How to Scare People

The bank teller’s eyes widened and she stopped speaking in mid-sentence. “What is it?” I asked. I’d just come home from getting four wisdom teeth pulled and couldn’t feel my mouth. The teller was looking down at the counter, and so I looked down too. Blood was dripping onto the green-black marble.

My stitches had come loose. I put my fingers to my lips and saw blood.

I imagine that teller remembers me to this day.

When you put your work out into the world, you have no idea how people will react. Something meant one way will be taken in another. How much would it bother you?

A few weeks ago I was crossing a busy street with two of my best friends. As we stood in the turn lane, cars whizzing by, L. blurted out, “Your novel scared me. I couldn’t read past the first chapter.” More cars. “The knife under the bed.” The way across the last two lanes was almost clear. “I had to stop. I’m sorry. I was scared.”

“It’s okay,” I said, watching the cars. “Don’t worry about it. Come on, let’s go.”

What is it specifically about your work that people will react too?

6 thoughts on “How to Scare People

  1. Oh jeez. These questions of yours. Sure they demand answering before even setting out to write, but does that mean somebody actually has to ASK them?!? 🙂

    It feels presumptuous — to ME — to say that I’d like to move people, to frighten readers, to make them laugh (easily, w/out forcing it) or choke up, to etc., as a result of reading what I’ve written. I know when something I’ve written makes ME laugh, get teary, whatever, and it would be nice to know I’ve got company (especially people I don’t know) having those same responses, preferably at the same points in the text. (Ha!) But, like, who am I to say? If having had one taste, somebody comes back for more — for whatever their own reasons — and then comes back for another, and so on, even if their reasons are utterly unimagined, then yes, I’d feel successful.

    But heck, I’m easily satisfied. Even if somebody thought something not really about the story itself, just something on the order of “Whoa, I didn’t know you could do THAT with the English language/with fiction/whatever!” I’d probably be delighted. Again, they wouldn’t even have to tell me. Just as long as they come back for more.

    (If I had Stephen King’s recurring readership — or heck, even somebody like Anne Tyler’s — I don’t think I’d mind never receiving a fan letter or book review, one way or the other.)

  2. Pamela

    In writing for my job, I have to constantly think about how people will react to it. I want them to react that way I want. It is so frustrating when I realize that they haven’t seen in the story the way, I have seen in the story. I try and pick apart each bit of the story, each piece of the puzzle to see where I have gone wrong.

  3. I have no idea how people will react. That’s one reason I’m so easily stumped. I have no idea which parts are interesting, or which characters are most intriguing, or if I’ve chosen the correct pacing. Luckily, I’m figuring out that these things sort of fall into place on their own with someone who has read/written as much as we have. It’s instinctual. But I still think it’s a huge weakness not to be able to identify those important points, as becomes painfully evident when describing the work to others, i.e. a synopsis and query letter. I could easily see myself with 20 bestsellers and still having no idea what people like about them until they tell me.

  4. Can we control others’ reactions? I guess not. I would say that your friend being scared is more a reflection on her than on your work… except for that if you can elicit such a strong reaction, that is a good thing. Powerful writing can be scary.

    I don’t know what people will react to. One of the things I need to do more is share my fiction more. Just stop wussing out and give the work I have to my critical readers. And I think they will each react to different things. One will react to the technical details. One to the writing. One to the story. One to the concepts. Really I have no idea at all what they will respond to.

    As long as they aren’t bored, or can’t remember what they read, or have nothing to say…

    Honestly, I don’t even know if my book is any good, although I feel like it should be. There’s no time for thoughts like that in Nanowrimo, though.

  5. I’m curious to see how many people think the first book is autobiographical (as they often are). The geographical locations, houses, etc are based in reality as are many of the situations and relationships – though the people are not …

  6. As writers of fiction, we cannot predict reactions, as we are communicating our own unconscious thoughts to the unconscious thoughts of another. We never fully know another, or even ourselves, so we just write what we write. And for that matter, we often have no idea what causes others to react in different ways to what we say, how we act, or even who we are, who we remind them of, what quirks or statements trigger their own memories or emotions. I am always stunned, as are people I know who teach or counsel others, at the things people remember years later that we said, though we have no memory of saying those things at all.

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