Writing Excuses 15.48: Deliberate Discomfort, Part Two
Key Points: Have you been uncomfortable writing something? Writing about my own bad mental health issues. Writing about fitting into Canada as an immigrant. Trying to write live in front of an audience. Having someone reading over my shoulder while I’m writing. An explicit lead in to a fade-to-black scene. How do you do it? Remind yourself that your audience doesn’t have the same experience. Read and analyze how some other author does it. Some lines I’m not likely to cross, but others… The most uncomfortable scene for me to write was a spanking, a disempowerment of an antagonist. How do you decide to include something that makes you uncomfortable? Basically, if I think the book needs it, try it. Then look and see if it works. Think of an actor, inhabit the character and write from their perspective. I have two lines, one for things I don’t do, but it’s not wrong for my characters to do, and another for things that I probably won’t depict in detail.
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 48.
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Deliberate Discomfort Two, with Mahtab Narsimhan.
[Howard] Fifteen minutes long.
[Mahtab] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Brandon] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mahtab] I’m Mahtab.
[Brandon] And I’m Brandon.
[Dan] Awesome. We are recording this live. When this airs, you will be able to go and look up a YouTube video and watch us do this. But right now, we’re very excited to be talking about deliberate discomfort. We didn’t episode on this topic earlier in the year that focused on writing things that are uncomfortable for your readers. Topics like sexism or racism or things like that that you know could be triggering issues for your readers and how to handle that appropriately. This episode, we’re going to focus on writing things that are uncomfortable for you as an author. Maybe that is a sex scene, or maybe you got a character who swears a lot, something that you’re worried your mom is going to read or that a character does or thinks something that you would never say, but your character does. All of those kind of questions. So what I would love to start with is actually just asking our podcasters if they have some experience they want to share where they had to write something that kind of made them uncomfortable to write it.
[Howard] The best example I can offer for me is the piece that I wrote for the… I’ve forgotten the title of it, the Robison Wells benefit anthology.
[Dan] Altered Perceptions?
[Howard] Altered Perceptions, called No, I’m Fine, in which I was writing about a bad mental health episode that I had. As I began writing, it began to hurt. I mean, it was actually physically painful. The sensation that I sometimes get when I’m depressed is that I’m so sad that I’m feeling pain. There’s a physical pain associated with it. As I was writing, I was excited to sit down and write, because the story was in my head and I was good to go. But putting the words on the page was painful. Sandra and the kids, we were taking a little spring break at a cabin, and they had gone to see… They’d gone out to see the sights or something. They came back and Sandra took one look at me and was like, “What happened to you?” I said, “Well, I wrote for two hours and this piece is done and it’s beautiful and please don’t ask me to ever write this again because it hurts so much to do.” After having done it, pretty much all of the other things I’m afraid to write about because they make me uncomfortable, I sort of shrug off and I’m like, “Eh. When the time comes I need to do ’em, I’ll do ’em because I’ve already eaten the live spider today. Everything else is easy.”
[Dan] So, to be clear for people who aren’t familiar with that other anthology, this is kind of a first-person perspective on your own mental health issues and not wanting to have to rely on medication for them.
[Dan] Which was very painful to write.
[Howard] I can link to it in the writer notes. It’s free for people to read now.
[Dan] Awesome. Brandon or Mahtab, have you got an experience of writing something that was uncomfortable or painful to write?
[Mahtab] Yeah. I can definitely relate to that. A few years ago, a friend, a writer friend, had asked me to contribute to an anthology. This is the only nonfiction piece that I’ve ever written. But it was about stories about fitting into Canada as an immigrant. I was like, “Yes, sure, no problem. I’ll write it.” But as I actually started writing it, I just found myself being so uncomfortable because there were so many painful things about fitting into Canada, not knowing the people, of course luckily language is not an issue. But just… Some of the stupid things that I did. I just remember that I really had to dig deep to be able to write my experience of how I spent the first year out here, not knowing people, working a job for a very long time and then… It was actually cathartic when I finally finished writing it, but I found myself cringing, very, very uncomfortable. But I think the main thing is I pushed through it, and it was one of the best things that I wrote.
[Dan] Oh, that’s awesome.
[Brandon] For me, it’s a little bit different of an experience I want to share. What I… Probably the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been when writing was when I tried to do it live in front of an audience. This was at Jordan Con. They… We were going to run a charity drive for Worldbuilders. Pat Rothfuss was the guest of honor at Jordan Con that year and I thought we’ll just do a kind of live writing session where I brainstorm with a crowd and start writing a story and we did it on Twitch. Then, Pat would stop by and answer some questions, and I thought this would actually be easy for me for two reasons. One, in my class, we often do live brainstorming sessions where we come up with a story. So I thought I’ve done this before. Number two, I’m not very precious about my early draft. I released Warbreaker, one of my novels, chapter by chapter as I wrote it. It doesn’t really bother me for people to read unpolished work of mine. So I thought these two things would combine together. I found it enormously uncomfortable to be writing… For whatever reason, it was the idea that there were now several thousand eyes looking over my shoulder at everything I did. Even when I present an unfinished draft to people, it’s at least something that I’m aware of what it is, right? I’m comfortable with it and I say release this. As I’m writing, I’m not sure what’s going to come out. I’m not sure how things are going to flow, how the words are going to look. It was really, really uncomfortable. To the point that I’ve never done another one again. Despite raising $1000 for Worldbuilders, I think, during that session, which was pretty good.
[Brandon] It shocked me by how uncomfortable I was.
[Dan] That makes a lot of sense to me. That is, for me, one of the most violating feelings in the world is knowing that somebody’s reading over my shoulder as I am writing. If my wife comes into the office, or one of my kids comes in, I have to stop, because I can’t write while someone’s looking at it. It feels so wrong. I don’t know how to explain it. Some of my own experiences… The one that I wanted to point out was my most recent novel, Ghost Station, which is a Cold War spy novel on Audible. There is a… Not a sex scene, but definitely a fade-to-black, these people are about to have sex, kind of scene. Which I’ve never written before. Even as lightweight and as preliminary as it was, it took a lot for me to put that in there. The explicit this is what’s about to happen, we all know it, that’s put this in this book. Maybe it’s because I come from a primarily YA background, maybe it’s because I am a very religious person, I don’t know what it was, but it was hard for me to write that. It’s interesting to me that it was harder for me to write that then to write all of the grisly murder stuff that’s in my horror novels. But there are certain lines that are harder to cross then others. I think that’s very individual.
[Dan] So, as you were working on these, as you had to write these uncomfortable things we’ve been talking about, what did you do? How did you psych yourself up? Or what did you tell yourself that says, “It’s okay, I can do this?”
[Brandon] One thing, for me, while I was working on this thing, like, as it became uncomfortable, I had to keep telling myself, no one else thinks that this is awkward. Right? Like, no one is pointing and saying, “Oh, you typed that word wrong, how can you possibly…” All of these things that were going through my head, they weren’t true. Despite them being valid emotions, I could counter them with a little bit of logic and saying, “Look, people are enjoying this. This is what they expected when they showed up. Yes, it’s uncomfortable for me, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a bad experience.”
[Mahtab] Yeah. For me, I don’t think I’ve still managed to write… I mean, though I write mostly middle grade, I did attempt a YA a few years ago in which I did want to write some sex scenes, but it was so badly written and it… I mean, I’m lucky… I’m so glad that the book is not sold yet. But it was hard. So I started reading other books to see how well they did it. I love the way Diana Gabaldon writes her Outlander series. It comes so naturally, her… I mean, her sex scenes are fantastic. I was like… That’s… I’m not cringing reading that because it’s so well-written, and it’s… It just sounds so natural. All I can say is I have still not discovered exactly how to do that because a great part of my culture is such that we did not have open discussions about this. We don’t have talks about sex or body or feelings and stuff like that. So it’s really hard as a writer to make myself do that. So, I’m still struggling with it, and maybe at some point in time, I might pull out my YA book again and see if I’ve become braver. But, at the moment, I’m so glad that I’m in the MG world and I don’t have to cross that line.
[Dan] I want to ask Brandon, speaking of sex scenes, I remember when you were kind of given the reins of the Wheel of Time, there was a lot of discussion about this online. Because the Robert Jordan books did have… I mean, not like erotica, but there were sexual situations which up to that point readers did not think that you could write that kind of stuff. Outside of maybe one scene in the Mistborn series, you hadn’t really written that kind of stuff. So, how did… What did you do to kind of get into that, to ease yourself over that obstacle?
[Brandon] Honestly, it wasn’t hard for me. I have a certain threshold that I just personally am not likely to cross. Perhaps that will change. Wheel of Time had never crossed that, reading it, for me. Right? Wheel of Time does mostly fade to black. With some… A little bit of explicit things before. Actually, way more uncomfortable for me… I’d say the most uncomfortable scene for me to write in the Wheel of Time was a different one, which is… There is a scene where a character takes another character over his knee and spanks her.
[Brandon] Maybe it’s a woman that takes a character over… Anyway. They… It’s an intentional disempowerment of a female antagonist. He had written for me to do this scene. I think I probably would not have put it in if I were writing it today. It just made me uncomfortable, because I thought this feels like the wrong way to disempower a character. But this is a book series kind of from another generation. This sort of thing had been more common in the Wheel of Time. It’s not something that I commonly put in my books. The sex scenes, two characters consenting who are in love, that didn’t bother me. Right? Now I have different standards in my life, but I think that this is kind of what life is about. We choose our lines and we think about them and we may change them as we go through life. That’s what life is for. Someone having different lines for me just means that they’re looking at this differently. Certainly, I didn’t have a problem writing those scenes. But something like that… Does that make sense? Like, in that case, I think it’s a different thing. I think, looking back, because I was a newer author then, I think I would have gone to Harriet and said, “I just don’t think this is the right way to disempower a character. I would rather not put this in the book.” And see what she said. So there’s an example of something uncomfortable that I’m writing that I think perhaps should have nudged me the other direction and not had it be in the book.
[Dan] That is great. I definitely want to have a discussion about that. But first, we need to do our book of the week. That’s actually me. I’m doing not a book but a role-playing game. This is one that some of you may have heard of, because it has an Amazon series. It’s called Tales from the Loop, which is a really neat kind of 80s nostalgia weird science fiction game. The reason that I thought it applied to this topic is because it doesn’t have traditional hit points or damage or anything like that. But as bad things happen to your characters, you instead take conditions. Those conditions are things like upset, scared, exhausted, injured. Then the way that you get rid of those, the way you heal yourself, is that you have to go and have a conversation, a meaningful conversation with an important person in your life. Which just feels like a really fascinating way, in fiction, to deal with those kinds of trauma issues and, for players and authors to work through those through the kind of role-playing improvisation. So, Tales from the Loop. It’s by Free League. It’s a really great game. That’s our book of the week.
[Howard] All my characters are going to be dead by act two.
[Dan] All right. So, let’s get back to what Brandon was talking about, because I think that’s really interesting, this discussion of everyone has lines they won’t cross, and what I really think were talking about in this episode is what happens when my characters have lines that are different from my own. I need, I have decided as an author that this person is going to use words that I don’t or this person is going to do something that I would never do. That makes me uncomfortable, because those lines are different. So I want to ask, first, how do you make that decision when you’re writing a story that you really want to include something that makes you uncomfortable? How and why do you decide that?
[Howard] Honestly, if the thought crosses my mind that this story needs this and such a scene, that’s not the sort of scene that I’m comfortable writing because reasons. But if I had the thought that this is possibly the right sort of scene, then the odds are pretty good, at least in this stage of my career, the odds are pretty good that I need to trust my instinct and acknowledge that this book needs me to write something I’m not comfortable with. If, after I’ve written it, or after I’ve struggled to write it, I go back and look at it and I feel like, no, this is wrong, this has changed the tone of the story, or I didn’t do it well, or I did it so badly I’m not allowed to say I didn’t do it well… Which, I gave that two votes because that’s what’s most likely going to happen. Then, I’ll revisit it and… Oh, I can’t count the number of times in Schlock Mercenary I had an idea for a panel and realized I do not have the skill within the format I’ve created for myself to illustrate that the way my brain is illustrating it. So I’m going to move the camera. I’ve made that compromise a lot of times because I’m not as good at things as I want to be. But I’ll never get good unless I try to write the scene, unless I try to draw the picture, no matter how uncomfortable it makes me, so I can step back from it and say, “Well, that was miserable. Did I do it well?”
[Mahtab] I got some very good advice from one of the editors that I worked with on a previous novel called The Tiffin. There were some scenes of violence against a child. I was having a bit of difficulty writing it. One of the… My mentor at that time said, “Think of yourself as an actor.” An actor sometimes has to do a lot of different roles. They just have to inhabit the character. So inhabit your character’s skin and write from the character’s perspective so that… You basically have to forget yourself, you have to forget that you’re the author writing the story. Inhabit what your characters are going through or the violence that is happening against your character, and just write as honestly as possible. Somehow, removing yourself from the equation and just writing from inhabiting the character’s world helped me get through my barrier and write that particular scene. So, sometimes just have to do that. I don’t know if that makes sense.
[Dan] No, it does. I think that’s great advice. Brandon, do you have any last thoughts on this topic before we end?
[Brandon] It is something that I’ve thought about quite a bit as a writer. It’s something I had to be comfortable with early in my career. I’ve told this story before, about my younger sister, Lauren, my youngest sister, when I was writing Mistborn. I mean, the cursing in Mistborn is very light, but I don’t just generally curse at all, and my characters were. Why did I do that? It’s because… I often come up with fantasy curses in my books. In this particular book, it was a gang of thieves and the fantasy curses were sounding silly coming out of these characters’ mouths. It’s something I’m very conscious of. In certain worldbuilding you can make, and with certain fantasy worlds, you can make them not sound silly. But sometimes they just do. Depending on how you’re making them. That was ruining the tone of the story. I said, I’m just going to have to come to our world swears for these characters. Again, they’re very light. Right? Most people wouldn’t even consider them curses. But my little sister was one of my beta readers at like age 14. She crossed them all out. With a black marker.
[Brandon] She was super offended. It was my first experience of this, people are going to be like, “Wow, Brandon is cursing.” Right? Like, it is the weakest. But everyone again has their different lines. So I had to kind of ask myself. I said, “Well, it didn’t bother me.” I decided I was going to go forward with it. But there are certain curses I’ve just never used in my books. There are certain derogatory terms for people that I just don’t use. I don’t anticipate myself ever using them because of the way… I don’t like what those words add to our society. So I don’t. That’s just kind of a personal choice on my part. So it’s like I have two lines. I have a line of things that I don’t generally do, but that I don’t think actually are… That’s not wrong for my characters to do. Then I have lines that I probably won’t depict, at least in explicit detail, my characters ever doing. Because it’s just not something that I want to write. It’s odd, because I don’t necessarily think these things are bad for other writers to write. But it’s just not where I want to take my stories.
[Dan] Awesome. So, let’s give you some homework to finish up. If you have decided that you want to put some kind of these elements into your fiction, but it’s hard kind of getting over that first little hump, breaking the ice, here is an exercise. For this one, I’m using swearwords. I just want you to open a file and write down every swearword you know. Every cuss, every bad word you can think of. Put them into sentences, write them as dialogue. It will be uncomfortable, but it is going to kind of… Like I said, it’s going to break that ice a little bit. Then, after that, delete the file, burn the paper you wrote it on, destroy it forever. It doesn’t matter. Because it just kind of… Once you’ve written them down once, then later it will be much easier. Anyway, that was our episode. Thank you so much for watching. You are out of excuses. Now go write.