Friday, March 7, 2008

Turned Off by Turn Offs

A while back, the topic came up on DorothyL about turn-offs in mystery novels. Show stoppers, those things that when you read them make you put the book down and never pick it up again. Those things that makes you dash off breathless letters of condemnation. Those things, even, that make you want to buy Author Voodoo dolls and use them for a game of Author-in-a-Blender.

Some oft-cited examples, in no particular order:
• Swearing
• Smoking
• Tattoos
• Women protagonists who blindly walk into peril
• People who won't talk to the police
• Sub-plots involving adultery
• Did I mention swearing?
• And smoking?

All this surprised me. First of all, it was a little alarming because my follow-up to Lost Dog features a fair degree of swearing and smoking (and extensive craving of a smoke) as well as people who won't talk to the police and a sub-plot involving adultery. I even have a minor character with lots of tattoos. I don't have a woman protagonist who walks blindly into peril in this one, which is my one saving grace I suppose. Oh, and I don't kill a dog, an act so heinous it doesn't even need to be listed.

My own personal pet peeve, as described in a previous post, is unrealistically great first time sex, with ubiquitous, unstoppable computer hackers running a close second. Other than that, I am pretty tolerant. We're talking about a novel here, after all. It's not like I have to hang out with these people.

Take smoking. My guy, Skin Kadash, smokes like a chimney in Lost Dog, but has mostly quit in my second novel, Chasing Smoke. All throughout Chasing Smoke, however, he's craving a smoke. I mean, he just quit, and it's hard. Sometimes he almost breaks down and lights up, but even when he's not smoking himself he's watching others smoke, and thinking about it. A lot.

Now, I'm not a smoker. I'm not even a former smoker. I'm gracious about it with my friends who do smoke, but I admit I don't care for the smell of tobacco smoke and I don't care for smoker's breath and smoker's hair. But, hey, let's face it, it's not my decision and if my friends want to smoke, it's their choice. If we're out having a beer and a friend lights up, no worries. I like my friends a LOT more than I dislike smoking. And no doubt I have plenty of habits that others don't care for.

In writing about smoking, I went to great lengths to create a character who was sympathetic, and whose need for a smoke actually accentuated his intrigue as a person. Aside from the challenge it posed to me as a writer, it also just fit in with who he is. How successful I am with Skin I'll leave for my readers to decide, but I would hope that no one would dismiss him, or the book, out of hand simply because he's a smoker.

Consider that other great taboo. Killing a dog or cat. As crime fiction writers, we can kill off untold numbers of people, but lay a finger on the fur of a single fictional pet and we're Hitler. Kids are pretty much sacrosanct too, though we're actually allowed to put children in danger at times.

True, some folks have gotten away with the killing of the innocents. Glenn Close still had a career after boiling the bunny. Steven Spielberg still gets to make movies despite T-Rex eating a dog in Jurassic Park II. And there are a number of successful books and films in which children come to a dark end. But for the most part, those are events we dramatize fictionally at our peril. "After he killed the pomeranian, I resolved to never buy another book by him, and to picket bookstores that sell his books, and to mail little ziplock bags of dog doody to his mother, and,... and,... and,..."

That's disappointing to me, and not because I want to kill a dog. I love dogs. And I love kids. And I love people, though certainly not all of them. But as a writer, I want to feel free to tell stories as they unfold, not feel constrained by lists of no-no's. And, as a reader, (and let's face it, I read a LOT more books than I'll ever write), I want authors to feel that they can tell the stories they need to tell without stressing about the Verboten!

I'm not advocating gratuitous butchery here. But let's be honest. We're killers, as writers, and voyeurs of killing, as readers of crime fiction. Even the coziest among us produce a body count that would be shocking if it weren't on the page. The distinction between a bloodless death in the drawing room and serial slaughter in an abattoir isn't all that great, even if sometimes we pretend it is. And certainly I know there are any number of topics that probably cross the line for the vast majority of us. I'm not saying there aren't valid lines. I'm also not suggesting that we have to read or write about topics that don't interest us. There are a million books out there, and none of them are for everyone. I just wonder if, considering the mayhem we do tolerate, some lines aren't a little arbitrary and unmindful of what's really going on here.

I don't smoke, and I don't have a tattoo, and I won't commit adultery. But I write about all these things, and many others that probably make it onto scold's list somewhere. I guess, in the end, if we're okay with Colonel Mustard doing it in the library with a candlestick, might it also be okay if he has a smoke afterwards, and maybe cops a feel from Mrs. White at the biker bar up the road while getting his tats touched up? We're being entertained by imaginary murder. Is a cigarette or illicit affair so awful in comparison?


Mark Terry said...

This is partly why I dropped out of DL several years ago, although the big instigator was when there was a thread about "rules of writing" and posted: "The only rule is don't be boring." And somebody felt obligated to send me a personal e-mail chewing me out and telling me my comment was a waste of bandwidth.

Life's too short for that, honestly.

This list gives you a pretty good idea of who's on DL, at least the vocal contingent.

The whole thing sort of reminds me of YouTube. Yes, I'm a recent addict. And although not a big fan of country music or even Carrie Underwood, her music video for "Before He Cheats" which is about a woman who goes after her cheating boyfriend's pickup truck with her keys and a Louisville Slugger, is a great song that she does really, really well.

But from reading the comments on YouTube I've come to the conclusion that there are a fair amount of people who have problems distinguishing the real world from, well, everything else.

You get a whole lot of people going, "I don't think she had enough motivation to do that." Or "that's illegal, you know. He could have her arrested for that."

Okay, first:

1. Music video.
2. Country song.
3. Get a life.

Which is how I often feel about these comments. A young lady came up to me in a karate class I was visiting to tell me she'd finished reading "The Devil's Pitchfork" which she liked a lot "except there was so much swearing."

My response? "I'm glad you liked it. And you know, when people are under stress, they swear."

And in Pitchfork, we've got a mass assault killing over 30 people, the torture murders of a family of 4, a VX gas attack on the White House, knife fights, explosions, and in general, an attempt by a group of terrorists to use a genetically engineered virus to create a "new world order."

If ever people had a reason to swear, it's this.

Joe Moore said...

Literature is an art form. Artists must have the freedom to express themselves any way they want. I truly believe that. But I also feel that I have the right to question why artists do what they do. For me, it happens more often in the movies than in books. That’s because with a book the story takes place in my head, not on the page. But with a movie, I have no choice but to accept the image as it’s presented to me. And the number one show-stopper for me is smoking. Would the scene have failed if the character had not lit up? My first reaction is always that it’s a paid-for product placement to help finance the movie. We know that it’s no accident when a commercial product appears in a movie or TV show.

If it’s a period piece portraying a time when smoking was socially acceptable, then it makes sense but only if it truly develops the character or moves the plot forward. But in a contemporary story taking place in a society where smoking is slightly more acceptable than farting at a funeral, why include it? What would be lost without it? And that’s coming from a guy who smoked a couple of packs a day for over 2 decades.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Except for tatoos, I have broken every one of the "taboos" on this list. Yet my books are selling very well.

How sad that people are that rigid and vocal about what an author should or should not write. It tells me two things: 1) they don't write; 2) they are tight-asses about life in general.

I also believe people like this are in the minority among the readers of the world.

Everyone is free to read what they wish. And I have just as much freedom to write what I wish. It's all good.

hmmm - I thinking Odelia Grey needs a tatoo. Just a small one. On her butt? Her boob? Her ankle?

Suddenly, book 6 of the series is coming to life in my head. :)

Mark Combes said...

What I like and what you like and what she likes are all different. That's why they publish 200,000 books a year. If everyone wanted to read about boy wizards, we'd have nothing but boy wizard books.

And if you want a story that is no holds-barred, every taboo imaginable, then pick up a Ken Bruen novel. You need a shower after reading one of his novels. But they are so delicious....

Kathryn Lilley said...

Oops, in DYING TO BE THIN I had a character who smoked a cigar, a woman with a tatoo, a cat who wasn't killed (but who got temporarily lost), and some swearing. I think it's a matter of knowing your audience--not everyone is going to be put off by the same things, and you can't please all the people all the time! All you can do is write your best and make your characters as involving as possible.

Felicia Donovan said...

I respect an author's right to write what they want, hence my Black Widows all have the "official" BW tattoo.

I think the bigger issue is that from a marketing standpoint an author has to understand their audience and what their audience's breakpoint is. That will be different for each novel, but important for the author to understand.

Mark Combes said...

Felicia brings up an interesting philosophical point - thinking of your audience. As an example, I'll use Ken Bruen again.

Ken Bruen writes very gritty novels. Some people love them; some hate them. Who should he write for? What is his audience? The people that love him already? Or should he tame it down to attract a large audience?

Don't write to impress someone - to gain their approval. Write what you want and hope to hell that there are enough folks out there that like what you write that you can sell a few books. It's like trying to time the next great DaVinci Code phenomena. You can't write what doesn't feel write for you. If you write what you love, you have to hope the audience will come to you.

Terri Thayer said...

Ohhh...I'm either in big trouble or quilters are far more tolerant of swearing, tattoos and smokers than those readers on Dorothy L. Since I know plenty of quilters who do all of those things, I went ahead and gave Dewey a tattoo, a potty mouth, and a sister-in-law who smokes. In fact, one of the few notes I got on my manuscript from Barbara was that she didn't lke that Dewey blackmailed her SIL into quitting cigs.

I broke one of Bill's rules, too, though. My protag has full on, great sex the first night she meets up with Buster Healy, an old friend.

Sorry, Bill, but good sex is so much fun to write. In my second book, I experimented with Dewey & Buster being celibate.No sex can be fun to write, as long as there's plenty of action. But bad sex? I'll have to think about that one.

G.M. Malliet said...

Let me be sure I've got this right. It's ok to write about murdering people, but it's not ok to write about smoking, swearing, etc.

Check. Got it.

Bill Cameron said...

Great comments, everyone. In the end, I think it's true that not every book is for everyone, as writers we need to be cognizant of who want in our audience. I also like the idea of trying to challenge both myself and my readers a little bit. Skin smokes not because I ever smoked or because I'm an advocate of smoking, for example, he smokes because of who he is, where he came from, and I use smoking to advance the plot and explore character -- both in Lost Dog and its follow-up. Considering the rest of the mayhem in both books, the Skin's habit seems like small taters. But, of course, no book is for everyone, and I certainly wouldn't expect, or want, someone to read either if they were uncomfortable with the material.