about them, but I don’t want to get into that; I already got into that in 2015, and do not need to do so again. The point of this post is to just talk about what I believe trigger warnings to be and what purpose I find them to serve.

There are two ways I can talk about this: as a reader, and as a writer.

As a reader, there are certain things that cause me to actually appreciate a thoughtfully worded trigger warning. For example, anything warning about sexual violence as a plot point. Due to my own history and that of more than one of my loved ones, the vast majority of the time, I’m really not going to want to engage with any story that involves sexual violence.

I would be overstating the matter to claim that such a story would trigger me; it probably wouldn’t, not in the way that I understand that word to be used when people talk about being triggered by things. But at the same time, I want to know before I actually start to engage with a story if there’s going to be rape involved or any other kind of sexual abuse–because if there are other aspects to that story that might counterbalance that and make me want to engage with it anyway, I want to be able to factor that in when I’m making my decision about whether to read or view that story.

Here’s a specific example. While I’m a big Marvel fangirl and have happily watched all the various Marvel movies, both seasons of Daredevil, and some of Luke Cage, I have specifically avoided watching Jessica Jones on the general grounds that I know that story’s about a woman dealing with having been sexually abused. And while I rationally understand that it’s a very powerful story and that in fact David Tennant by all reports does a brilliant job of portraying the bad guy, I also know that I would really not enjoy being a viewer of that story.

Again, it would be overstating the matter to say that it would actively trigger me, and I don’t want to disrespect the term by claiming it would. But I also will not dismiss my own less potent reactions. I know I wouldn’t want to engage with that specific story, so I won’t.

Also, let me emphasize that if I know a story has sexual violence in it beforehand, this doesn’t necessarily mean I’m not going to engage with that story at all. What it does mean is that I’ll probably go to greater lengths to find out whether it has other aspects to it that might counterbalance my distaste for that kind of plot and make me want to take that story in anyway. In the case of Jessica Jones, I read several reviews and recaps of episodes just to see whether the plot sounded like something I could deal with anyway, and to get a sense of what the fandom felt about the material over all.

With a book, I’d do much the same. If I’m looking up a book on Goodreads and I see a mention in the reviews on it that there’s sexual violence in the story, if there are other things about that book I may want to engage with anyway, I’ll take greater care before deciding whether I want to buy it. I might check it out from the library instead. And I’d go over the reviews for it in more detail, just to see what people have to say about it.

In short, a thoughtfully written trigger warning about sexual violence in a story is something I feel would let me make an informed decision about whether I want to deal with a particular story. And the key phrase here is “informed decision”.

I also don’t feel as though a trigger warning about some other thing (e.g., graphic non-sexual violence, e.g. a car crash, or whatever) would annoy me. The presence of a trigger warning on a story in general is not going to make me specifically not want to read it. It’d be a neutral piece of information for me, one that would not be immediately relevant to my own decision about whether to engage with a story. But I am totally fine with it being there for someone else to make that same informed decision.

Now let me talk about this as a writer.

To date, I haven’t written anything that I feel really warrants a trigger warning. As you might guess from the first part of this post, it’s extremely unlikely that I’ll ever write sexual violence into one of my plots. I’m not saying I never will, if a story presented itself that legitimately required it, but the bar for that story to clear would be very, very high. (In fact, as a younger writer, I actually tried working a rape plot into a draft of one of my earliest novels. It… did not work. And that’s a decision I do not feel I would make lightly now that I’m an older and more experienced writer.)

If I were to write something that would warrant it, though, I’d be thinking about how to present a trigger warning in a thoughtful way. I don’t feel like I’d make it hugely complicated or blatant–just a little note at the beginning of a story, to alert potential readers that “hey, this story has potentially sensitive items X, Y, and Z in it”. I also don’t feel like it’d be appropriate to go into too much detail, because spoilers are not a thing I want to throw out willy-nilly, but I could see myself inviting readers who do in fact need to know more to contact me directly.

Because really, at the end of the day, it’s all about that aforementioned informed decision. It might cost me a reader, who might say “well shit, I guess that story isn’t for me”. But on the other hand, it might also gain me a reader, who might say “oh dear, well, this one bit of the story sounds like it’ll be a problem, but I like these other bits so I want to read it anyway, and by the way, Anna, thank you for actually warning me in advance”.

‘Cause really, sticking a trigger warning on a story is going to cost me at most a few sentences worth of effort. Which, if you’re a writer writing a 100,000 word novel, really isn’t that much effort at all.

And if it happens to make a potential reader’s life a little easier, I certainly can’t see the harm in that.

Given the world we live in, I think we need all the little gestures of compassion we can get.


Public service announcement

Dara points out over here that amongst the Puppy crowd, who cry out for a return to the good old days of science fiction when they didn’t have to be uncomfortable with their reading, a principle complaint is that you literally cannot judge a book by its cover. That they are getting ambushed by SURPRISE GAY! or SURPRISE TRANSGENDER ISSUES! or SURPRISE GENDER EQUALITY! that is not clearly called out on the cover. Dara calls out, quite correctly, that this is supremely hypocritical from a crowd that also points and laughs at the concepts of trigger warnings and safe spaces.

On a related note, on his post Guided by the Beauty of their Weapons, Phillip Sandifer delivers an exquisite smackdown of why this is shockingly ignorant of the history of the genre. Challenging political and religious and social questions have been part of science fiction since its inception, and you can’t exactly ignore this, even if you happen to disagree with the questions that current prominent works are raising.

Me, I’ll just note this for the sake of anybody who might be blindsided by any of my titles. For official reference, books by me contain the following, in no particular order:

Women in positions of power. Who will often talk to each other, about things above and beyond the men in the cast.

Characters of color, often also in positions of power, and who will in fact survive to the end of the book.

Love stories. For values of ‘love story’ meaning that why yes, I’m likely to have primary characters who will in fact fall in love, and who are very likely to actually talk about their feelings with each other like grown-ups do, and who are also very likely to do heroic things for each other in the name of said love. Also, there will be smooching.

Queer people. Who are just as capable as the straight people of having loving, committed relationships, and who will also survive to the end of the story, and who will not be shoehorned into “they’re villains because they’re queer” or “they will become figures of tragedy and lose their loved ones because they’re queer.”

Characters who represent multiple religions and who nevertheless somehow manage to peacefully coexist right out of the gate, or who eventually FIND a way to peacefully coexist after their religious preconceptions have been challenged. When multiple religions are represented in a plot, characters on all sides will be explored.

Persons who find themselves troubled by one or more of these elements in a story are hitherto advised to look elsewhere for their reading.

This concludes today’s public service announcement.


General reminder and FAQ: Still not a romance writer

Actual thing said to me in email today: “I notice you do a fair amount of romance writing…”

To which I’d now like to issue the general reminder that no, actually, not a romance writer.

I am a romance reader, which is why I pay attention to the genre and often post about developments in it, such as my posts on the Ellora’s Cave v. Dear Author case. And also because hey, Carina is a Harlequin imprint and so I’m in contact with a lot of people who do write romance for Carina, and Carina authors are prone to showing up on Boosting the Signal. I love me some romance of assorted genres (historical, paranormal, Gothic, and romantic suspense), and I do believe strongly and proudly in owning my reading tastes.

(Also because Smart Bitches Trashy Books and Dear Author are bastions of awesomeness, and are responsible for helping me find the narrow band of romance I actually like to read, and for the aforementioned proud ownership of my reading tastes. Thank you, DBSA Podcast!)

And science fiction romance IS a thing, a hybrid of the genres. But despite my Carina covers, I’m not even writing SFR, really. I do write love stories, but the level of love story I write is comparable to what you’ll find in a lot of fantasy written by men.

Which is to say: I do have characters fall in love, but this is tangential to the plot and is not the primary driver of the plot. And I very, very rarely write sex scenes. When I do, most likely they will cut a fade to black before anything explicit happens. A romantic relationship by me, on camera, is mostly going to be some intense feelings (and by intense feelings I do NOT mean ‘spending several paragraphs talking about the character’s sudden case of lustypants’, because I find that boring), occasional smooching, and outbursts of daring and heroic activity on behalf of the party to whom a character is romantically inclined.

And yet, I still get mistaken for a romance writer. It’s an easy mistake to make, since I do read and follow the genre, and I post about it a lot. And because of my covers.

But I daresay that some of this is also how a lot of folks out there will all too often see “written by a woman” and automatically assume “must be a romance novel”. Women in SF/F get this all the damn time, and it’s tiresome. If you’ve seen my posts over the last couple years about assorted SFWA controversies, you should have a real good idea of how tiresome I find that attitude.

So in conclusion: not a romance writer, even though I’m a proud romance reader. If you’ve enjoyed reading Valor of the Healer and Vengeance of the Hunter, the favor I’d like to ask of you is this: tell folks about my work, especially people who might be looking at my covers and automatically assuming “romance novel”. Tell ’em “no, actually, she’s writing fantasy!”

I may write actual romance eventually. But I’m not yet. And if I do write something that actually qualifies as romance, believe me, I’ll be making that clear too. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be the first to write a romance with a folk musician as the hero or heroine. Because a well-played fiddle is sexy, yo. 😀