Fear of Big Topics: Guest Post by Shannon M. Howell

I’m glad to present a Friendly Friday guest post by my online writer pal, Shannon Howell….she is presenting part five of her series on fears in writing. 
Fear of writing BIG SCARY TOPICS is something we’ve talked about here on Stories I Read, Stories I Tell in several contexts. Most recently, the topic came up in the comments section as we discussed Marni Mann’s new book and her ability to sink into a dark, dangerous world that is very different from her real life. 
After you read part five, be sure to check out parts one through five on Shannon’s blog, and I’d love to continue the discussion in the comments section below.

Part 5: Fear of BIG SCARY TOPICS

First I’d like to thank Eric for hosting this post today.  This is such a big fear for me,  that I didn’t even want this post on my own blog… and I had to write it on prescription pain killers.  Thanks, Eric!  Also, if you’d like to read about my other writing fears, just follow the links at the end of this post.

Right now, I’m writing a story about how my bad guy became a bad guy, and I’m confronted with some things that make me very uncomfortable.

My antagonist wasn’t born bad.  However, some really bad stuff happened.  The problem I’m running into now is I’m not quite sure what bad stuff happened.  I’ve got a vague idea, but I’m really afraid of developing any detail at all.

Compared to some of my other fears, this one is rather concrete.  I am afraid of 1.) giving myself nightmares 2.) finding out that I am capable of thinking up truly horrifying things 3.) that I’ll write truly horrific things… and people will think that’s part of who I am.

Let’s stop for a moment and consider an example (skip the following 2 paragraphs if you don’t want to read the icky details).

In the Codex Alera, an epic fantasy series by Jim Butcher, there is a magical slave collar.  What’s so bad about it?  They make the slave do whatever the collar’s owner tells the slave to do – and enjoy it sexually.  That’s creepy, right?

Now, that we’ve got a concept that can impart the heebie-jeebies, what happens when it’s put into action?  One example is a tension-building scene in which a woman has been kidnapped by a man who really doesn’t like her.  He threatens to put one of these on her and order her to pleasure him.

That was the first time I’ve ever read something and thought, “This author can think up some sick stuff.”  It wasn’t gratuitous.  It wasn’t unnecessarily detailed or graphic.  If anything, it was a bit too-true, despite the elements of magic.  It was unhinged, in the same way that people who commit heinous crimes are unhinged.  I think that’s what made my skin crawl when I read it.

I’m finding that I don’t even want to think about this sort of thing.  Maybe my character was raped.  I don’t want to think about it.  I don’t want thoughts like that in my head.  Perhaps I’m afraid I’ll taint myself.  Maybe there’s a well of darkness inside me – a Pandora’s Box – that I’m afraid I’ll open.  At the same time, I realize that it often takes a mammoth event to change people or motivate a behavior.

Can I write about BIG SCARY topics?  Should I write them? Avoid them?  If I write something, be it explicit sex or a horrendous torture, will people think that’s how I think or – a part of who I am?  Would it be?

If you have read/written something dark, did you have any qualms with it?  If so, what?

This is the fifth and final installment of my series on fear in writing.  You can find the earlier parts by clicking the links below.

Part 1 – Fear of Being Unpolished

Part 2 – Fear of Hurting Your Friends

Part 3 – Fear of Failure… or Success

Part 4 – Fear of Writing From Real Life

As a trained statistician, Shannon M. Howell, was once told she was, “too good with words to be a statistician.”  So, it was no surprise when she started to write after becoming an at-home mom.  After starting an epic fantasy tale, she realized that all those spreadsheets had taken a toll.  Shannon continues to work on her fantasy tale, but also hones her craft on her website, where she blogs about writing and publishes flash fiction.  With some luck, she hopes to have her first book, Dragon in a Jar, finished before she finds all the lost puzzle pieces.  When she isn’t pretending the house will clean itself while she types, she can be found chasing her kids, pets, and husband around Northern Virginia.

Contact Info:


Facebook https://www.facebook.com/authorshannonhowell

Twitter @ShannonHowell1

GoodReads: http://www.goodreads.com/user/show/10352753-shannon-m-howell


8 thoughts on “Fear of Big Topics: Guest Post by Shannon M. Howell

  1. Pingback: Fear: Part 5 | Shannon M. Howell

  2. Aha! Interesting that I just bought THE CLAIMING OF BEAUTY, by A.N. Roquelaure alias Anne Rice, at a garage sale. Seems everyone is on the band wagon these days to get a piece of the pie since FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY (which I haven’t yet read and maybe never will). What the heck? My world is not so conservative, for lack of better word, but I found nothing pleasurable about Anne’s novel; and, yes, I have always been an Anne Rice fan-love her historical fiction; but, yes, having read what she calls “erotica” I do look at her differently now, no way around it. Maybe, as an African American, I see nothing positive about slavery and no one could convince me that any slave is honestly going to enjoy his/her conditions of slavery, but maybe I am naive. All this to say, writers should take risks-write about scary things, BUT write with sensitivity and understanding and perhaps even some type of redemption. Writers observe. Don’t stick your head in the sand and cover your eyes. Some things can’t be imagined-although I’ve been trying to IMAGINE LOVE for many years now, lol (title of my memoir blog.sherryquanlee.com).

    I will check out your other posts. Thanks for being honest.

    • Sherry,

      You are most welcome, and thank you for being honest as well. 🙂

      I’m not familiar with that Anne Rice book, but I’ve read others. Interestingly, I didn’t bat an eyelash at most of the dark stuff in her books – and I read them as a teen. Perhaps I was so innocent I just didn’t get how dark some of it was.

      I am also glad to know that I’m not nuts for thinking that people might look at me differently, even if I wish it weren’t so. I like your idea about sensitivity and understanding. I’m going to have to think about how to do that. It’s easy to say the words, but not necessarily as easy to know what that looks like in practice.

      Thank you for commenting 🙂

  3. Oh Shannon, this is a great topic for discussion. The prescription meds must be very good.

    Fear can affect us in many ways. It can paralyze us into inaction and can keep us from moving forward. Even though we know what to do and that we should move forward, our fear says no, it’s too dangerous. Fear can also cause us to run away. To give up and chose another path.

    On the other side, fear can motivate us to rise above it and proceed at a level above what we ever dreamed we could reach.

    I am not a professional psychologist but having seen this first-hand on many occasions, I feel comfortable making this claim. We are all capable of atrocities depending on how far we get pushed or what situations we find ourselves. So yes, you have it in you to write about these things even though you may not want to. That’s your choice.

    When faced with a fear, ask yourself, what is the worst thing that could happen? Can I live with that? If not, what are my options? Which one can I live with? Then, learn to live with the action you choose.

    Fear is a powerful emotion and overcoming it can be the key to unlock your best work. As an author, you must find a way to convey that fear to your reader. We all strive to make our stories real for our audience. This is the ultimate goal. Is it not?

    Write on my friend. Scare the hell out of me.

    • Thank you, Dennis. I think that last line might be the motivation I need. Fear is powerful, and I’m not very brave… but I am VERY competitive, and you just gave me a challenge 🙂

      However, I have to also wonder… fear can motivate us, but it can also warn us that something is wrong. I guess the trick must be to figure out if it’s a reasonable fear or not, and then listen to reason, perhaps? I think that is what your (very good) questions get at. What IS the worst that can happen? I would also add the question of how likely is it. Maybe I’ll drop dead of fright, but it’s not very likely. 🙂

      I’m glad you like the topic. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  4. Fantastic debut, Shannon! Yes, I have run into the same problems about how far to go when detailing the dark stuff. My current novel (the one I’m querying and won’t let me go) is about siblings who are victims of domestic violence. I had to think really, really hard about whether I wanted there to be sexual abuse involved. And this bothered me because the idea of a father sexually abusing his children sickens me so much that I wasn’t sure if I could write about it realistically. Or that it would be over the top, gratuitous, and then I worried what readers would think about my ideas. Exactly as you say, would they think I had personal experience or am I mentally ill in some way, lol. I guess it’s about how far we let our imaginations go and whether we can trust it to lead us in the right direction. I definitely didn’t want readers to think something about me, or judge me based on the book. So, I held back in the plot for a long time and I wouldn’t open up my ideas enough to really get risky with the book.

    Your book is only going to be as compelling as its scariest or most dramatic moment, right? So maybe by figuring out how scary you’re willing to go will help you figure out if that’s the kind of book you’re looking to write. If not, if you’re wanting to tone it down, then that big scary moment will have to be toned down. That might help you gauge the scare factor.

    • Kate, you don’t know how happy I am to hear you’ve dealt with this too! 🙂

      I don’t know if I agree with you about the book being as compelling as the scariest or most dramatic moment (or maybe I misunderstand you). I do think that is often true, but I have found books I really liked that didn’t strike me as dramatic, or at least that wasn’t what compelled me to read them. Curiosity about the characters, their pasts, development, and what happens next have carried me through a lot of books. In Harry Potter, for instance, there are dramatic moments, but to me, the compelling part is in all the details of the people. Sure there’s some great climactic moments, but you usually have to read the whole book to get to them 🙂

      That said, those dark and dramatic moments can build a lot of tension, which can be quite compelling. I’m thinking of a series where the book ends with everything wrapped up nicely… and then the protagonist is shot and falls into a river. I nearly ripped my hair out waiting for the next book!

      I have also found “soft” drama to be compelling – when it’s a “big reveal” that happens without tension or fanfare. Oh yeah, I’m your half-brother, didn’t you know? OK, I didn’t handle it well there, but sometimes life doesn’t hit you over the head with action and tension for 24 hours straight like some Hollywood movie. Sometimes the revelations are softer (if you’ve got a better word for what I’m trying to say, let me know!).

      I think I do get what you’re saying about how scary I’m willing to go shaping the book. I hadn’t thought of it that way. I’ve got to consider that (if only my characters would do what I want, I might get some say in the darned thing!). 🙂

      Thank you for swinging on over here and commenting Kate. As always, it’s a pleasure.

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