Friday, May 1, 2009

Dark Matter

My second work-in-progress deals with a dark subject matter. It’s based on a true story that involves a violent crime and how a person’s life has led them to commit this crime.

When I first started writing this book, I began having nightmares. My internet research also led me to interact with people I wish didn’t actually exist. I’ve tried to stop working on this book, but something keeps drawing me back to it.

I write to understand people. Whenever someone intrigues me, for better or for worse, I tend to write about them. If my work is worth anything, I hope that it provides insight into characters that might not seem sympathetic at first—I hope that it encourages people to accept each other for who they are.

But should some things remain unwritten?

I’ve asked myself that a lot lately. Even though I’m approaching the subject from a sympathetic perspective, I wonder if the world would be a better place if I simply left it alone.

Of course, I’m not the first person to approach a subject like this. Many great works deal with the dark matter. Crime and Punishment and Macbeth are just a couple of examples. No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy is the latest book I’ve read dealing with something like this. For me, what makes this book palatable is the fact that I can distance myself from it when I need to. I can look out at the world and see that things aren’t as bad as all that. This book works because it reminds me to be grateful for reality. Maybe that’s what makes the journey into the darkness worthwhile. Maybe dark matters serve to remind us of the light.

The fact is, I couldn’t stop working on this story even if I wanted to. But this experience has led me to think more deeply about what I send out into the world. Whether I’m writing a light-hearted piece or something more serious, I ask myself if the book I’m writing is worth more than the paper it’s printed on.



  1. Davin - I truly have no clue how to respond. Two of my projects deal with the aftermath of violence. I show the characters' journey from the darkness to the light . . . so to speak. I don't actually give huge details about the violent act. Perhaps I'm too afraid to go to that dark, dark place beneatht he facade of humanity. Perhaps I just don't want to go there.

    I think that if you can maintain the distance, you should forge ahead. Sometimes, understanding the darkness is a postive thing. If the point arrives that you can no longer maintain the distance . . . set the project aside and move on to something else.


  2. Interesting post. I generally avoid writing dark matter in detail but when I read it I take it for what it is, a novel.

  3. Difficult topic - although interesting. For me, it matters if the characters have some sort of triumph at the end. If they are safe, get a reprieve - something to give closure to the book. If the book doesn't offer that, then I generally don't enjoy it.

  4. I ask myself that question for every story I write: will the world become a better place because of my story? If not, or worse, if the world would lose something because of my story, it's easy to feel unmotivated. Perhaps that's for the best.

  5. I almost always have darker subject matter in the books I work on. I'm not sure why. I'd say get it down on paper, then take a look. You can always edit it down later - the darker side of things - if you feel it's too much.

    In the end, I think the hard choices, suffering and loss can be what makes a character great.

    Either that, or I'm just mean to my characters. But I swear...sometimes they set themselves up for it.

  6. If you can get down into the darkness, I applaud you. For those of us who stay in the light (so to speak), we can't really imagine why or how people do what they do. But if a story's real and compelling, there's never a reason not to tell it, no matter how brutal or ugly it might be. Humanity has a great deal of ugliness in its history, but had someone not told the tale, it might have been swept under the rug, ignored instead of learned from. My vote is that you never keep a story inside, no matter what.

  7. It depends on how it is told and why it is told.

    Journeys alongside dark characters can be thrilling. The characters themselves can be complex and intellectually challenging (think Hannibal Lector) or they can just give a solid shock value (think Freddy Kreuger - OK, not a literary reference, but a valid comparison nonetheless).

    Life is dark. Humans have been torturing and killing each other since the dawn of history, so we all get it at some internal level. The sun fuels the life on this planet, but at the same time it is comprised of atomic violence on a scale that is just staggering; as is every other star in the universe. I think God loves a good explosion, personally.

    If the story brings you total discomfort to write it, think about who (if anyone) will read it. If it is so dark you have alienated your reading audience, then chalk the exercise up as therapy. If you don't need that particular kind of therapy, stop.

  8. I think it's really interesting and kind of exciting that your story originally gave you nightmares. I don't mean to sound unkind about that, but it just seems to me you probably have an exciting story, and if it's affecting you that much, you're probably telling it well.
    I personally find dark stories really fascinating. Yes, they're painful to read (or watch), but I think it's really interesting to learn about all kinds of people, even despicable ones. And I don't mind a dark novel, unless it seems like it's becoming too violent for violence's sake. (American Pyscho is the only book I couldn't finish for that reason. But I love the movie.)

    If the story keeps calling to you, I say write it as long as you can stand it. If it becomes too painful, then let it go.

  9. I think we read books for a variety of reasons and one of those is to understand the world. When I began reading your post, I instantly thought of Crime and Punishment and smiled when I saw you reference it.

    If you feel compelled to write a book, write it. When you're finished, the message that comes across might be very illuminating--and surprising.

    Again...I just love the look of this blog. I'm going to stare for a while. Have a great weekend!

  10. Wow...that is some powerful writing. This absolutely reminds me of Jodi Piccoult's research methods.

    I've never had a book that required research on that level. Sure, I've done book research, but never people research, if that makes sense.

    BUT...I do know that some of my favorites, some of the most powerful writing, more important writing--springs from this sort of thing.

  11. Scott, I can definitely see the control that fear can have in confronting dark matter. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, or a good thing, but it is something that would have to be overcome before you can really invest yourself in the subject.

    T. Anne and Tess, I think a lot of people feel like you do. Deep down, everyone wants to see hope somewhere in the story. Thanks for your comment!

    Justus, I can tell that this is something you ask yourself. Your stories definitely make me think about life.

    Screaming Guppy, I doubt you're mean! You bring up a great point that the work will evolve as I develop it. It may be a completely different story by the time I'm done.

    Eric, that's beautifully put. The story I'm writing is a search for understanding and truth, at least for me.

    Rick, great point about the good and bad of most things in nature. I study metal content in cells, and having too little of it makes the cell sick and having too much of it also makes a cell sick. So, there's a middle ground to most every nutrient that your body needs.

    Annie, That's really great advice. Thank you! In a way it's almost self-regulatory since at some point I probably couldn't continue even if I wanted to. And, yes, the nightmares can be sort of exciting. I do like the fact that art and life can interact like that.

    Jill, yes, that's something I hadn't thought about that Screaming Guppy also mentioned. I really don't know what the end message will be, and I won't know until I'm done.

    Beth, thanks! You know, as embarrassed as I am to admit it, I usually hate doing research for a book. (Bad news for the professional researcher that I am!) But in this case, I can't stop. The subject just fascinates me, as scary as it is.

  12. Davin,

    I think the fact that you have always come back to the story, indicates that you have to write it. I know you already did and are in the editing process now, so the question here is really not about should you write it, but rather should you spend your precious time on something that at the end you are not convinced about. I think you should. I think you are definitely passionate about it, but have all kinds of fear going on inside you. And that’s just normal. We all do, at some point. If it’s a true story from someone close, that think about it, maybe even discuss it. If it’s based on a story you read somewhere, then it’s easier to finish it. In any case, you have done a wonderful job with it so far, so I encourage you to keep going until you feel satisfied, then you can put it aside and think what you really want to do with it.

    BTW, the omniscient POV you are using in your book does do the trick of setting a distance between the reader and the story. As I read the chapters, I didn’t feel the overwhelming darkness of the plot, although I admit your flashback scenes are pretty dark and the rooster scene is just tragically obscure. But you are telling us something there, something we need to know. And that only makes it worthwhile to write it.

  13. Krisz, Thanks for stopping by! The book that you are familiar with is actually not the story I'm talking about it. The one I'm referring to is not done yet. I've only got about 20,000 words in it. It's MUCH darker than my rooster story. :P

  14. Oh, sorry for the misunderstanding. Then, here is my new comment. I still think that if you have always come back to the story no matter how many times you tired to ignore it, it means something. Just write as much as you comfortably can and see what happens. I think you’ll know when you are far beyond your limits. If it’s something you really have to tell, you’ll know. Just pay attention to your interior signs and the way your writing is coming along. And be sure, that if you need encouragement or simply want to talk about your doubts, we’re here to listen.

  15. Davin, I will read it and enjoy it, IF there is a conclusion that doesn't give me nightmares. In other words, as long as the ending comes to a satisfying close. The character wins in wherever this darkness has taken he/she. And you're right, perhaps dark matters DO remind us of the light! :) Right now with all that's going on with my son, I probably wouldn't read something like this, when usually I would as stated above! :)

  16. Davin, this is an excellent post, and asks some questions that I have struggled with myself.

    First of all, I don't think avoiding "dark matter" will get us anywhere. In fact, I firmly believe that writing about the darkest things in life helps us see the brighter points with that much more clarity.

    Think about it. What does Raskolnikov learn by the end of Crime and Punishment? (one of my ALL-TIME favorite novels, by the way). He is stubborn the entire book. We watch him fall apart until he confesses, and in the end there is that spark of light. That love for Sonya and the true remorse he feels for the crime he committed. But that light means so much more after the road of darkness he has traveled. And that's why the story was told, in my opinion.

    I love to put my characters in dark places. Sometimes that's the only way they grow. And honestly, the only way we grow, too. Some of those dark places are difficult, though, as you say - so much that we wonder if we should go there and if it's worth the journey and exploration to get to the light.

    The light needs to be there, though, or what is the point? I'm willing to bet that your story has it in there. Every story I've read does. Even Of Mice and Men, which is a complete tragedy in my opinion, is a beautiful story. Most people hate it with good reason, but I refuse to shut out the light it offers. Keep your focus on that, and I think you'll get through your story, nightmares and all.

  17. Robyn, I agree with you in that the journey must be worth it. So sorry to hear about your son and that he's still there at the hospital. I wish you and your family the best. It's hard to read dark things when our own lives are in shadow-time. That's when comedy and light fiction seems to really help me.

  18. Davin,

    I suspect most people don't understand the darkness you are alluding to in your post. When you mentioned having nightmares and meeting unsavory people, I inferred you were delving into very vile subjects. Then I read comments like, "keep it dark, because that's real," but could the commenter truly have meant that? Do they want you to detail rape, torture, sadomasochism, and so on? I have my doubts.

    Then again, since you referenced Crime and Punishment as a novel dealing with dark matter, perhaps you're not talking about deep darkness. At least, I didn't judge Dostoevsky's prose or plot to be exceptionally grisly. Weren't the details along the lines of, "I chopped her head. Bone split open. Blood. Dead"? After that, he threw in guilt, introspection and so on to top off the story, correct? The psychology of the story didn't frighten me. I'd have a harder time reading about the minutia of fingernail removal. I shudder.

  19. Justus, I don't think the readers here want to necessarily read about those things in fine grisly detail. But they do exist, and I feel that if they're part of a story, they can be there. It's all in how it is told, in my opinion, that makes the difference between it being too dark and disturbing.

    Crime and Punishment deals with cold blooded murder. That's pretty dark, in my opinion. Even worse, Raskonikov feels that he did a good deed. *shudders*

    But I do agree, I've read worse. Psychological "dark" isn't as grisly as reading about the minutia of fingernail removal.

  20. Robyn, I definitely agree that there is a time and place when I wouldn't want to deal with dark stuff. When I was younger I thought less of light books, but now I understand how truly important they are. They keep the world happy.

    Lady Glamis, yep, I threw in C&P for you! :)

    Justus, Great point. Yeah, even in the post I was a little afraid to get into the details of what I was actually writing about. I'll mention them here, just because I figure there's no point in hiding it. READERS MAY NOT WANT TO READ PAST THIS PART OF MY COMMENT: I'm writing about a man who becomes and cannibal and the victim who volunteered to be eaten. For me there is light in the matter simply because I think all people are searching for something hopeful, even when they end up doing bad things. This is loosely based on a true crime, and in the end the victim did die and the cannibal was imprisoned.

  21. Davin,

    I remember hearing about that crime. Write the story if you must, but please don't ask me to critique it! It would make my wimpy stomach turn.

  22. Justus, it makes me pretty queasy too. I still wonder if I will have it in me to finish, and if I can, that will probably also scare me. Thanks for chiming in!

  23. Michelle,

    Cold blooded, perhaps, but were the readers made to care about the victim? Obviously I don't want anyone to die, but I think murder has more emotional punch when the victim isn't made of cardboard. Maybe I should have read that book more closely.

  24. Justus, I don't think you really read the book... Raskolnikov is not cardboard. There's a reason it has lasted as long as it has.


  25. Michelle,

    That's the name of the old woman?!

  26. Ahhh, I completely read that wrong! Sorry! Now I feel stupid and blind.

    Yeah, she was a bit cardboard-ish, but that was the point, I think.

  27. I write dark pieces from time to time. Even though they are short, It's difficult. I've experienced the hook you're talking about. I don't understand it either.

    I think if a writer is sensitive and insightful, nothing should be out of bounds. I've always loved the saying, "Where angels fear to tread" Maybe that's the draw?

    Good luck with your project, however you endeavor to tread.

  28. Life is dark. Many people try to write happy things to avoid it, but sometimes you just gotta go for it. I applaud your efforts.

    That said, my book is becoming darker in it's later stages. Definitely not my intention, or right for my target audience. Knowing when it's appropriate can be part of the challenge.

  29. Rebecca, "Where angels fear to tread." Yes, that makes a lot of sense. I am approaching this because of a need to understand, which, to me is also a need to forgive.

    Mariah, I think a target audience can definitely be a consideration at times. I try not to think about my readers during my early drafts to make sure that I'm writing from the heart. But, because I do want readers at some point, they have to enter my thoughts eventually!

  30. Mariah, I agree. Knowing when it's appropriate is the perfect way to phrase that. One of my friends had a post on her blog about disturbing material in the media these days. I replied, in essence, that if the dark content is there just to be there - to entertain, and we gain nothing from it - then it shouldn't be there. Something must be gained from it besides a twisted sense of entertainment and pleasure. In my opinion...

    Davin, if you are writing that story as a need to understand and forgive, I can't see how it would go wrong and serve a purpose besides what you intended. I trust you'll handle it appropriately. It's like Schindler's List, which I've never seen, but I've heard it will change your perspective and thoughts once you see it. And for the better. If you've seen it, is that true?

  31. Lady Glamis,
    I have seen Schindler's List, and yes, it was a powerful movie. There is a hopefulness in the movie, similar to what I got from visiting Anne Frank's house. There are always these beautiful moments, even in dark times, so maybe the trick it to make sure I find them!

  32. You have given me a lot to think about here. My first instinct is to "let sleeping dogs lie", "don't look under rocks for anything" make some good points. This is a great post.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog,for the nice comments, and for following. I'm following back.

  33. Finding beautiful moments in the dark--this is a true gift, both in life and in fiction. This is the subject matter that attracts me a great deal and I explore it in my writing. The fact that it has been affecting you so much means that the novel has to be written, and no matter how dark the story is, there will be glimpses of hope. I wrote a story, I think it is one of my best, and it has been rejected a lot (but I'm not giving up)about a mental health patient, abused and violated, and yet she finds beauty in her life--inexplicable beauty. I think it is very important to write about things like that.

  34. Grrr. This kind of discussion makes me groan at what I miss because of the time zone differences!!

    Eeeew! No wonder you've been having nightmares while writing this book Davin. But if it's a story that has to be written, then it must be written, how ever painful.

    I also believe the writer (or artist) has a responsibility to use his/her creative gift wisely. This is a topic I've been brooding on (and busy writing a blog post on, so will expand on this thought when I post it Monday).

    But for you as a writer, grappling with dark matter is not necessarily a bad thing: the great books are great because the authors never flinched from telling it how it is. The key, I think, lies in offering the reader some light (not light-heartedness, but light) to balance the darkness.

    Have you seen the movie In Cold Blood? It's about the struggle Truman Capote had writing it because of his unwilling attraction to the murderer? It was a fascinating insight and Philip Hofmann Seymour deserved his Oscar.

  35. Let me be Negative Nancy again:

    Schindler's list has a distinct "good" side and a distinct "evil" side. In the story you're proposing, based on what I've read of it, there is an evil side and a less-than-wise side. Ha ha. Sorry, but it's true. However, if you can pull this off beautifully, then wowwie wow wow, as the editors say.

  36. dellgirl, I hear you. Yes, "Let sleeping dogs lie" is exactly the thing I wonder about.

    Ania, you're right. I will write the story. Or at least I'll try to get as far into as I can before I give up.

    Ann, don't worry about the time difference. We're still here! :) Thanks for your comments. I look forward to reading your post. I thought about Truman Copote as I was writing this post, but I'm not familiar with his writing or with the movie. I plan to check it out, but I just haven't made time for it yet.

    Justus, I don't think you're being negative. I think this is a discussion with no clear answer, at least not for me. I say in the post that I write to understand people. So, I guess I wonder if having sympathy for someone equals having hope for them.

  37. Davin, I think you're writing this book because something is compelling to you in the story. Which is enough. The good/evil moral/immoral positions of the characters are not important, nor is the nastiness of the subject matter. I have no doubt you'll do something amazing with these characters.

    Someone said that we write most powerfully when we're writing about that which makes us uncomfortable. One of the scenes I rewrote in my book was a murder that seemed, well, sort of tame. I forced myself to make it more brutal, which made me uncomfortable. But as soon as I had rewritten it, I sat back and realized that only now was it *right.* So don't worry, is my advice. Write the book you care about.

  38. I'm also a HUGE fan of Crime and Punishment. One scene in it that really stands out to me, because of how vivid it is to me, is of Sonia sitting at a table in the darkness with only on small flickering candle for light. The darkness was strong, but the light was stronger. Amazing stuff.

    I'm also one of those who hopes that my books will make the world a better place in some way--will help people be more aware, more compassionate, more enlightened, more entertained.

  39. Lois, I LOVE your comment! That is such a perfectly set scene and really does show a large theme of the book in my opinion.


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