By Bryon Quertermous

When Simon first asked me to guest blog here at Murderati I was pleased and since I don’t know Simon all that well I wanted to put on a good show and not make him regret asking me. I think that went well.

And then Mike MacLean asked me to fill in for him.

I know Mike. I reeeeeaaaally know Mike. But we’ll keep it nice here anyway, because we’re mostly nice people (Jim Born’s not here is he?). The characters we create though are not always nice. I’m well into the manuscript of a new novel and I’ve been thinking a lot about the "tone" and "color" of the novel. Another well-respected writer read the manuscript for my last novel and mentioned that my style is more in line with Robert Parker and not as dark as many current practitioners of the field. I agree with that assessment, but it makes me think.

My books have always had a lighter tone to them while my short stories are almost entirely dark (see Donkey Show or Alter Road). I’ve tried writing darker books, but it doesn’t work. I just turn my brain off and my writing subconscious on and inevitably what comes out every time is "light." That doesn’t mean everybody is always joking and there’s lots of scenes with exploding whoopie cushions, but in general there is an optimistic tone and I don’t dig too deep into the really dark parts of my characters. Why is this?

Laura Lippman is famously quoted as saying she wanted to be more hardboiled but, like Jessica Rabbitt, she just wasn’t drawn that way. Now Laura’s recent short story work has gone a long way to redrawing her, but her books still lean more toward the lighter side of the spectrum and it certainly hasn’t hurt her sales. Are some writers just drawn lighter than others? Is it easier to write darker characters and themes in short works instead of novels?

So here’s the question for the day: What color are you? Do you mix lighter and darker styles? And if you do write dark and long, how do you look at yourself in the morning?


Next week:  The talented Toni McGee Causey takes over the Sunday spot!

17 thoughts on “COLOR ME BADD

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    BQ! Always great to have you here!

    I write dark. Dark, dark, dark. It does start to grate on me, especially in the last throes of finishing something (but then finishing something is agony no matter what your tone is, right?). I found working on THE PRICE very hard because I had to go into darker places than I’d ever gone. But it’s what I read, myself – it’s what I’m always looking for in a book.

    My new one is dark, too, but I have a character who provides some (morbid) comic relief, and everyone has loved that character from the start. I find it amazingly easy to write that counterpoint and he’s keeping me more sane, myself – so far, anyway.

    I don’t read or write torture, and although I work with sexual abuse issues a lot, I don’t read or write rape. That also keeps me sane.

  2. Lori G. Armstrong

    Bryon – you got a shot in at Born first thing?

    I write medium dark – is that even a color? When I finish a mystery, I immediately need to write something lighter – which is why I also pen romance. The balance of writing a happily-ever-after, on the heels of delving into some black places, keeps me from becoming a morose writer and reminds me that not all situations in life end badly.

  3. Naomi

    I wouldn’t say that I write “light” books, but they are certainly gentler in tone. I guess that’s my heart of hearts, although I have wandered into the dark side with some short stories.

    The dark stuff is hard for me and emotionally taxing. But really creatively challenging. I think that’s how writers can sharpen their craft blade. I suppose that you can keep playing the same note until you perfect it, but for me experimenting in different forms and genres helps me to remember what writing is all about.

    Business wise, it’s probably better to maintain the same tone in books and short stories. People do buy brands and have certain expectations of them. But there’s a little latitude there (I think and am hoping).

  4. Dave White

    What color am I? Green.

    But not with envy, but with nauseousness knowing that Mike MacLean trusted you with Murderati.

  5. JT Ellison

    Welcome to Murderati, Q!

    I’m like Alex, my works are as dark as a winter midnight. Unlike Alex, I do tackle rape, torture, and every manifestation of evil I can find to explore because I’m trying to understand what drives good and evil. It is very difficult sometimes.

    I’ll never forget writing a horrific rape scene back in my first pass at book one and being stymied for days as to HOW to do it. I finally just sucked it up and wrote it. It was so terrible, and though I made it effective, it felt gratuitous.

    Exploring the dark side doesn’t need to be gross out, or shocking, or even titillating, but it does have to be real, which is where characters reactions come in. You can write a horrible scene, but without the character’s realization or growth from experiencing or seeing something so heinous, it’s just for show.

    And Dave, be careful. You may be tapped next!

  6. Jacky B.

    Ebony. A coal bin would be a step into the light.

    Don’t really strive for that tone, it just takes over, like a thunderstorm on a summer afternoon. But, since I write noir, I see it as a blessing, not a curse.

    Tried to lighten up once, (oh,the shame of being a sell-out)produced total shit, returned, relieved, to the dark side.

    Dark doesn’t negate humor. Ken Bruen serves up ample proof.

    Yeah, working with some of my characters, and some scenes, gets depressing at times. But, that tells me they’re gonna be effective. A five mile run, or an hour with the weights, usually sends any psychic phantasims packing.

    Write what you know? Shit, write what you FEEL. If it comes out a cozy? More power to you. But, if it comes out dark? Ride that motherfucker!

    Jacky B.

  7. Kathryn Lilley

    I’m currently writing the second book in my series. The tone is light, but darker themes keep emerging. What could one call a “dark cozy”? A “less cozy”? Hovering in the back of my mind is a febrile idea for an extremely dark story–so dark that it scares me. Where does it come from? And will there be room for humor and lightness in that tale? I think of Dean Koontz, and take heart

  8. billie

    Fascinating question!

    I think of my writing as chiaroscuro – playing with light and dark and the shadows between.

    My first novel deals with rape and how a young woman processes that through her subsequent relationships. There’s a scene near the end that is very difficult for some people to read. My first agent felt I might not need it. I felt it had to be there to show how far into the darkness the main character had to go to come back to the light.

    The second novel (that I’m editing now) deals with a father and daughter who both use sexuality to assuage loss/grief issues over his wife/ her mother who died during the daughter’s birth. It too involves going to a deep, dark place and then coming out to something lighter. I guess that’s a theme common to most of my work.

  9. Bryon Quertermous

    Thanks for the welcomes everybody. It’s nice to see we’ve got a nice mix of dark, light, and everything in between (and Dave). I think Lori sounds like a good mix to me alternating between light and dark. Do any of the dark writers try to balance with lighter work or do you find light in other areas of your life? Or are you just dark to the bone?

  10. Michael Haskins

    Byron, a good topic! I am almost at the end to my novel that is due out in March ’08. In rereading it for some self editing, I find a few of my characters smile a lot. I reread my rereading more slowly and kind of came away with the feeling these characters were not smiling in a friendly way. I am not sure I need to do a little editing to more explain the “smile” but if I can get dark characters to smile, maybe that’s a good thing. It adds more darkness to my novel than I had thought about putting into it.

  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hah, another interesting question. Yes, I definitely balance the dark – I dance. If I don’t do it every day it gets unpretty really fast. And I love performing with the Killer Thriller Band, and with Heather Graham’s Vampire Dinner Theater (in New Orleans this weekend it’s going to be Voodoo Dinner Theater). Horror and musical theater. That’s my idea of a good time.

  12. toni mcgee causey

    I am dragging in here late (have been travelling). I know some people would characterize what I do now as light, because it’s comedic caper, but there’s a dark undertone to the characters’ lives; I just tend to emphasize the absurd and hunt for the optimistic in the middle of the disaster. Maybe I’ve just been through too many disasters to focus right now on the dark stuff. I need the lighter side to stay sane.

    (I’ll never live up to that set up, but thank you.)


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