Writing Violence

No one writes in a vacuum, and I am eternally thankful for my beta readers who get to suffer through the insurmountable piles of garbage that I call first drafts, correcting grammar, typos, enormous plotholes, and gaping in disbelief as I completely misrepresent their mountaineering experiences in a handful of throwaway lines. These guys rock, doing it for no reward other than my gratitude and a spot in the Acknowledgements pages. And then I go and do stupid things like set a story in a city I’ve only ever visited once (HK Mosh, dropping on attemptedmurder.uk on 27th July), and have to ask my stepmum’s cousin who does live there to make sure that I described it at least vaguely correctly. It’ll be all thanks to Google maps if I actually pulled it off.

So, I asked my stepmum’s cousin, and he asked if I wanted his wife and daughter to have a look as well. I mentally went through all the violence that I managed to cram into this 20,000-word story – kneecapping, headshots, attempted domestic violence and possible police brutality in the same scene, attempted drive-by shooting, full-on riot – and asked if he thought it would be ok for a teenage girl to read. And then I learnt that somehow, I’ve turned into one of those people they talk about on warning labels that read Parental Advisory – You will be far more offended by this than your kids will. I also started thinking about how I’ve actually written all that up in this story.

Because the thing with crime is, it’s violent.

That’s hardly the revelation of the century, but bear with me because I’m going somewhere with this. If you are writing about crime, you are writing about violence, even if it’s the cosiest of cosies, in which the village florist investigates the vicar being decorously and tastefully poisoned by his tea in someone’s drawing room.

So, one of the choices you have to make as a crime writer is to decide how to present that violence. I’m going to lay my cards on the table here and say that I’m not going to talk too much about how other writers do this. There are some writers I like more than others in this regard, some who I think do this very well and some who don’t, and some who sometimes do it well and sometimes not. What I want to focus on is my approach to this, how I try to present violence, how successful I’ve been, and what the potential traps and pitfalls are that I try to avoid. I’ll probably talk about other writers, and maybe some TV shows, for comparative purposes, but I’ll try not to start ranting on and on about how much better than them I think I am.

My approach to writing violence is ‘Be unsparing, but don’t glamorise.’ I don’t want to present the effects of crime in a softer, comfortable way because crime isn’t soft and comfortable, but nor do I want to start presenting it in any kind of a fetishized, sexy way. One thing I will say about other authors – I think David Peace did this really well in Red Riding quartet. It’s a real strength of those books, the way they describe the horrific crimes of the Yorkshire Ripper, and the corrupt police investigating him. It’s portrayed as grubby, squalid, and desperate. Sutcliffe isn’t made into some kind of sexy, smouldering anti-villain when he appears in 1980 – Peace actually barely describes him at all, and sticks very close to the actual transcripts of his police interviews for his language.

You don’t come away from it thinking that murdering a woman by jumping on her chest until a broken rib punctures a lung is something that a sexy bad boy does.

And presenting murderers and rapists as sexy bad boys is something I’m very keen to avoid, because systemic violence against and degradation towards women, and the social structures that promote and preserve both things, is something I’ve chosen to focus on in my writing. What this means is that my writing boldly goes where just about every crime writer has gone before, and features a lot of violence against women, both physical and sexual.

How I differentiate myself from just about every other crime writer could be its own blog post (and almost certainly will be). But again, when it comes to violence against women, the rule is ‘Be unsparing, but don’t glamorise.’ Don’t make it gratuitous, don’t make it sexy, don’t try to hide what has been done and the effect it has had. I feel that, if I try to tone down or dilute the actions of my villains to make them more tasteful or palatable, then I’m letting down the victims of real crimes – especially if I’m using a real crime as the basis of my own, fictional, story. But not toning down what happens is not the same as glamorising crime or presenting it gratuitously.

It’s crime writing, so people are going to die. We don’t need to hear about how big the victim’s breasts are, or what her breasts are doing during the murder, or, really, anything about the murder victim’s breasts in general.

Serial killers often mutilate people. So, I’ll describe the mutilations, but I won’t give you gore porn, with the viewpoint lingering on every last piece of viscera. You know what’s been done, you know it’s horrific. I’m not going to try and make it cool.

One of the best examples of this unsparing-but-not-gratuitous style I can think of was by Anthony Horowitz, in one of his pre-Alex Rider books. I read this story years ago, and I can’t remember the title of it, but it was essentially an And Then There Were None-type setup of a group of people cut off on an isolated island being murdered one by one, told through the eyes of his hardboiled teenage private detectives. The point-of-view character, Nick, describes the first murder scene where the victim has been chopped in half by listing all the places there’s blood, concluding with ‘there was even blood on the blood.’ For me, that’s about perfect, and it’s totally in keeping with the character – it describes what has happened and the results matter-of-factly, with the wryly humorous observation of a hardboiled private eye at the end. It’s neither glamorous nor gratuitous, we know what we need to know and the story can move on without the author taking your mind’s eye lovingly across every detail.

For the short that prompted me thinking about this, HK Mosh, there actually weren’t too many decisions to make, most of the violence takes place either off-screen or observed from a distance by Paul Quinn. The only thing that happens up close and personal is the drive-by shooting, and the antagonist misses. However, the one before it, Consent, featured a rape investigation. There were lots of decisions to make, and the feedback I received during the drafting stage was initially fairly negative about some of those decisions. The scene where Paul questions Harvey especially, was quite negatively received by my writing group. Now, to be fair the group’s word limit meant that I could only send about two-thirds of the scene, and it didn’t work as well without the full context of what Paul was trying to achieve, but the feedback was still not what I’d hoped for. In that case, it seemed that I’d overstepped and gone from unsparing to overly graphic.

Part of the criticism in that case was that Paul appeared to be indulging his main suspect in creating an unnecessarily prurient sexual fantasy, so some of my editing involved making it clearer that Paul’s goal was to rake over his suspect’s story in detail and expose as many lies and contradictions as he could – and that Paul wasn’t enjoying this at all. You can read the story for yourself to see how successful I was (the link is https://attemptedmurder.uk/shortstories/consent/). Personally, I was surprised by the criticism because I’d generally handled representing violence, and sexual violence, well in the past. However, one thing I’ve learnt is that, when beta readers say that there’s a problem, there’s a problem. They aren’t always right about the solution, but they’re pretty much always right when they see problems. So, I edited the scene, and hopefully managed to get it back into the realm of ‘Unsparing but not glamorous.’ I’ll leave it up to you to decide if I pulled that off.

The pratfall that I came across in Consent was that, in Paul’s questioning of his suspect, I needed to go into great detail. One of the ways that I’ve handled representing extreme violence in the past (especially in In Murder’s Shadow) has been to not actually show it ‘On screen,’ for lack of a better term, but to have it described later by one police character to another. That way, I can communicate exactly what has been done without the need for any great description. This was the strategy I went for in HK Mosh as well – Paul relates that two men have smashed another’s kneecaps without giving any further detail, and the injuries to the shooting victim are described by the pathologist. And, as and when I can use this approach, it seems to work fairly well.

In Consent, I couldn’t do this, and I struggled to get the balance right. As someone once said, the beauty of writing is that you don’t have to get it right first time, unlike say brain surgery. It’s a process, and what the writing of Consent has shown me is that, when having to discuss horrible violence with its perpetrators, I’m vulnerable to going too far and showing or describing too much, in a way that undermines what I’m trying to achieve.

Beta readers are the first line of defence against this, and I’m lucky to have three very good ones who aren’t afraid to tell me when they think I’ve got something wrong (or to ask me to make impenetrable police jargon easier to understand, or when I’ve made a character too rude). It is, of course, entirely up to me to listen to, understand, and use their feedback.

I want to write crime fiction that’s authentic and realistic, and that means not hiding what’s been done. I think that it’s wrong to dilute the full horrors of what people are capable of to make the stories easier to read. Equally, I think that it’s wrong to turn those horrific acts into something glamorous or titillating. Finding the middle ground, the area that’s unsparing, but not glamorised, is a constant series of decisions, redraftings, and more decisions. And, ultimately, it’s for the readers to decide if I actually got it right.

If you want to see if I got it right, the link for Consent again is https://attemptedmurder.uk/shortstories/consent/. Justifiable can be found at https://attemptedmurder.uk/shortstories/justifiable/. HK Mosh is at https://attemptedmurder.uk/shortstories/hk-mosh/.

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