By Eleanor Shelton
As I work on my novel, there are days when I question my ability and sanity, followed by days I’m sure my inspiration is genius, and still, others when my muse has figured out I’m a fake and has packed up and left.
But eventually, after years of comments from writing groups, mapping plot twists on a wall-sized whiteboard, notations in various colored markers, and many compliments from my mother, I was done.
After the soul-sucking process of convincing a reputable agent, my story was worth her emotional investment, I was finally in front of a prominent editor at one of the Big Publishing Houses.
The editor said that my work was “very assured for a debut novelist” and she liked my flawed characters and storyline, but she couldn’t bring it to her editorial board unless I modified some scenes.
My story deals with human trafficking, and the sex trade in Thailand, a pretty uncomfortable topic. There are some detailed, intense scenes and in our environment of extra sensitivity toward violence against women, this wouldn’t fly.
My work was caught in the #MeToo Movement.
I support those who are active in the #MeToo movement, but I’ve been standing on the sidelines. I haven’t experienced sexual harassment, and I hope I have never harassed anyone. But now my characters were embroiled in it.
I had two choices: tell this prominent editor that my story wasn’t meant to make anyone feel good, as a matter of fact, it should make readers feel downright lousy and uncomfortable, or make edits that took some of the bite out of the subject matter.
As I considered what to do with the big name editor with Big Name House, I’m 50,000 words into my next novel. I’m grooving along and then, bam, a pivotal, nasty scene where my protagonist acts badly, very badly.
As I delve into the juicy details, my fingers falter on my keyboard. Is this too much? What would the editor say? Can I reveal my character’s flaws in a softer, more sensitive way that won’t produce nightmares for the new, fragile reading audience? Would my work still carry the same punch?
But what happens when I write a disturbing scene without all the details?
What would happen if I crafted the scene, so the reader has a clear picture of what’s at stake and then leave it at the greatest moment of tension with the rest up to their imagination? The scariest part of Jaws was the first two-thirds when the viewer never even saw the shark, but they knew it was there.
So I took some of the details out of the descriptions and put a frosted screen in front of the prurient window. But I never touched the emotion.
As a matter of fact, what happened was the rawness was erased from the page and rewritten into the individual imagination of the reader, which may prove to be even more horrifying. I like this version even better than the fully-loaded one, and I think I may have learned a trick to writing a richer story.