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SHOULD INDIE NOVELISTS AVOID TRIGGER SUBJECTS?

Prior to having children, I worked as a counselor in the mental health field. Probably because of this, I’m comfortable discussing almost anything. As far as my writing goes, not only am I comfortable writing about trigger topics like domestic violence, rape, suicide, addiction, teen pregnancy, and self-harm—I gravitate toward them. I never considered my bent toward sensitive subjects an issue. In my mind, writing about these topics was similar to writing about sex and violence.  I told myself that if I did it well and the topic was germane to the plot, readers would be fine with it. That was before I published my second novel, “The Heaven Spot,” a thriller about an opioid addict who travels to South Florida to solve her runaway estranged daughter’s murder.

After my book went live on Amazon, I attended a local writing event. When another attendee asked about my book, I gave her a brief summary. Immediately, her face paled. She shook her head and said, “Sorry. I can’t read that. It’s too upsetting. I’ve dealt with enough addiction in my own family. I don’t want to read about it.” “No worries,” I told her.

I have a close friend whose son died of a fentanyl overdose. When I left the writing event, I texted her and told her that she might not want to read my book. I have a relative whose college-age daughter died of sepsis. She asked me to send her a signed copy of my book. I didn’t mail it.  I was starting to question my choice to write about the death of a child and an addict. Should I have written something safer, like a cozy mystery or a cowboy romance? Who doesn’t love cowboys and love? Nobody gets triggered by Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple or clues found in cozy English villages.

About a week later, I received an email from my marketing person. She was scheduling a virtual book tour for my novel and needed me to complete a form about the triggers in it and rate their intensity.  The triggers were numerous…cursing, drug use, an LGTBQ relationship, teen runaway, and suicide. My novel is emotionally charged. I emailed the completed form to my marketing person and asked her if she thought bloggers would choose not to read and review my novel because of the triggers. She assured me that they wouldn’t. “Bloggers merely need to be transparent with their fanbase/readers,” she said. My book was doing better than I’d expected. But this question still gnawed at me—would it perform even better if I’d toned it down or taken a Hallmark’s lead and tackled less controversial subjects?

I tried to make sense of it all as I walked my doodle that afternoon. My thoughts settled on a memoir I’d just read, “You Don’t Look Like an Ultrarunner,” by Tristan Reid. The story was about Reid’s experiences as a bipolar man, birding and running while battling extreme highs and lows. At the start of his book, Reid tells his readers that his story might be triggering to some people. He goes on to bravely and openly describe his inspirational and painful life. I learned a lot from reading Reid’s memoir.  His reflections made me think differently about people with bipolar and made me want to power through my own challenges. From a purely human perspective, I was glad I’d written about addiction, but I was still worried that my emotional book might put off readers. I was trying to build my writing career, after all. I wanted readers to be interested in my book.

The worry that I’d made a pivotal choice to write about a trigger subject still haunted me as I clicked on Peacock later that same night. I perused the shows listed on the screen. My eyes shot to the number one streamed show of the week, “Law & Order/SVU,” a show about sex crimes. I love “SVU.” Apparently, a lot of other people love it, too, despite the triggering subjects it tackles.  I did a quick Google search and discovered that “SVU,” which has aired for 25 seasons, has been nominated for 25 Emmys and has won six times. Granted, the show’s success can be attributed to Marissa Hargitay, the main actress’s talent, and the excellent writers, but being reminded of the show’s success made me think that if done really well, writing about a subject that makes some people uncomfortable is not only important from a therapeutic and educational perspective, but it can also lead to commercial success.

I thought about other controversial books and series that have been successful. My thoughts immediately swung to Jay Asher’s YA novel, “13 Reasons Why.” Asher’s book, about teen suicide, was a New York Times Bestseller and was adapted into a Netflix series. “If SVU can circumnavigate tough topics and still be successful, and Asher can do it, you can too,” I told myself.

Okay, so I’d circled back around and returned to the theory that I’d started with originally. If executed brilliantly and for the right reasons (not solely for shock value), tackling triggering subjects can be a commercial win for novelists. From my perspective, writing about tough topics so that some people feel less alone in their struggles and others can empathize is always a win.

My final take is this…I won’t steer clear of triggering topics, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to get anxious about my novels’ premises. I’m starting the process of prepping my third novel for publication, “The Glass Bottle People,” a magical realism novel about a girl who meets her grandmother—a bottle hoarder who believes the souls of the town’s flood victims are trapped in glass bottles. Like Asher’s novel, “13 Reasons Why,” my new book delves into the topic of suicide. Asher’s book was banned in a Florida elementary school and in a Kentucky middle school. Let’s just say, I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed when I upload my magic realism novel onto Amazon.

What are your thoughts on writing about trigger subjects? What controversial topics have you written about? I’d love to hear from you!

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