Why do your books have to be so…dark?

It’s been so long since I’ve written a post for this blog, I forgot how to find the Add New Post page. That’s just sad.

Well, I’ve been taking a break. It’s been good. I took some time to work on being a better mom, a better housekeeper, even a bit of a writer (!), and just generally hide out and be antisocial since being too social tends to make me stressed out and ranty.

Of course, since the thing that’s on my mind today is still a bit ranty, maybe I’m still not fit for company. But I’m pretty sure this is not just me, so if you feel ranty about it, you can say–yeah, what’s that about? in the comments and we’ll have ourselves a nice little bitch session and get over it.

For those of you who write (or, insert that thing that you do and apply accordingly), do people want you to do something else? There are people my life who are generally supportive, but also ask me questions like:

  • Are all books for young people so…dark?
  • Do they have to be so violent?
  • Why do you make bad things happen?
  • Can’t you write another series about happy characters who don’t swear?
  • Children’s books! You could write wonderful children’s books!

That may be. But I’ve no desire to write children’s books right now. And I don’t know how to write shining happy people holding hands.

Ugh, and you know the swearing thing is still making me insane with people commenting that I’ve added a lot of unnecessary bad language and that since they’ve never known anyone to swear so much, this culture must not exist.

I’m not a super-talented writer. The bulk of what I have is…I don’t know, like a way of seeing the world and a desire to present that, try to make sense of it, try to show that good things can come out of it, or at least that the bad things that I see can be lived through. To me, what I do is tremendously positive. I don’t understand why people in my life don’t see it that way and ask me for sweetness and light.

I don’t really relate well to sweetness and light. Maybe if I’d grown up in Stars Hollow or Mitford. But I didn’t. The news I got over Christmas? Where I went to school they’ve moved on to the teachers stabbing each other in the hallways now.

(I know that part of the issue people have with my books is that they consider my audience children. I do not. In my mind, being a teen is incredibly complicated, full of scary shit, shifting support systems, and overwhelmed with a desire to be treated more like an adult. Teens are not adults, but they’re not children. And damn me if it makes any sense to shelter them in fiction from the things life’s already throwing at them.)

I sometimes like spending time with the people of Stars Hollow and Mitford, with the March sisters or the cast of Friends. But there are people who are good at creating those worlds. It’s covered. It’s not like, by choosing something else, I am somehow causing a shortage of light romantic comedic fiction.

I don’t know, I guess I take it personally. Because objectively I should be able to understand the desire of those in my real life to be able to be proud of my books as well as of me, to be able to pass them around and show them off without having to warn to the decent folk about the content. Maybe it’s hard to find the balance between being proud of what I’ve accomplished and being kind of embarrassed by my degenerate brain and there’s some concern about people wondering how I got like this. The whole writing thing–it is really personal. There’s an awful lot of me on every page. That degenerate nature is me. Asking me to put something else on those pages is asking me to be someone else. I mean, you get that, right?

I don’t know how you erotica writers do it. More power to ya.

So, seriously, how do you do it? How do you answer the helpful suggestions of family members who want you to clean up your books or change genre? Does it get to you like it gets to me?


Filed under writing

19 responses to “Why do your books have to be so…dark?

  1. I totally understand. My husband will never read one of my books for that reason alone. He doesn’t care to talk about them. If you asked him how many books I’d published or when my next release is out, he has no idea. He once told me that if I had more DISCIPLINE I could write something else. That almost broke my will to go on.

    But what we write is so ingrained, a deep need that I can’t explain. I don’t know where the ideas come from. Why I can’t write something with less sex, less blood, less violence, whatever. That’s the way it is. To try to write something else feels unnatural and dead to me. I might as well stop all together than try to write something else.

    Hugs, I hope you don’t allow the people in your life to bring you down for what you write. It IS a gift to be nutured and always treasured. Whether it’s light or dark.

    • OMG Joely, I might have had to divorce him over that. I’ve been so fortunate that my husband is incredibly supportive of my work and even reads it (usually–though he insists on waiting until it’s FINISHED, which is fine). It’s my mother who’s the unsupportive one who would rather I write moralistic Christian fiction (gag me) rather than “that creepy paranormal” stuff. She seems to think occult has something to do with cults. And god forbid I write romance with premarital sex.

      • I think it’s sad because writing is such a huge part of who I am – so anyone who isn’t interested in the writing loses a big chunk of me too. But I am working on sharing more with him, slowly, and he’s accepted that I’m going to write whatever I write. I just don’t tell him about it unless he asks (which is pretty rare).

        Ironically my parents and especially my sister are very supportive and have ready EVERYTHING. I usually hand over the latest book with the caveat – “just pretend *I* didn’t write this, okay, Mom? And you might have to steamboat a few words.” (A joke that any bad word or word I didn’t know as a kid should be replaced with steamboat)

  2. As a huge advocate of writing what you want to write, I think if anyone ever suggested I change my style to be something more or less of something it wasn’t, if someone said, “I think your books should be happier,” I’d just say, “Okay, then, you write it.”

    I don’t know if that’s helpful or not. Granted, I haven’t gotten much except a few short stories published, but the criticism I hear most often is that I tend to have too many characters. I fought against that criticism for a while, but now I’m discovering myself trimming the fat, getting rid of a few (a few!) characters or moving them around a little or diminishing their parts and focusing more on others and….it’s been working well. That’s not to say you should write happier stuff because you might surprise yourself…I still have a shit ton of characters I’m constantly juggling, but, on the other hand, you never know.

    But if the story calls for a lot of darkness or a lot of characters or a lot of violence or a lot of sex….so be it. There are millions of books out there and not a single one is going to cater to the tastes of everyone. And if the writer doesn’t believe in it, then it’s really not much good when you get down to it.

    Or something like that. Blah blah blah, good to see you posting again, I can’t wait to get to Hush Money in my new long queue of ebooks to get to reading!

  3. I gets the “why can’t you write about happy people” from time to time too–and people don’t seem to understand that happy people what don’t have bad things happen to them simply don’t make exciting characters or an interesting story. Bad things need to happen early on in the story in order for there to be… a story.

  4. I don’t know if I’m the best person to answer that question since, as you well know, I get totally crazed at this stuff. All these people who think of teenagers as children are the morons who prevented teens from having anything decent to read back when we were teens. Sweetness and light doesn’t exist the way they want it to in the real world. I’m sorry, it doesn’t, and anybody who thinks it does is wearing a pair of Prozac or Xanex colored glasses (not that there’s anything wrong with being medicated for emotional problems–not getting into that kettle of fish). By and large, it’s always the adults who are complaining. I don’t generally hear teens saying what we’re writing is too dark or that we swear too much. Go spend half an hour in a high school hallway in any public school in America and then tell me that teens don’t swear this much. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

    There is, of course, always an enormous component of ourselves in our work, so any insult (perceived or actual) to the work is an insult to us directly. And anybody who thinks we ought to write x, y, z instead is targeting the heart of us without even knowing it. They don’t know shit. I’m sorry, they don’t. They don’t know what sells in commercial fiction. And honestly, they are the kind of consumer who doesn’t know what they want until it’s shoved in their faces (I think it was Steve Jobs who said it was a waste of time to ask people what they want because they didn’t know until it was shown to them). And I guess what drives me crazy about this is that it’s really not even about me. It’s about them and their unwillingness to analyze WHY whatever it is about my work that bugs them actually bugs them or makes them uncomfortable. They won’t deal with their own issues, so instead they want us to change.

    EFF THAT. I am PROUD of what I do and I think I do it damn well compared to many. If you want happy little stories of sweetness and light that have no conflict or darkness and would never make it past the slush pile of a publisher’s desk because such things would be BORING AS HELL, you go right ahead and write them. Leave the real world to those of us wearing the Big Girl Panties.

  5. We create pen names and then don’t tell anyone IRL what those pen names are so we don’t have to hear about “why do you write THAT??” šŸ™‚ But seriously, yes, it seems that no matter what it is you do, someone always wants something ELSE instead. But if you had done that in the first place? They probably would have wanted what you did come up with. There’s no way to win, there’s just coming up with a satisfying response to all the well-meaning “advice.” Still crafting mine… šŸ™‚

  6. I usually say, “I’m more interested in why things go wrong.”

  7. Claire

    Never let anyone make you feel like you’re writing the wrong thing, or that you need to write something lighter or happier or shinier, dear Susan. One of the greatest things about your books is the realness of them, the authenticity. It practically pulses on each page. People who think the real world can’t be like that are seriously misguided, and therefore, so are their comments to you on the matter.

    Luckily, my friends and family have been supportive of my work thus far. Of course, we’ll see how or if that changes once some of them actually READ the books. So far, some of them just kind of have a vague idea of what it is I right. My grandmother tried to read one of my YA fantasies and then approached me with the question: “Where do you get all this darkness?” as though she was concerned for my well-being, as though I would have to be seriously angry or otherwise disturbed in order to create darkness in my stories. I told her that the world is dark and I find beauty in darkness, and even more beauty in the struggle to move past that to the light.

    So, long story short (too late! [name that reference]), right there with you, doll. Keep doing what you’re doing, because it’s superb, and so are you.

  8. There you are! Hi Susan! šŸ™‚
    Oh, jeez. I get the Children’s book one all the time. I have no desire to write one. When the mom’s at G.’s preschool found out I was a writer I got several children’s book pitches. They all had good ideas and I told them they should write them! Not my style.
    Otherwise, people usually leave me alone. They compare my books to Twilight without having read them, but they leave me alone. šŸ™‚

  9. This is one of the reasons I have a pen name. However, my mom told some of my family members, but luckily they are supportive. I have an uncle, an aunt, and a cousin who read my books and my cousin recently said “Damn, girl, you’re good.” That feels good coming from family. But I do have friends who would probably say “I can’t believe you write about vampires and ghosts. Why can’t you write a Christian romance?” Hence, the pen name.

    Personally, I’ve never considered your work THAT dark. I think it’s honest. I think you have a good concept of what teenagers are like and that makes your characters real. Teenagers are almost never about sweetness and light. If parents think that, then they don’t really know their teens very well. Or they’re sticking their heads in the sand. Teens curse. They also drink and smoke sometimes. Is that good for them? No, of course they shouldn’t drink or smoke (IMO). But that’s what many teens do. I raised two teenage boys. Yeah, the older one probably said two or three curse words in his whole lifetime. The other one? Different story. I KNEW what teens were like, and I didn’t try to pretend they were different. I think your books are well received by teens because they feel real to them. You’re not trying to pull any crap on them, making them think that life is different than what it is. Even though there are supernatural elements (which makes the stories that much more interesting), the characters feel like real young adults. That’s your audience. You’re an awesome writer, and you should just keep being you. Just you.

  10. Jadeen Johnson

    Family’s like to ignore the bad,sad and horrible things that can and do happen to children especially within there own family. Tell them you write situations that do happen and teens do talk like that. But you also give the kids in your books the ability to fight back, to realize that your not alone that you can come together and fight the evil while developing relationships with each other.
    Not all books should be all happy and sweet. That would be really boring if all books were like that. I think you write books with storylines that mean something to you and teens can relate to a lot of those situations and that is what makes you a great author. You need to do what is important to you and to heck with them if they still don’t understand. I wish there had books like yours when I was a teen then maybe I wouldn’t have felt alone in my dark problems and I could have friends to help me fight back (minus the cool superpowers, unfortunately).

  11. This is why I don’t talk about my work with anyone except for a very small circle of people. By small I mean my husband and best friend. My husband doesn’t read the genre I write in, but he’s very adamant that I write what I want. My best friend loves everything I write and takes it upon herself to tell everyone about it. She also acts as a filter for feedback, making sure I get the criticism I need while not being dragged down by pointless negative comments. I don’t know how I got so lucky to have these two awesome, supportive people in my life!

    I always suggest writers don’t talk about their work too much with other people, unless it’s with someone who you know is supportive. Sorry you have to deal with this :(.

  12. I am so happy to see you on here and to see that your 2nd book is out šŸ™‚ I can’t wait to read it. I haven’t had issues with cursing or anything. I am a Christian and i don’t prefer cursing…except when I stub my toe (just being honest). I like the light stuff sometimes…there’s a purpose for it………but it’s good to have balance…..seriously, the Bible’s not some book about rainbows and my lil ponies (though some portray it that way)….there are some subjects I have to try to explain to my 5 year old because of how real the stories in the Bible are………like seriously this teenage kid cut off this giant’s head? whoa! Lots daughters got him drunk and then did what? Ok I’ll admit I have not read that story to my 5 year old….I may ban that section til he’s 12 lol šŸ˜‰ But he does know that there are kids in other countries….kids his age that get martyred for believing the same things he does…..some people think I’m crazy. Yo I’m a homeschooling mom….I’m all about sheltering my son from the obvious things but I don’t want him growing up to be a pansie who thinks life is full of sparkles and gumdrops.
    I digress…..my problem is that I have a very difficult genre….I’m writing an allegory that deals with the issue of a fallen world and the need for a savior etc….but it is set in a fantasy world. I walk a fine line…..My symbolism is very obvious (after all Kristen Lamb says not to reinvent the wheel). But there are people who believe Christian fiction is evil (no joke)…not all believers feel that way obviously…cause I’m a believer and I love fiction. I don’t want to stereotype.
    Also, I’m aiming towards middle schoolers and up. When you deal with a cursed world..you have man-eating beasts….people being beaten or killed by evil rulers…….alot of scary things go with that. But if I cut out the dark stuff then there is no reason for the High King to show up on the scene and kick some butt.
    You’re a talented writer. You have to be yourself. šŸ™‚ You’ve made your characters believable even though they have super powers…that takes major writing power. Don’t let people discourage you. They don’t get it because it’s not their passion. You have to be your own best friend.
    PS; @Kait~I do understand how you can see the bad extreme of things. It is very difficult to have family try to shove their beliefs down your throat…..it’s rude and not respectful. I think parents feel they can get away with it more though. Everyone has a right to their own opinion. Personally I believe there is Christian fiction out there that shows reality and how dark life can be. Try Francine Rivers Mark of the Lion series…it covers the fall of Jerusalem…gladiators….slavery…passion etc…You may not agree with the morals in the story but her books are amazing. She has been criticized for being too dark in her books….she covers sexual issues, murder, and lust etc…..But I think stories of faith are best told in the dark…..what’s the point of faith if you live on a rainbow? Anywho, I don’t expect everyone to enjoy my genre. We’re all different. But I will guarantee you that my book won’t be about cotton candy forests and Hello Kitty dreams šŸ˜‰

  13. Thanks, everyone, for all your replies to this post!

    Joely- My husband won’t read my work. I’m sort of fine with that because over-abundance of tact: he no haz it. Likely it would lead nowhere good. Spouses are good for some things and not for others. I also don’t take him shoe shopping.

    LS- Thanks. I often go with the “you could write that” idea and even offer to provide feedback and guidance. But few people actually want to sit down and write a whole book, do they?

    Dante- My daughter, who is in the second grade, understands this. We’re watching a movie and something bad happens and I’m going why? why? and she says, “because without a problem it’s not a story.”

    Kait- Tell us how you really feel. šŸ˜‰ I was going to spend half an hour in a public school, but sadly got stopped by the uniformed officer at the metal detector and couldn’t come up with a good enough official reason to be let in.

    Cricket- Do let me know if you come up with something good!

    Jessica- Good answer.

    Claire- Clue. But I cheated and Googled for it. I never saw that one. When Tim Burton gets hold of your stuff and begs for the movie rights, a lot of people are going to wonder about you and how you come up with that stuff.

    Stacey- Maybe us having little children makes that one come up more. So maybe that one will go away at some point.

    LL- Thanks. I think people who know me were a bit disturbed by the stuff that happened to Joss in this last book. Well, probably also people who don’t know me were disturbed, just in a different way.

    Jadeen- Thanks. I love that there are teen books worth reading now, that aren’t just about longing for some guy to ask her to prom or only written for the purpose of dealing with some Deep Issue. And as much as we sometimes rag Bella, I think we all owe a debt to the Twilight phenomenon for setting an example of teen reading for pure enjoyment that got everyone’s attention.

    Caethes- Thanks. Good policy.

    Amber- On many levels, your reply had stuff I needed to hear. One of them is that if Francine Rivers–who is a mind-blowingly awesome writer with balls of steel–can show HER face at church, then maybe I can stop being afraid of going. Now I totally want to watch Hello Kitty Saves the Cotton Candy Forest.

  14. What Kait said [g] It’s hard enough trying to describe writing romance to others since, you know, why don’t I write something ‘real’?
    I don’t know what sugar coated books these folk are reading. Have they read anything past a board book at the age of 2? I guess they don’t *want* books that make them think and feel… But the rest of us sure do!

  15. ha ha! šŸ™‚ thanks Susan and I’m glad it helped. I hope you continue to feel welcome at and to be “real” at church….God knows the real us and it totally doesn’t freak him out ;)…everyone else….well their opinion doesn’t matter anyways…we’re all in the same boat ((hugs)) (that came across way too Hello Kitty lol oh well)

  16. Adriana Ryan

    A little late to this, but I wanted to chime in.

    “Iā€™m not a super-talented writer.” I beg to differ! I don’t even usually read YA, Susan, and the Talent Chronicles completely hooked me. I loved the characters because, like you said, they’re REAL. I went through a lot of crap as a teen, too (most of us did, but I guess most of us forget!), and what teen wants to read books that pretend sex, violence, and swearing don’t exist? Certainly not any teen who’s being real with him/herself.

    If people ask you why you write dark stuff, tell them it’s because someone has to tell the truth. I wish these people would be substitute teachers at a public school for a week. I don’t think they’d make it much past that. Teens aren’t children. Sure, they’re still growing emotionally, and sure, they’re not as capable of handling certain situations as adults are. That doesn’t mean they don’t still get thrust into those situations.

    Thank you for writing what you do–REAL stuff. The truth. Thanks for respecting our intelligence. šŸ™‚


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