Dangerous Writing: How to Amplify What’s at Stake in Your Next Short Story, Novel, or Poem


Safe writing will sink you

Here’s a couple publishing clichés for ya: literary journals and magazines are looking to accept writing that “takes risks;” they want to feel “what’s at stake” in your work.

Well, as tired as these phrases have become, that’s what ALL readers are looking for—writing that takes real chances (with the reader, with the subject, with the style, with the revelations or insinuations, with the process itself).

But to take risks in your writing means, of course, that you’re risking failure—and that is scary stuff! Scary, scary, necessary stuff.

3 Things You’re Scared to Risk in Your Writing (but should!)

1. Risk offending people

Touchy subjects are compelling subjects: politics, religion, race, sexuality, class differences, morality, sports rivalries, etc. Tap into the emotional reservoirs that lurk beneath those surfaces.

Allow some of your characters to hold a megaphone up to their strong opinions (even if they differ from your own). It’s YOUR story, after all. Sure, some readers might be turned off—but the ones who are turned on will love you all the more for it.

2. Risk excluding people

If you’ve ever been involved in a writing group or workshop, you know that everyone has a different opinion, and art should rarely be made by committee. If you water down your writing to suit everyone’s needs, you’ll lose the power of your own voice.

Agreeableness is dull. Part of finding your niche is knowing who you’re NOT aiming to please. If you’re writing accessible thrillers ala Dan Brown, forget about what the literati thinks. If you’re writing cowboy romance, don’t waste your time worrying about the sci-fi romance fans. If you’re working on the next Ulysses, get used to the idea that the “average” reader won’t like your book until 50 years later.

In other words, don’t cast a wide net; spear your fish one at a time!

3. Risk exposing yourself

Well, not THAT way! But KINDA like that—emotionally, philosophically, etc.

What are you scared or ashamed to say about yourself, your past experiences, your doubts, your family or romantic relationships, your friends, your enemies? Let your characters say those things for you.

If the reader knows what’s at stake, they have the power to reject you—but they also may respond to the story and feel appreciation for you trusting them with such secrets.

If the real-life people you’re channeling to fuel the drama of your narrative get offended by the stuff you’re writing—well, that’s always one giant professional hazzard. But you might also consider the fact that shining a spotlight on existing areas of shame and resentment could ultimately be a healthy thing for everyone involved, and be the catalyst for some needed repair. Though my inner-adult is telling me you should probably address these interpersonal issues BEFORE the book comes out!


You can’t start off trying to write a book that will appeal to everyone. That’s the surest way to end up with something that appeals to no one. Instead, you’ve got to figure out what your own creative Rubicon is—and cross it! Explore the danger of sharp edges and exposed nerves.

By writing “out on a limb” (I’m piling up the clichés here, huh?), you’ll bend the pointy branches towards the ground, hopefully snagging the readers who will eventually become your loyal fanbase.

What have you been scared to reveal in your writing? What have you risked? I’d love to hear how you pushed yourself past that line, and to what effect. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Image via Shutterstock.com.

Chris Robley
Chris Robley is an award-winning poet, songwriter, performer, and music producer who now lives in Portland, Maine after more than a decade in Portland, Oregon. His music has been praised by NPR, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, and others. Skyscraper Magazine said he is “one of the best short-story musicians to come along in quite some time.” Robley’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in POETRY, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Beloit Poetry Journal, RHINO, Magma Poetry, and more. He is the 2013 winner of Boulevard's Poetry Prize for Emerging Writers and the 2014 recipient of a Maine Literary Award in the category of "Short Works Poetry."



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