You can’t write that!

News Alert: The Bleeding Crowd is coming out August 27th, for those interested, from Melange Books. In the mean time, you can find my short story, In a Handbasket, available for free here through Boxfire Press. Please enjoy!

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A common theme I have been seeing on my favorite haunt, the NaNoWriMo forums, lately, are questions about what you are and are not allowed to write. The first time I saw this question, I was a little surprised, but now that I’ve seen it more than once, I figured I would take the chance to cover it here.

While the NaNoWriMo site came down for repairs before I could find the original thread (literally asking what you are and are not allowed to write), but today’s post which sparked this post includes this line:

But since a character in my novel is a rapist (and yes, this is essential to the plot and the ending) there are some rape scenes…I heard that you can’t actually show the act happening (I think that’s a bit weird, considering how other acts of violence are considered totally fine) but whatever, it’s not that important.”

Ok, rape is a touchy subject, I don’t think anyone is going to argue it isn’t (especially not after all of the news stories out in the past couple of days). There are many, many people who have experienced some form of sexual assault in their lives (men and women) and there are several more who don’t care to read about things such as rape in their novels/short stories/etc. But does that mean you can’t write about it.

Honestly, my first reaction when reading that post was, “Where did you hear that you can’t write/show a rape happening in your story?” Part of me just really wanted to know if it was a passing comment the poster had picked up and internalized, or if someone in a creative writing class was teaching there are certain things that you can and can’t write about. Because honestly, when it comes to creative writing, there is very little you can’t write about.

This advice might be a little different in countries that are known to censor writing (there are a few out there where less-than-complementary writing about the government can end up with the writer in prison, I believe) but at least in the United States (and any other country with no state-sponsored censorship), the list of what you can’t write is pretty short:

1. You can’t plagiarise. That is, if someone has written something before you, you can’t take it word-for-word and call it your own. At least not without getting sued (same goes for things under copyright you haven’t gotten permission to use, even with proper credit given).

2. Libel. You can’t present something detrimental to someone’s character/life as true that is not. (This is more relevant in journalistic writing, but basically don’t write that your neighbor likes to kill people in his spare time and act like it’s true when it’s not [if it is true, you can write it, but please, call the police first]).

3. Child Pornography (if you’re in Australia or Canada). Both countries have laws banning cartoon, manga, or written child pornography. Outside of those countries, it isn’t illegal (though it is still rather icky, just saying).

And, well, that’s about it. There are a couple more things that aren’t protected under freedom of speech/the press that the Supreme Court has ruled on, but if you’re writing fiction, it more than likely doesn’t apply to you.

The long and the short of it is, there is no morality police who is going to swoop down on you for writing something that could be offensive. We don’t live in a police state. There is no Hays Code that prohibits, rape, drug use, swearing, graphic sex, blasphemy, or any other topic from being put into print. If you are ok writing it, you’re more than allowed to put it down on paper.

This does not mean, however, that people are required to give you a platform to distribute it. While you are allowed to write about something many people might find offensive/disgusting/reprehensible, publishers/distributors are more than allowed to not publish/distribute it on their site.

For example, for romance/erotica publishers, you will often find notices such as this on their submission page: “We  do not accept: scatological stories, incest/twincest, sexual content  involving anyone under the age of eighteen, snuff, rape or bestiality.

You are more that allowed to write something incestual, you may even be incredible popular with it in your story (I’m looking at you George R. R. Martin), but that doesn’t mean you can demand that someone publish your book just because you wrote it.

Far too often, I come across someone who has had a post removed from a forum online, and they start railing about how the site is violating their First Amendment rights. I’ve said it once I’ll say it again, A private company/person/other private entity cannot infringe on any of your constitutional rights. The Bill of Rights protects you from the government. The government isn’t allowed to take down your blog. Someone hosting it for you, however, can. It’s their site, they can choose what they’d like to put out there. (Note that I don’t just say publishers, but distributors. Many right remember some controversy over Amazon.com pulling books and banning authors from selling on their site. If you violate their content guidelines, even as a self-published author, they have the right to remove you. You can read more about that here.)

So, can you write about touchy subjects? Sure. Should you? That’s a little trickier. Like everything with writing, it’s about trade offs. Think about what your goals are. Do you want to market to a wide audience/be able to pitch it to every publisher in your genre? Maybe you should second guess how detailed you’re going to be about that scene. You know the one I’m talking about. Are you writing a gritty, adult novel that will most likely find a home in a niche market? Have at it. If you’re willing to write it, no one is going to stop you.

And so, write what your story needs. Most likely the only thing limiting your writing is you.

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3 thoughts on “You can’t write that!

  1. Allyson Marrs says:

    Stieg Larrson’s wildly famous “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” had many rape scenes. And while they were difficult, and sometimes disturbing, to read, it moved the plot forward and helped the reader sympathize and understand Lisbeth’s actions. In situations like these, real life horrors work well in novels. But if there’s no point beyond shocking the reader, definitely cut it.

    • Jessica Dall says:

      Exactly. Sometimes a story is best served with a passing mention of something that might make some people queamish, sometimes a full scene, sometimes nothing at all. It’s when a book turns into nothing but gross/uncomfortable scene that seem to have no point is there a serious issue in my opinion. Don’t like torture porn movies, don’t like torture porn books.

  2. Peter Prasad says:

    In Campaign Zen, I’m more concerned with the rape of the electoral process and the rape of the planet to turn a buck. When it comes to a more personal form of rape, my characters are well-trained to never take what is freely given.

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