Rare Birds: Stories comes out next week, eep! And I wanted to take a moment to point out a little something extra I did in this book. In collections, it’s customary to list previous publication history somewhere – often on the copyright page, but I like to put it in the back of the book. (I suspect back of the book will become the norm for a lot of material over the next few years, as online previews only show a few pages and you want to ensure those are all story, not a half title or copyright info. But I digress.) In Rare Birds, I have also added content warnings for two stories along with the previous publication history, and signaled this in the table of contents. They’re there if you want ’em, and they’re out of the way if you don’t, and they’re barely a sentence each – more an indication of what’s inside than an explicit list of potentially difficult material.
When I tell other authors I’ve done this, they are almost universally against it. And their arguments are perfectly sensible: you can’t screen for real life; you write horror so of course it’s going to be triggering; that’s what reviews are for. All of these things are true; none of them negate the potential usefulness of warnings. So I’ve put them in nonetheless, and I may add one or two in the back of Vacui Magia as well.
I am a spoiler person. I read the summaries and I check doesthedogdie.com. My spouse, thankfully, has no problem turning off a movie if we hit certain scenes and switching it to something else (Midsomer Murders is always a good backup.) I do this because if I sit through certain content now it will fuck me up, and it will do so for days. And movies are bad enough but books are worse, because they’re so damn immersive. I’ve learned to simply close them and walk away, but I used to be a completist, I used to tell myself to toughen up, 3,000 people on Goodreads read this so why can’t you?
It took me a long time to understand, to really believe, that it’s okay to walk away.
If there was one watershed moment for me, it was reading Kate Elliot’s King’s Dragon. This isn’t to knock Elliot; if anything it’s testament to how effective her writing is. That book fucked me up. I was still in completist mode, I finished it hoping against hope I would see that character (if you’ve read the book you know who I’m talking about) not just die but die horribly, die gutted and screaming, and instead I found out it takes several books for him to get his comeuppance, and I was left feeling like a bomb had gone off inside me. I was flattened. I lost sleep, I was nauseated, I had old memories and fears coming back up to the surface, all at a time when I couldn’t afford to be exhausted and on edge. It took weeks for me to get over that book, and longer still to get it out of my head enough to start writing again.
And yes, this is particular to me; but all triggers are particular – they’re personal. And no, I can’t protect everyone, or I would never write a word. But if I had just the barest bones about what was in King’s Dragon before I started – oh, I still would have given the book a try, only I would have done so girded up as it were, and I would have saved myself a great deal of anguish.
One of the advantages of self-publishing is not only can you suit yourself as to how your work is presented, but you can change that presentation as you change. Right now this suits me, as both author and reader. I may expand the warnings, or I may discontinue them, or I may find another way of making that information available to those who need it. But for now:
If you know certain kinds of scenes are triggering for you, check the back of the book first.
If you’re fine reading anything, just dive right in.
If you think warnings are nonsense and want to tell me about it, don’t. 😉