Sunday, 22 October 2017

Q&A part 4 — the Darkness of the Story

This is the 4th part (of four) articles from the Q&A I had with AndyK much earlier in the year. (There were some other topics we discussed, but I think four articles is more than enough!)

Spoiler alert!

Once again, because we discussed books 1 & 2, this contains spoilers if you haven't read them: i.e., it’s only intended for people who've read Wild Thing and Harsh Lessons.

L: I have had a few people (a teacher, a book store owner, and a someone in the book industry), tell me it is definitely Young Adult: less dark than some of the stuff available.  Amazing, yes?  But I never intended it for that market.  And I've had other people (YA readers) tell me it's definitely not.

I tend to agree with that.

A: Holy... YA? I mean… I did read my share of YA fiction and the emotional setup of the story is nowhere near what YA fiction presents.
Hell it's not even suited for a lot of ‘mature readers’ to be honest.

L: That was my feeling!  Yet (e.g.) my local chemist's son (about 15? — hi, Damian!) is greatly enjoying the series, and was waiting eagerly for the 3rd.  Like I said, I've had a few people — who I trust to know what's acceptable as YA — say it definitely is.  I find that disturbing and a bit mind boggling.

Some of the moments when I realised what Harmon would do, chilled and appalled me. And definitely, I was literally crying while writing some of that stuff, on more than one occasion.

A: I can imagine that.

Although you did leave out the actual descriptions of the torture or sex. Come to think of it: why? I mean, this story is seriously not for children anyway. And I guess it would make it a bit clearer if this is not left to the reader's imagination. Especially book 2 is pretty vague in that regard.

In book 1 her first time is pretty clear. How the dynamic is set and what very probably happened and how. Same is true with her little encounter with the security chief. Where she used her sexuality as a weapon, or as a means to an end, for the first time. Again, could be a bit more detailed but was pretty clear how the dynamic between those two would be.

The torture stuff with gags and beating is somewhat described but since it's only towards the very end if I remember correctly it's not that central to the story yet. But it could have been a bit more explicit to not leave any doubts in the reader's mind.

But in book 2 things get very vague in that regard. The sex scene after the spanking is totally left to the reader's imagination. And at that point clarity would be important.

But most puzzling is the abuse/torture parts. There are only some flashbacks mentioned by Leeth and those too leave a bit too much to interpretation. Some might imagine things worse than they were. Some may imagine them less bad. And that would result in not really understanding the reactions that follow. You implied he forced her to hurt herself (which is a strange choice. Using the bondage to that end will only lead to another problem just like with the spanking, wouldn't it?)

Don't get me wrong, I'm neither an advocate for explicit scenes in books. Nor am I an adversary to it. But sometimes they could be truly part of the story and help clarify it. Show certain dynamics in the relationship. Like I am sure it would have in this case.

L: The second most important reason for leaving out the detail was to allow readers of different fortitude levels to imagine a level of abuse they were comfortable with.  If I made it more explicit, I think it would have been too much for many people.  I'm definitely walking a tightrope as it is.

A: But it's important to know how and what she is suffering through there. To understand how far gone (or faulty) Harmon's reasoning is. And also to understand what she is REALLY going through.

Leaving it to the imagination of the reader leads to every reader having a (maybe vastly) different story in their head. Making that story connect to the outlines provided might result in friction, head scratching or gaping holes.

L: To my mind, what's happening and what she's going through is quite extreme.  So I hope no reader imagines something worse than what I have imagined!  I also think it's reasonable and even healthy for readers to only imagine the worst they're individually comfortable with.

In a nutshell: bad stuff is happening to her.

Knowing just that sketchy detail is enough to let a reader follow the story.  Of course, I have to provide much more detail than that to make the reader feel the truth of that glib summary.

A: Well, my psychology lessons were decades ago but:

What Harmon creates is psychic traumas.
Traumas can lead to PTSD.
PTSD is the last thing any operative needs. (Well it's the last thing anybody needs, really)
Also it is obvious what he is doing can only lead to alienation at the very best. More probable it will lead to hate. In the uniquely human self preservation ignoring form of ‘I don't care if I die as long as I take him with me’.

So I have a hard time seeing why a psychologist would go that way. There are less personal ways to produce pressure.

That only leaves one good explanation I can get behind: He is a sick bastard who puts his scientific work second and his base lusts first.

L: Keep in mind that people can have major psychological breakthroughs when they survive a great stress, in our world; and that in Leeth's world, magic exists and is another possible outcome. See what you think of Harmon at the end of book 3.  I think he's ‘blinded by science’ — and he and Leeth are in many ways ideally unsuited: each provokes the other.  But he's shocked by much of what Leeth does, despite much of it being his responsibility.

A: I still smirk and shake my head at the scene in book 1 where she hunts the jogger. But yes, that's what he raised and trained her to. Again… he should have known that everybody needs some form of moral guidelines. Else we are animals guided by instinct. (Didn't Godsson say that somewhere in book 1?)

L: There are also some truly delicious scenes with Leeth I'm dying to write.

A: I am curious to read them. She does deserve a bit of a breather.

L: I certainly agree.  I think every reader would be pretty well unanimous in that opinion, too.

A: Actually it is much overdue. I just read the other reviews on the books on and then after I wrote mine for book 1. And there are some pretty harsh things there. Seems most people feel a lot stronger about it than I do... some of it is way unfair and under the belt. But... you did get under your readers skin. Quite an accomplishment in and of itself!

L: I agree. I went and had Google translate a couple of German reviews, recently. And US reviewers seemed to be more offended than anyone else. So that was when I finally realised I hadn't given enough warning to readers, in the Book Description on Amazon.

A: Yes. It's pretty different from most other stories out there. Going in with the wrong expectations is probably not only draining but even a bit traumatic.

L: There is that! Apart from the one review that said something like ‘poorly executed, doesn't work’.

A: That doesn't fly. You can always be of a different opinions about the story. But the craft part of the trade can be objectively analyzed. And it's definitely not poorly executed.

L: There's also a huge difference between leaving something to the reader's imagination, with hints, and making it explicit.

As well as that, by leaving it vague, and having the reader fill in the details (to the level they're comfortable with), I think makes it more powerful, because the reader is supplying the missing parts.

A: I understand. But those missing parts are not what you imagined for the story. So the more vague the descriptions get the more readers have to fill in. And the farther they get from the ‘facts’. And that makes it hard to understand developments and reactions in the book based on this abuse and torture.

L: But that's an accepted (if odd) truth: each reader brings themselves to each book they read, so each book a person reads is a collaborative experience produced by the author and the reader together.  So each experience of the book is unique.

If a book is well-written, I think the experience would tend to be more consistent across all readers, at least on the ‘factual’ side: what happens.  But I think the emotional experience for a well-written book would vary a lot; and maybe it would vary more from person to person, the better it's written, because it would resonate with each person's emotional experience differently?

Interesting: I'd not thought about that so deeply before.

A: For example I still don't know what he did to her before her breakdown. Did he use the compulsion to force her to maim herself? And then mock her about it? If yes then that is a new level  of short-sightedness on his part. If no than what did happen? I always had the feeling I missed something there....

L: Yes, and yes.  But it's not purely short-sightedness: his theory demands such kinds of stresses.

I'm reminded of a panel in Scott McCloud's ‘Understanding Comics’ where he illustrates exactly that point: you see an axe-wielding maniac, you see the victim in the lonely house, and then it pulls right back and you just ‘hear’ the scream.

A: Well.. comics are depictions which put them in a different legal setup. They have no choice unless they want to be seriously restricted in their sales channels. You can write about dicks and pussy and what to do with them all day long and still sell it on Amazon.

L: That's true, but McCloud was making a point about the artistic/emotional effect, ignoring the legal angle.  And I do think it's true.

Interestingly perhaps, I think graphic novels tend to be less gruesome than some Hollywood films or TV shows.  I wonder why?  Maybe because each moment is frozen, and available to be easily studied at length.

Also, I guess the main question is how much is left to interpretation and how much can be misinterpreted.

A: True.  Misinterpretation is unwanted; under- or over-estimating I think is less problematic.

L: For the scene where she almost detonated, emotionally, I think it was clear what was going on, physically.  If I'd added more, I think I'd be writing an erotic passage (at least, for people who like spankings or - shudder - torture).  I don't really think it would have added necessary clarity.

A: Hmm. Hard to say. I only had the feeling I was missing a piece of the picture there. Especially how the dynamic between those two was at that point.

L: By writing it this way, I'm allowing the reader to set the intensity level to whatever they're comfortable with.  In my own mind, it was pretty extreme, and I think for the vast majority of people, reading about torture is the very last thing they want to suffer through.  I would hate for the books to be categorised as ‘torture porn’.

A: Hmm. Wouldn't you say the intensity level was what it was at that point? The things that happened were the things you imagined to happen. Not what I imagined. Not what any other reader imagined.

L: Well, yes.  But then I'm very non- post-modern, and reasonably absolutist.

A: I agree with you that nobody needs to read about the smallest gory detail that is of no consequence to the story. But gory details that ARE of consequence? Or sex scenes that do have implications? I guess it wouldn't be bad to go into as much detail as necessary to clear out any misunderstandings or misinterpretations.

L: I felt more comfortable taking the risk of some misinterpretation (since I felt the broad facts would be quite clear), rather than being overly confronting and possibly losing many readers.  I think the books are pretty far out on the limb of what people can accept, as is!

A: But I know… you already got a lot of flak for the dark parts of the books and this would probably antagonize the torch-and-pitchfork faction even more...

L: Yes. I'm confident that's basically a certainty.

I don't think there'd be much lack of understanding as it's written, since her reactions tell the reader that it was very bad indeed: enough to shatter her faith and trust, and to need to escape.  And we've seen by this stage that she can endure a lot, so the strong implication is that it gets really bad.

A: Yes. But at least for me it left the feeling I missed a crucial part of the story. Not some gory detail but what did he actually do? Is he just over eager? Is he a bit twisted? Is he totally sick? You know that plays into the question we discussed earlier: How redeemable is Harmon?

L: Well, what he did was just as you supposed, further above.  And various humiliations. Is he a bit twisted?  Yes.  Totally sick? No.  How redeemable is he? Well, his actions will speak louder than words in the long run, obviously.

Maybe it would be (barely) acceptable in Germany, and the UK (I'm interested that at last look, I'd had no 1-star reviews in the UK!), where readers can handle it better, somehow?  In the US, I think there would have been a massive reaction against it.

A: ALL reviews in .de are pretty high.
Apart from that... every adult should be able to distinguish between fact and fiction. And if a story is told that demands a certain level of explicit detail... so be it.

L: I don't think that's the issue: my hunch is they identified enough with the character to feel (subconsciously) that they were participating, and felt soiled by feeling that way; and especially, they assume that most other people would react that same way: and feel I am ‘polluting’ large numbers of people.  That's my guess.

You know how some people react completely irrationally when you ‘push their buttons’?  I think my books trigger that kind of reaction in some people.

But fundamentally, I didn't think that an extra level of explicitness in the abuse or in the sex parts would really add to the deeper understanding of the books.

A: As you are the author I accept your judgement.

L: Thanks!  I do think it has to be that way.

A: But I dare to disagree. :}

L: And that too is 100% fine, and the way it has to be.

A: I could accept you decided based on the (prognosed) critical or public reception. But that the story didn't need it? I don't know. I still feel like I am missing a part of the picture. But again I am totally aware that that might be just me.

L: I'd honestly estimate that the decision was 70% that the story didn't need it, 20% concern over public reaction, and 10% trusting in my editor's advice.

My editor advised me to tone it down (and I did), but pushed me to tone it down/remove even more, but I couldn't or wouldn't, since it would have changed the dynamic by reducing the abuse. He was quite clear: he said I would lose readers because of it. But I decided the story demanded it, so I kept it in. The story and the characters are more important to me than profit or success.

A: You don't make a name for yourself by doing it the way everybody else does. Your story is interesting because it is different. Its not ‘enjoyable’ like the mainstream out there. Maybe it could have used some more ‘ups’ in between. But the story and what happens is told well. And it all makes it feel pretty unique. And that is a GOOD thing.

I actually doubt you would have reached more people by lightening it up. Well... what kind of story would have been left anyway?

L: I completely agree.  And I genuinely feel there is considerable originality in my series; and that that's very much a good thing.

A: For anybody not familiar with SR [Shadowrun] the story is a revelation. And that shows in the reviews. And for those who know SR it is still a very well made re-imagination with some pretty serious deviations. And ultimately it's about characters anyway and at least Leeth and Harmon are unique. So is Godsson and the Enemy of Mankind (I never mentioned how much I like her)

L: Cool: that's exactly my feeling, too.  Yeah, d'Artelle was pretty scary.

A: Well... the Department is a bit stereotypical so far. Apart from Dojo. But that's fine. Not everything needs to be unique.

L: I think that's a very fair comment.  The Department was certainly heavily influenced by both the Max Headroom TV series and Nikita (the French film).  I'm not sure if Nikita was released before or after Leeth's birth in my mind.

I think the author Kristin Cashore also has a very original ‘something’ about her fantasy novels, that help make them wonderfully appealing (at least, to me).  I think originality helps.

A: Well.. if you ask me.. it helps. But it's not the most important part. Good execution and consistency is important as well.

L: Quite!  I think all the elements have to be at least basically sound: if any aspect is bad, it ruins a book.  And if every aspect is great, you have a masterpiece of its kind.

And my hope is that Leeth is a truly unique character.  I've read everything I can where the main character sounded like she might be similar.  So far, I haven't found her twin!

A: She definitely is unique. So are the other characters mentioned above.
Though she did remind me of a character in a Shadowrun novel I read ages ago. I just cant remember the title. (Some girl experimented on by a megacorp that gets freed during a Run...)

L: I read several of the SR novels; I bought one, Striper Assassin (I tend to buy all the books I discover with a possibly-similar character, hoping that no one else traverses the same path as me. So far, so good!), but didn't think she was very similar.

But I think my editor was observing that it was more likely to have mass market appeal: avoid offending a good percentage of your readers.

A: Now, this is something completely different but this argument reminds me of Kingdom Death: Monster. When he released it, it had no mass market appeal at all. Nobody was even willing to fund it. It is controversial, offensive, sexist as hell and the antithesis of political correctness. And by now it is the most successful game ever brought to Kickstarter.

What I want to say: just because you DON'T whore yourself out to the mass market does not mean you can't be successful. Or will reach a lot of fans. Many of which will come to you just because you do your thing.

L: I know what you're saying, and I agree.  But I'm also stubborn (perhaps a little less than Leeth), so I won't make changes that would compromise the story or the characters' integrity.

If I feel strongly about something, I won't change it.  If I'm ambivalent, or undecided, I'm happy to accept input and suggestions and advice.

But he didn't pressure me hard: he understood what I was doing, and why; he just wanted to be sure I understood the risks I was taking, and the consequences.

I had to think about what I'd consider a success, and set a modest bar:

if it generated more hours of ‘enjoyment’ (appreciation?) than hours of work to create it, I'd consider it a success.  (Assuming one reader needs about 8 hrs to read one book.)

A: And it is good you didn't cave (for the most part). And it is refreshing to hear somebody is going through all that work mainly for the fun of it.

L: I imagine many (most?) writers do.  But I'm also trying hard to make the quality at least as high as traditionally-published books.

Anyway, so that wraps up the Q&A between AndyK and myself.

And here's a final snippet of news for anyone who's read right to the end: I've finally sorted out the issues with the templates I used for LibreOffice, so I've been able to make the mass-market (A-format: 4"x7") editions. I worried that someone browsing the print books wouldn't get the ‘warning’ about the story's darkness that I added to the Book Description at Amazon; so I inserted a leaf with excerpts from the reviews I've received. I also made a couple of other small changes: including using the same nice quotation marks for dialogue that I used in Shadow Hunt. (I gave up waiting for the Find/Replace bug in LibreOffice to be fixed, and just spent a day or two on a multi-program edit that worked around it.)

Part of the drive for getting the updated print editions ready was my attendance in two weeks' time at a small (and Free!) speculative fiction convention. (Main days: Sat 4th — Sun 5th November. See:

No comments: