Prize for Thrillers Sparks Debate

Gila Lyons

Be it Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, novels that feature violence toward women have dominated the thriller market in recent years, selling millions of copies and leading to major screen adaptations. Concerned about the popularization of these kinds of stories and how they might warp public perception of the dangers women face, in early 2018 British author and screenwriter Bridget Lawless created the Staunch Book Prize—an award given to a fictional thriller in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped, or murdered. “I decided to launch a book prize that didn’t reward violence to women as entertainment,” says Lawless. “The original aim of the prize was to get the proliferation of violence toward women in popular culture—books, film, and television—into the conversation…. We soon learned how fed up with and genuinely concerned about graphic and sexual violence in fiction many people were.”

The award is now in its second year, with submissions of thrillers (including the subgenres of crime, mystery, historical, science fiction, cyber, comedy, psychological, spy, suspense, political, satirical, and disaster thrillers, with the notable exception of horror and fantasy) open until July 14. Although the contest charges an entry fee of £20, or approximately $26, the prize of £1,000 ($1,300) comes straight from Lawless’s pocket. “We aren’t sponsored, no one on the team gets paid, and entry fees only cover costs,” she says. “As it’s not a huge prize pot, we felt that the publicity our shortlisted authors and winner get is worth more to them in the long run than the cash.” Lawless will judge this year’s award alongside actor, author, and British Parliament member Lola Young, who has served as chair for the Orange Prize for Fiction (now called the Women’s Prize for Fiction), the Caine Prize for African Writing, and the Booker Prize; psychologist Dominic Willmott, who specializes in legal and criminal psychology; and editor Elaine Richard, who has worked at Little, Brown and Gourmet.

While many have applauded the prize designed to challenge the normalization of violence and recognize inventiveness in the thriller genre, the award has received some pushback, particularly from thriller writers. “If we can’t stop human beings from viciously harming one another, we need to be able to write stories in which that harm is subjected to psychological and moral scrutiny, and punished,” wrote best-selling thriller writer Sophie Hannah in the Guardian in January 2018. “There is no life-changing experience that we should be discouraged from writing and reading about.” Hannah argued the prize could have instead honored the thriller that “most powerfully or sensitively tackles the problem of violence against women and girls.” She went on to quote fellow thriller writer Steve Cavanagh, who offered an analogy in a tweet: “Which book highlights racism and prejudice better? A book which is not about those issues or To Kill a Mockingbird? Wouldn’t it be better to celebrate a book that could challenge prejudice rather than celebrate a book which ignores it?”

In response, last year’s prizewinner, the Australian novelist Jock Serong—his winning thriller, On the Java Ridge, follows a group of refugees at sea trying to reach the Australian shore—told the Washington Post that the award isn’t designed to censor or silence real conversation about violence against women but rather to address “that laziness that creeps in, the tropes where women and girls are used unthinkingly as default victims in the story.” 

Lawless hopes the prize will encourage a greater range of plots and themes in the thriller market, which she describes as being dominated by crime fiction, and notes that the inaugural prize’s shortlist included a mix of styles and subjects such as terrorism, art theft, social media, police corruption, racism, and global injustice. “There are so many really interesting settings and ideas—the scope is endless,” she says. “I can’t wait to see what writers come up with in the future.” 


Gila Lyons has written about feminism, mental health, and social justice for, among other publications, the New York Times, Salon, Vox, Cosmopolitan, Good, and O, the Oprah Magazine. Find her on Twitter, @gilalyons, or on her website,


#MeToo: Crafting Our Most Difficult True Stories


Tracy Strauss


Five years ago I published an essay in this magazine called “A Topic Too Risky.” It was about the process of writing my story of childhood sexual abuse, a subject that agents, editors, and other publishing professionals had told me was taboo. I didn’t share their viewpoint. “Writing about trauma,” I wrote, “is more than simply documenting experience…. It’s about transforming tragedy into art, and hoping that somehow that piece of art may help someone else who’s gone through something unbearable and who doesn’t yet see that there truly is a light at the end of the dark tunnel.” 

In today’s #MeToo era, of course, the writing and publishing of personal narratives about sexual abuse, assault, and harassment has proliferated. Even more, it has become a force for social change. Yet many people still respond with aversion to such stories. Some refuse to believe #MeToo accounts or respond with misogyny, criticism, or inflammatory attacks. Reading about traumatic events can also cause victims to shut down and witnesses to turn away in fear. Without the protective veil of fiction to mitigate such experiences, essayists and memoirists face the challenge of crafting personal stories that engage, educate, and empower readers.

It’s important to remember that, as writers with #MeToo stories to tell, we don’t owe anyone anything. For many survivors the important thing is to simply get the story on the page, to break the silence, and, perhaps in the process, allow other survivors with similar experiences to do the same. But for writers it’s also true that we want our most deeply personal stories to make the greatest impact. When we write our #MeToo stories, we want our pieces to be as strong as we can make them in the hopes that they might reach, and resonate with, as many people as possible. 

We can accomplish this goal by using several tools of craft, style, and form—techniques we employ in any other piece of writing—to illuminate our audience and keep them reading. First, a combination of reflection and instruction can guide readers through emotionally challenging subject matter. In her memoir Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (Harper, 2017), Roxane Gay guides the reader into the story of her rape by stating up front how difficult it is for her to talk about it. After reflecting on her own complicated feelings about the story she is about to share, she then tells her readers what to expect. She tells them what she wants. She also tells them what she doesn’t want: 

I don’t know how to talk about rape and sexual violence when it comes to my own story. It is easier to say, “Something terrible happened.”

Something terrible happened. That something terrible broke me. I wish I could leave it at that, but this is a memoir of my body so I need to tell you what happened to my body. I was young and I took my body for granted and then I learned about the terrible things that could happen to a girl body and everything changed.

Something terrible happened, and I wish I could leave it at that because as a writer who is also a woman, I don’t want to be defined by the worst thing that has happened to me.… At the same time, I don’t want to be silent.… If I must share my story, I want to do so on my terms, without the attention that inevitably follows. I do not want pity or appreciation or advice. I am not brave or heroic. I am not strong. I am not special. I am one woman who has experienced something countless women have experienced. I am a victim who survived. It could have been worse, so much worse. That’s what matters and is even more a travesty here, that having this kind of story is utterly common. I hope that by sharing my story, by joining a chorus of women and men who share their stories too, more people can become appropriately horrified by how much suffering is born of sexual violence, how far-reaching the repercussions can be. 

Gay provides parameters for reading and responding to the details of the assault that she hasn’t yet depicted. By sharing both her own perspective and her wishes for how her story is received, Gay provides a disclosure road map, an emotional “safety net” for not only the narrator but also the reader, as they both venture deeper into trauma’s terrain.

Sometimes the adage “less is more” is key. Showering readers with graphic details can flood their minds; it can feel like too much to bear, too painful or horrifying to read further. That’s not to say one should write around or avoid the truth. Rather, just like any good piece of writing, metaphor and pacing can be important and useful tools. For example, in one of my essays for HuffPost, “Leaving My Abusive World,” I portray a #MeToo scenario without mentioning blow-by-blow specifics: 

I sat next to my father on his side of the bed he and my mother shared, beside the mahogany bureau where the checkbooks were located. As I stared at the scratched gold-colored handle of the closed drawer, my father bent forward, leaning his tanned arms across his thighs and folding his hands between his knees. He said he’d dispense the funds, but I had to give him something in exchange.

I agreed.

In this passage I employ a fairly traditional craft technique to create an intensely traumatic scene: I draw attention to my father’s gestures, creating tone and tension through description, bringing the focus to his thighs. In the last two sentences of the passage, I mention the tit-for-tat expectation, creating a euphemism to convey briefly but plainly the coercion and sexual favors around which the exchange is based. I don’t linger there, but as a reader you know what follows. Less, I trust the reader will agree, is more.

Another craft tool, the epistolary form, can cultivate intimacy between the writer and her readers while revealing a #MeToo story, effectively taking readers into the writer’s confidence. I employ this technique in my forthcoming book, I Just Haven’t Met You Yet, a #MeToo-themed work of nonfiction that is structured as an open love letter to my future life partner. In it I share my innermost thoughts and reflections about dating experiences, overcoming personal struggles, and the lessons I learned along the way; each epistolary passage speaks to the content of the ongoing narrative and is written to “you,” my future partner—which, by extension, becomes an address to each, and all, of my readers. 

Another useful tool is thematic threading, which can also provide a backdrop or a second story of resonance that runs parallel to the main story. Richard Hoffman’s memoir, Half the House (New Rivers Press, 1995), for example, intertwines the story of the deaths of his brothers and mother with his loss of innocence from childhood sexual abuse. In The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir (Flatiron Books, 2017), Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich also employs braided story lines—the author’s uncovering of a murder and her own story of sexual abuse—as well as flashback, a tool that makes past trauma come alive and simultaneously portrays the post-traumatic effects of sexual abuse on a survivor: 

Where does the mind go in these moments, while the body trembles? For me it is a white-hot slipstream blank-out, the nothingness of no time and nowhere and no one. It used to be a feeling, a single concentrated excruciating feeling: the smooth hot texture of my grandfather’s penis against my hand, for example, or the specific purple-pink color his penis had, a color that still makes me uncomfortable no matter where I see it, though the discomfort is vague now, the signal no longer traced back to its origin, with only the effect felt. But as the years have blotted the origin out (I am grateful), they have blotted the sensations, too, as though the film reel of the memory has been played so many times it has gone torn and blotched. Now I have only to ride the panicked blankness. “Oh, fuck,” I say when the wave of sensation starts to break over me, inside me, and then I breathe to keep up with the panicked race swell of my body, the heartbeat and the breath. The wave builds and builds, it crests and breaks.

The flashback, which Marzano-Lesnevich says was written to “illustrate some of the consequences of abuse,” focuses on vivid sensory information while also conveying the “blotted-out” sense of experiencing a flashback many years after the trauma.

Clockwise from upper left: Marisa Siegel, Roxane Gay, Sue William Silverman, Tracy Strauss, Sam Brighton, Elissa Washuta, and Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich (Credit: Gay: Jay Grabiec; Silverman: Angie Chen; Marzano-Lesnevich: Nina Subin; Washuta: Amber Cortes; Brighton: Michael Edrington)

During sexual assault or abuse, many victims experience dissociation, a coping mechanism of detachment or psychological escape from an unbearable, threatening reality. For survivors and nonsurvivors alike, a common response to reading about or otherwise being exposed to traumatic content is to similarly dissociate, to “go somewhere else” in their minds. (Some believe that trigger warnings can be a useful way to avoid this reaction, while others think that such disclaimers promote silencing and shelter people from a reality that is necessary to fully see and know in order to stop our societal tolerance for such violence.) A craft technique that can help combat the dissociative response is to ground readers in a specific time and place. When setting is at the forefront, the reader enters the space of the narrator’s experience. Placing oneself in a well-defined space can help a reader feel more stable and safer to proceed with the story. In her essay “2 Corinthians 65:14,” which she published in ENOUGH, a weekly series of #MeToo essays at the Rumpus, Sam Brighton focuses on the setting of a church hall and the facts of a sacred space—along with irony and dark humor for levity—leading up to a memory of sexual abuse:

For about sixteen hundred dollars, at the hall named after a child molester, a newlywed couple may boogie down with four hundred and ninety friends to celebrate their holy heterosexual matrimony. Specifically, the hall is for heterosexual couples. Even if we wanted to, my wife and I couldn’t rent the hall to gather our people—our families, our friends, the gender-benders with buzz cuts and wing-tips and wives—to slow-dance the night away to k. d. lang—even if otherwise we fulfilled the contract and followed the facility rules….

The hall charges a six-dollar corking fee, which makes me want to write jokes about when Jesus and his mom attended the Wedding at Cana and Jesus converted water into wine, did the venue charge Jesus a corking fee?…

From the pictures posted on the website, the dance floor is constructed from blond, narrow wood resembling a bowling lane. The walls are simple, decorated only with windows and fire extinguishers—no statues of crucified bodies to turn one’s appetite away from wedding cake. The windows are tall and the carpet inconspicuous. It’s a humble ambiance that someone like Jesus might enjoy—the austere social-justice Jesus, not the bejeweled and super-judgmental Jesus.

Where memories are made. My body, my sacred space, remembers the priest. An accidental touch, because sometimes my wife forgets, because the abuse isn’t just under the surface in every sexual encounter for her like it is for me. A borderline tickle in the wrong place converts pleasure into nausea.

Brighton connects the setting of the sacred space of the hall with the sacred space of her body. The double use of the word sacred accompanies the writer’s double use of convert: Jesus converted water into wine; pleasure converts into nausea. In this way the prose couples the setting with the experience of sexual abuse. 

“The church hall, for me, converges two separate sources of longstanding painful issues—childhood sexual abuse and homophobia,” Brighton says about the piece and her use of setting to tell her story. “The hall gives a tangible quality to something that was once more theoretical or based in assumption. Without the hall, in my adult life, I could assume the church wouldn’t want me using their space to celebrate my same-sex marriage, and I could assume they don’t prioritize the interests or experiences of the sex abuse survivors harmed by their clergy people. And the hall is just a very disappointing confirmation that these ideas are true.” 

Highlighting a concept from an outside source can also be a useful tool to educate, contextualize, and universalize a #MeToo-themed story for readers. In her essay for the ENOUGH series, “A Thousand Stories,” Megan Stielstra, author of The Wrong Way to Save Your Life (Harper Perennial, 2017), quotes an expert on fear, then follows with reflection: 

I’d like to tell you that I spat in his face or kneed him in the balls or staked him through the heart, but I can’t. “At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them,” wrote Gavin de Becker in The Gift of Fear. “While at core, women are afraid men will kill them.” I hate admitting that. I hate knowing how fast and often these moments turn violent. I hate that afterwards I asked the bouncer to walk me to my car. I hate how I still don’t listen to that band. I hate the memories that show up uninvited every time I go out dancing, or park my car on a side street, or swim, or clean the floor, or walk into the stairwell at the college where I worked or the restaurant where I worked or the L or the street between the L and my apartment or the alley where I walk my dog every morning or any of a thousand places. There are a thousand stories. Here’s why I chose this one…

“The quote takes it out of the anecdotal and into the universal,” Stielstra says about crafting her essay. “That’s the challenge of writing the personal essay: moving from why does this matter to me to why does this matter?

After finishing a #MeToo story, just as with any piece of writing one hopes to publish, paying attention to the submission guidelines and the publication style of prospective outlets is integral for success. Marisa Siegel, owner and editor in chief of the Rumpus, and creator of the ENOUGH series, shares her mission and vision for #MeToo writing. “The descriptive philosophy of the ENOUGH series states that rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence subject matter is timely as well as timeless,” she says. “We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect change. We are looking to publish the strongest writing and to represent a diversity of voices around the issues of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse. We are also looking to feature a variety of styles and genres within the series.”

Just like writers and readers, working with #MeToo pieces can be challenging for editors. “Beyond logistics [of receiving hundreds of submissions a day], it takes an emotional toll to read these pieces,” Siegel says. “In reading these submissions I’ve also had to confront past experiences that perhaps I’d chosen not to label as assault or abuse and have come to realize that those experiences weren’t as okay as I’d let myself believe. This is a powerful but difficult consequence of editing this series.” 

When one’s #MeToo story is declined, it’s hard not to feel discouraged. Elissa Washuta’s memoir, My Body Is a Book of Rules (Red Hen Press, 2014), was rejected by nearly forty editors. But she persisted and found a publisher who “understood my aims completely,” Washuta says, “and accepted the manuscript on the terms it set without wanting it to be anything but what it was.” 

As with any piece of writing, once a work of #MeToo writing is published, the writer faces audience reaction, which has the potential to be both rewarding and challenging. For some writers, having such personal stories in the world may cause a great deal of anxiety. It’s important for writers to have a support system in place—whether a good friend, a writers group, or a professional. 

“The process [of writing and publishing] can be triggering, so it’s good to check in with a therapist regularly,” advises Washuta, who received positive reviews of My Body Is a Book of Rules but also received, as she put it, “some alarming responses.” 

“One man I knew, who ended up stalking me, seemed to be using the book for a sort of manual for how to get into my head,” Washuta says. “Another broke up with me over it because he couldn’t get over how messed up he thought I was. People’s responses to the work have shown me who they really are. Some loved ones have struggled with the contents but really worked at understanding the book and worked to process their reactions without making me do that work for them, which deepened my appreciation and love for them. Strangers have all kinds of negative reactions, which I now ignore.”

Sam Brighton echoes this sentiment: “When publishing anything, personal and vulnerable content suddenly becomes public and available for feedback, helpful or hurtful.” But when she published her ENOUGH essay, Brighton  says, “I was surprised when my social media page bloomed with support.”

For memoirist Sue William Silverman, the author of three books about sexual abuse and a pioneer of the genre, telling her story has been similarly difficult and rewarding. Her first memoir, the AWP Award winner Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You (University of Georgia Press, 1999), was dismissed by some reviewers. While a number of women’s magazines covered the book, mainstream and traditional book-review outlets ignored it—and in some cases declined to cover it based solely on the subject. Silverman’s second memoir, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey Through Sexual Addiction (W. W. Norton, 2001), was adapted into a film by the Lifetime television network, which has historically marketed its programming toward women. But she still struggled to get broader coverage, and when she did it was often negative. Even so, Silverman has forged ahead with her work and continues to believe in the importance of telling her stories.

“Readers better understand their own lives by reading how you coped with adversity, and what you learned from it,” she writes in her craft book Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir (University of Georgia Press, 2009). Silverman, who is on the creative nonfiction faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts, admits that it hurts to receive negative reactions, particularly when responses are misogynistic, sexist, or simply ignorant. 

Instead, she has chosen to focus on the positive feedback she receives about her work. For Silverman, this means taking to heart the hundreds of letters she has gotten over the years from readers who have related to her story and the men and women who have approached her at readings and said, in various ways, “Me too.” 


Tracy Strauss, named by Bustle as one of eight women writers with advice to follow, has published #MeToo essays in Ms. magazine, Salon, HuffPost, the Rumpus, Publishers Weekly, and others, including a six-month blog series for Ploughshares called “Writing Trauma: Notes of Transcendence.” She was the 2015 Writers’ Room of Boston Nonfiction Fellow, the 2013–2014 vice president of the Women’s National Book Association Boston Chapter, and was formerly the essays editor of the Rumpus. Her debut #MeToo-themed narrative nonfiction book about relationships, self-growth, and empowerment, I Just Haven’t Met You Yet, will be published in spring 2019 by Skyhorse Publishing. Follow her on Twitter, @TracyS_Writer.

The Smart Approach to Contest Submissions




You write something great—no, brilliant—so you fire it off to a bunch of contests, and wait for word that you’ve won, filling your downtime taking selfies that will no doubt appear in the Recent Winners section of this magazine. It sounds too good to be true because it usually is. Being lax when it comes to entering contests is typically a waste of time and money—unless of course you fancy yourself a patron of the arts, which is likely all you’ll be if you continue to take a slapdash approach to writing contests. Here are seven strategies for a more efficient (and hopefully more effective) process of submitting your work to contests.

1. Finish first. Before you submit your manuscript, make sure you’ve pushed it as far as it can go. Revise, revise, and revise some more. Send it to five friends and ask them for constructive criticism. Pass it around your writers group. Workshop it. Stick it in a drawer for a week and then read it. It’s still brilliant? Great. Stick it back in the drawer and submit it next week after you’ve reread it again and asked yourself, “Is this better than the five hundred other manuscripts that have already been submitted to this contest?” If you’re paying an entry fee, there should be no doubt in your mind.

2. Know your sponsoring organization. Do you read the magazine that sponsors the contest? Do you subscribe? Have you read all the books published in the past year by the press that’s running the contest? Do you disagree with any of the editorial policies of that magazine or press? Familiarize yourself with the organization’s website and read some of the marketing copy. Does the sponsor present itself as one you’d like to be associated with? Are you comfortable with the idea of having your name—not to mention your writing—associated with that sponsor for the rest of your career?

3. Judge your judge. Read that famous poet’s work as well as the work of winners that judge has chosen in the past. Read interviews with that well-known novelist, reviews of her latest book, articles and essays she has published in magazines. Try to figure out not only how she writes but also how she thinks, how she reads. Never heard of the judge? Double your efforts and proceed with caution. (See number two.)

4. Follow the rules. You may have written a story for the ages, but it won’t matter if you printed your last name on the top of every page when the rules explicitly forbid any identifying information on your manuscript. Don’t e-mail it as an attachment when you’re supposed to upload it to a submissions manager. The Deadlines section of this magazine is the perfect place to start gathering information about legitimate contests with upcoming deadlines. It provides all the details you need (how much, for what, by when, and so on) in order to make a decision about whether you should research the contest further. If a contest sounds like a good match, follow the instructions and request the complete guidelines. Then follow those guidelines to the letter.

5. Don’t get fancy. Let your words win the contest, not your paper or your ink or your fonts or your formatting. Don’t print your manuscript on special paper. Keep it in a standard font—for the love of God, no script fonts—and don’t include an Oscar-worthy thank-you speech on an acknowledgments page. (Save that for the published book.) In your cover letter, don’t include the endearing anecdote about the first time you picked up a crayon and realized you wanted to be a writer. If you’re submitting a paper manuscript, don’t recycle the folded-up, paged-through, and rejected copy from the last contest. Save that for your doodles and your grocery lists; consider the extra money you’re going to spend on ink and paper as an investment in a submission with a better chance at winning. No reader or judge wants proof that an entry has already been rejected. Don’t plant doubt: It will grow.

6. Keep track. Start logging your submissions on some sort of spreadsheet. It doesn’t need to be fancy (see number five); just keep a record of which contests you enter, how much you paid, when you were notified of the results, and so on. Not only will you have a better sense of how much you are investing in writing contests, you may also allay some anxiety about when you’ll get that phone call or e-mail of congratulations.

7. Keep writing. Your writing career does not necessarily hinge on winning or losing a contest—winning can help, no doubt, but there are plenty of brilliant, well-respected writers who publish book after book and never win a contest. The most important thing to focus on is your writing. Submit your work to contests when the writing is finished (see number one). And when you’re done, start writing again. 

Bridget Lawless, founder of the Staunch Prize. (Credit: Clare Park)

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  • June 11, 2019