Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Don’t be Afraid of Embarrassing Your Grandmother

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d discuss an edgy topic: writing that embarrasses you or your family. In the past I’ve discussed the process of putting down on paper that idea that you’ve kept locked up. For some of you, what holds you back is decency.

Hm, never thought that would be a subtitle in my posts. Sex sells in books. You can find contrary opinions—some industry insiders will say that writers should censor sex scenes on behalf of tastefulness. But you only have to look to the booming market for paperback romances or the astronomical success of E. L. James's erotic series to know that sex sells.

Writers, and specifically American ones, squirm when it comes to writing sex scenes. There’s just something about the legacy that our Puritan forefathers passed down that makes us uncomfortable. In my own experience I’ve worked with many writers who just couldn’t quite discuss sex. I’m not suggesting that a writer must include sex in his or her novel, nor am I saying that you have to give the readers a blow-by-blow (so to speak) of the whole act. But I am telling you to not avoid it if it comes up, and not to worry about what your grandmother is going to think. Your readers want edgy writing, and if you’re not presenting it to them, then someone else is.

Violence is another subject where writers might censor themselves. It’s a difficult topic to discuss, and sometimes writers have to go to a dark place to convey that violence onto the page. However, this is another topic that sells—both in books and on TV. I couldn’t even begin to list off the number of crime shows that currently air, and authors like John Grisham, James Patterson, and J. D. Robb (Nora Roberts) have become household names. Perhaps even more illustrative is the YA novel The Hunger Games, a book about a dystopian world where twenty-four teenagers must fight to the death until only one remains. In case you’re wondering, nothing was censored. And it was wildly successful.

Readers like authors who take them to the edge. Authors who shock them, scare them, and push the limits. We’re far more perverse than we like to pretend—so indulge us.

Strange Ideas
What I mean by strange ideas are those stories that are unusual either because of the premise or the story arc. Maybe you’re writing about fairies and Druids in Iron Age Britain. Or maybe you begin your book with a normal main character who, by the end of the book, is a incubus slayer. I know, these examples are weird, but that’s my point. There is an audience for this stuff, but it’s probably not your relatives. That’s okay. You’re weird, welcome to our family! Us writers are a twisted bunch, so you’ll fit right in.

Have you noticed now that these three most uncomfortable topics for writers sell big time? Think of some of the most prominent genres: YA, romance, thriller/mystery/suspense, and sci-fi. Now compare it to my topics: sex, violence, and strange stories. There’s an almost perfect correlation. You shouldn’t be embarrassed about what your grandmother—or anyone else—might think about your writing because the market proves that there’s a profit to be had for topics you might cover. There will always be people who won’t like what you write. However, if you write a story in spite of rather than for them, you’ll have a much more satisfying product and potentially a larger audience.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services


  1. How about strange ideas about violent sex? Just kidding, though I have seen my share of books that deal with that.

    I haven't gone into any great details on sex in my works, but I have gone into uncomfortable places in the current work. My wife read it, and she's still talking to me, so that's a good thing. Our fears of what others will think is, I guess, one of the things that holds us back from writing them in the first place.

    1. Oh, I’ve also seen my share of stories that involve violent sex. I’ve also seen those that combine all three categories. Shocking, yes, but also unforgettable.

      I’m glad your writing hasn’t yet scared off your wife! Thanks for sharing—and definitely share your story once its published! You’ve piqued my interest!

  2. This is an interesting post. I've been thinking about a lot of this stuff myself, specifically about sex in YA books.
    This seems the tabooest of the taboos. Death in YA- accepted. Torture in YA- accepted. Everything else (no matter how violent-see Hunger Games) except sex- accepted.

    Sex- BOOM

    I'm not talking about graphic sex, of course, but sex as an idea seems to be completely avoided in most YA books I've read and I don't understand why.


    1. I’m completely baffled by it as well! There is an emerging genre, New Adult, which does include sex, but the target age is a little older, so it doesn’t really solve the taboo. I think it all comes down to American cultural taboos that specifically parents have about their teenage children. But that’s more a personal opinion than a professional one. :)

  3. So interesting, Laura! Thank God for NA, and may it grow ;)
    An example of the above ingredients that have become a smash success: On the Island by Tracey Garvis-Graves. Awesome book - quite the different story, has got the sex and even some violence. I'm also wondering if Cheryl McIntyre's Sometimes Never will get there. I hope it does! YA book that has no beef with sex (I applaud her for daring), and the vice of the MC is, to say the least.. different! I'm rooting for her.