Donna Everhart

What’s Your Secret?

Every time someone asks me to describe my current WIP, the first thing I say is, “it’s not a nice story.”  What I mean by that is, if it’s published, I don’t think I’ll be invited to speak at book clubs.

So what makes it a not so nice story?  I thought about this, and I realized something in the process of doing so.  Here is how that thought process went when I asked myself the following questions.

Am I writing about:

  • Incest?  No.
  • Torture?  No.  Well, hold up a minute.  There is one scene in the beginning where my antagonist takes his sweet time to murder a couple of people.  They realize the end is coming, so yeah, that could be torturous.
  • Pedophilia?  No.
  • Necrophilia?  No.
  • A plan gone horribly wrong, that ultimately ends up with people being killed and put into a wood chipper?  (FARGO)  No.
  • A serial killer who, after killing his victims, eats them?  (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS)  No.

After listing out the above, and considering this is a very limited list of horror we’ve heard or read about, it came to me…, maybe my story isn’t as bad as it could be.  The deeper I got into it, the more I realized, maybe my brain can only grasp so much grotesque, squeamish, dastardly things to possibly stuff into this book.  Maybe it’s just not in my psyche to go that dark and deep.

So what then, makes my story not so nice?  Good question.

I suppose it’s the fact it’s so different from the first two manuscripts – which weren’t fluffy, syrupy sweet reads, by any means, but they weren’t like this one either.  However, when thinking about how sick and twisted other stories have been, it really does makes mine seem sort of… mediocre.  Mediocre is not what I’m shooting for, but at the same time, I have to consider the shock factor, which is sort of like dipping your toes in water to test the temperature.  It’s about finding the right balance – and knowing when to use it.

This is an important point.  A writer can’t get down and dirty if it doesn’t make sense to the story, if it doesn’t come about organically, because of what has happened.  I can’t simply throw in horrific, nonsensical events for the sake of making a reader cringe, squirm, feel nauseous.  They will know because there must be reasons for why something happens – or not, or why somebody does something – or not.

For example, I had my bad guy do something in an earlier version of this manuscript.  I wrote it in thinking, oooh yeah, this is totally sick – and twisted.  What was he trying to do?  Purposefully hit a stray dog who was at the side of the road, eating roadkill, which to me is about as heinous a crime as there ever was.  Except, he had no reason to hit poor old Sambone.  Mr. Bad Guy just committed a crime, murdering two people.    We already know he’s reeeaaaalllly baaaaadddd.  What would have been the point?  Did he have a thing against animals?  Did he hate dogs?  Had a dog done something to him as a kid?  In truth, it might have shown you not only was he a murderer, but he was a real ass.  But it wasn’t really necessary.

My CP called me out on this, and said, “I know what you’re trying to do here, but it’s not working.”

Oops.  Too much?  Probably.  I was happy to go off and rescue Sambone, let him live to find his way into another story one day.

Since then, I’ve been trying to keep the writing in check.  I’ve tried not to get too gory, too bloody, too crazy, just for the sake of shocking a reader.  I’ve tried to make sure actions taken or words spoken, all make sense and fit in.  What I want is for the story to be realistic and believable, frosted with nail biting tension.

How do you find the right balance for the dark and twisted components in your story?  What’s your secret?





8 thoughts on “What’s Your Secret?”

  1. Good question! Sometimes, I find I’ve written a story “too nice” and have to go back with some heavier gauge sandpaper. Other times, I have to question whether a character would really go that far, and adjust accordingly. Some of it has to do with believability, but people in the news do pretty unbelievable stuff every day. So I think context is everything. One of my main characters is a recovering heroin addict rock star, with the warts THAT entails. Another is a nice, Christian raised teenager who ends up in a world rougher around the edges than she knew/anticipated. So, within those different stories, different rules are at play.

    1. “Questioning whether character would really go that far…”


      And you’re right about what people do every day …, that is completely unbelievable. I have found watching the ID (Investigative Discovery) channel really gives me a sense of what is feasible within the minds of the people who start off as very ordinary. Those are some O.M.G. moments.

      1. I don’t have TV, but I have watched some of those ID shows on Netflix, and I love them! Sometimes they drive me nuts by leaving certain questions unanswered, but I’ve learned interesting things.

      2. They are addictive. Sometimes I think, I’ll just watch this one…and this one…and next thing I know, it’s four hours later…! (No TV! I’m impressed.)

  2. This is a really interesting post! As someone more comfortable in those dark and squishy areas, I find I often have to pull back. But I often think that the instinct of most writers, especially in the earlier stages, is to stay in those emotional places which created the story. So a romance writer languishes on kiss scenes. A dark YA writer languishes in abuse scenes. Etc. Etc.

    I think it all comes back to knowing the expectations of your audience. There is definitely a market for squishy books filled with lots of uncomfortable scenes of violence. But is your book one of them? In other words, does the story begin with a character who not only engages in an act of violence, but is in a situation which promises the reader that successive and repetitive acts of violence will be part of the story? Or are you using violent scenes to add suspense or tension because you haven’t yet figured out your middle?

    But I don’t think it’s ever related to the violence itself. I think it’s whether or not the violence (like the kiss) moves the story forward.

    1. The last sentence…extraordinarily helpful. In thinking about a couple of other acts of violence committed by Mr. Bad Guy, I can (happily) answer yes to that question. For one, he’s compelled to move, change his location – and he ends up living closer to the protagonist. The other, he creates additional burden/worry for himself within his “organization.” What’s happened to X? She didn’t come in to work. Wasn’t she with you?


  3. Here’s to stories that aren’t so nice, stories that push our buttons and make us squirm, at least a bit. I went to a reading the other day and the story was “nice,” a bunch of well-crafted sentences and plot that interested me … not at all. Torture me!

    1. The reading…sounds sort of like the conversation I laid out the other day? 🙂 Mundane we do not need. Admittedly, a good round torture wakes me up – as long as I’m just writing it, and not the recipient.

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