Thursday, May 5, 2011

Writing the Cringy Things

A couple of weeks ago, there was a discussion about rape and rape fantasy at the popular readers' website Dear Author based around a thoughtfully written Opinion Letter by "Reader A." I began to read this reader's post with great interest, being fascinated myself with the politics of force, rape, and dubious consent in romantic books. Shortly into her piece, she admits that, even as someone who enjoys rape fantasy, she had read one erotica scene that left her chilled. I was thinking to myself, hmm. Wonder what scene that was?

A paragraph later she reveals that the scene in question was in Mercy, a book written by me.

I had a horror flush reaction. My heart raced and my blood thumped in my ears to see my book and my name written there on the screen. This kind reader went on to say that she didn't have a problem with the rest of the book--just this one particular scene. That comforted me (and made me very curious about what scene she was talking about.)


It got me thinking about writing "the cringy things." Do we? Don't we? Should we? Shouldn't we? As authors, we have all been chided in reviews or critiques for having our characters do things or think things that readers disapprove of. I was scolded on an author's board and in a Dear Author discussion a couple years ago, regarding my Dom Jeremy and his behavior in Comfort Object. But, in a recent poll on my site, readers voted him the #1 winner in a "Battle of the Doms." Matthew, the Dom in Mercy, gave Reader A and surely many more readers uncomfortable and angry feelings. Nonetheless, Mercy is by far my bestselling book and has been so for many months now.

So what is a writer to do? To be honest, I don't have much control over those cringy moments. My characters seem to create them on their own when I'm trying to portray these complex power exchange relationships. BDSM is not always pretty. Wait, strike that. BDSM is sometimes horrifyingly ugly, just like any other intense emotional relationship. But I also know there is a large readership that is attracted to that "warts-and-all" view, even in romance.

And the why of why I don't edit those moments out...or rewrite them to be more palatable... I suppose that is the privilege of being the writer and not the reader. If the scene is in there, I feel it belongs there, issues of romance, feminism, and fantasy aside. Of course, I apologize to readers like Reader A, who may find my cringy-er scenes disturbing or distasteful. But whenever I write something cringy into a plot, it's never because I have some rape- or anti-woman agenda, or because I wish to disturb my readers.

I think it's just because real life is cringy sometimes... Men and women do make mistakes and hurt each other in the pursuit of love and happily ever after. To feel intensely and to love intensely is also to risk erring intensely. But the wonderful thing about romance is that we can watch our H/h redeem themselves and come out on the other side stronger than they were before.

How do you feel about rough, cringy scenes in your romance novels? Want? Don't want? Want only under certain conditions?


  1. ... okay, I had to respond.

    I also had an oh-shit moment when I saw your name in the comments. I had to go back and check what I said to make sure it wasn't horrible. In the first draft I didn't name the book, but then I figured some people might want to read the book based on what I said - that's what I would have done.

    The scene in question was the one with his driver. I really felt her pain and her shame - and not in the good way either. I guess it triggered something for me because even now when I think about the particulars of that scene I get all jittery (again, not the good way). One notable thing about that scene is they go past the limits set earlier, but honestly I don't think that was it - it was just one of those freak things.

    I pointed it out there mostly to illustrate how rare of a reaction this was for me, and also because of the irony of not being bothered with the actual rape scene that occurs later, where she doesn't have consent... or even consciousness. But it didn't really affect me.

    I mentioned that I write erotica just for fun. I can write consentual sex scenes that are hot but my nonconsentual never really are - they're cold. Well, that can work for some people but that isn't my intent when I start - it's a mental block that I have. The moral of the story is that I have tremendous respect for the professional authors who can make this work.

    I also hang out on forums a lot and I don't usually recommend the book, Mercy, because I find it to be too different for a lot of regular BDSM readers (like the later DA review suggests), but I DO recommend it when someone requests something that is more intense or toes the line, etc, because I think it is a great book for people who are open to that. Although I'll admit to being too chicken to read another Annabel Joseph book, though - afraid of a repeat reaction.

    - Reader A

  2. Also - holy crap, I cannot write a short comment to save my life, can I? Sorry bout that.

  3. Jeremy redeemed himself with actions later in the book. That's why we can like him now. But I had zero respect and a lot of anger towards him for a good portion of the book. Of course, that just made some of the scenes that much better, in a twisted sort of way. Also, if he hadn't been a horrible jerk then there wouldn't have been anything he needed to redeem himself for.

    Yes, you've written scenes that have made me cringe, and I hope you keep doing it. If you never push yourself (or your readers) over the line, how will we know where the line is? Each of us have a different place we draw that line, and I think books help us define those places. And there are so many of those lines to play around with, aren't there?

    I guess it's like the math scene in Safeword: Rainbow... some love it and some hate it, but many of those who were uncomfortable with it still appreciated it for showing them a place they'd just as soon not go. For a while I thought that if I had it to do over again I might make that scene shorter, but as time has gone on I think that even with a crystal ball I would have left it as is.

    So yeah, I want a few scenes here and there that make me cringe. I'm sure there are conditions to that, but I have no idea of how to define them.

  4. *Spoilers for Mercy*

    When I read Mercy and I got the scene where Matthew shared her with those two men, I had to put the e-book down and step away. I was so upset! I kept thinking, why would he do that to her? Doesn't he love her? I guess I had not realized how 'into' the characters I was.

    I asked my husband to read ahead and tell me if I could continue reading or if it would upset me more. I know, I'm a wimp, but I ended up just skipping that scene entirely and going back after finishing the book to skim it. Probably the most disturbing scene I've read. It wasn't the sharing part but the fact that the men he shared her with were just... awful. *shudder*

  5. I loved Jeremy from the word Go! I never once had an issue with him. Never once wanted him to be any different. God, he was... Oh yeah, loved everything about him.

    As for cringy things... Bring 'em on. I love those, too. I like to be pushed in my reading as I do in my play. I like that one step over the line taken. For me, that's how I grow and how I learn more about who I am and what I can take. I want to flinch and react. I want to be uncomfortable, forced, and pushed.

    I have Mercy and will be reading it one day soon.

  6. I like to be pushed in my reading, too. At the same time, if it gets really intense I may put the book down for a bit, and read something else or take a walk. Sometimes it feels like it's an act of courage to pick it up again. Sometimes I wuss out. But I still want there to be books that push me.

    If on the other hand the book's marketing promised me consensuality, and I get non-con, I'm going to be an unhappy camper.

  7. Aww, thanks Amber for dropping in and tell me what scene it was. I was so curious! I figured it was that one or the scene that Mockingbird referred to with the two men and "Slave."

    The weird thing is, I don't set out to write those awful things--at all--they just happen. It's like the characters take me there. In Fortune and Deep in the Woods, or Firebird, the doms are much less messed up and thus the kink is much milder. (You can read those books, Amber, I swear. LOL)

    But then there are guys like Matthew and Jeremy who just do really bad stuff. I'm working on a book right now with another one of those edgy guys. But then Lily Mine, which is coming out in July/August, has a super wonderful hero and nothing gritty at all (except emotionally).

    It's like...i write one mean guy and then it's like I have to write a kinder one to purge my palate. :-)

  8. Annabel, as you know I also write "cringy scenes," not because I'm trying to push the readers but because the scenes aren't cringy to me; I don't see them as abusive, because of the consensual-nonconsent setup. Readers have interpreted them as deliberately disturbing. Perhaps some writers do that; hell, probably a lot of them do (think of the godawful rape and abuse scene in 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo').

    But intentionally disturbing or not, I think we have to write what's there to be written. Writing to please the reader turns into hack work. Getting reader feedback and using it, that's another thing. I've found out so much from readers about where I succeeded or failed in accomplishing what I was trying to accomplish, and each book should be better because of that. That is really what's important -- getting better at what we do, communicating what we're trying to communicate. Don't you think?

  9. I love that you write scenes that make me cringe. For me, it's one of the things that make the HEA so satisfying. The best books are the ones that evoke a range of emotions because that's how life is.

    And as you well know, Matthew and Jeremy are the doms I adore most in your books. Yes, they made mistakes, yes, they could be mean and selfish, but it was that humanness that made me love them all the more.

    So, I say write books as you see them.