I know, I know, everyone’s at the beach, I’m talking to myself, here. I’m too tired from the move to even think about going to the beach, so I will just type quietly to myself, which does not even require getting out of bed, by me or the cats, who don’t look too inclined to get out of bed, either. (I think half the stress of moving is seeing how much it traumatizes your animals, no matter how much you try to explain what is happening and that it will be all right, eventually…).
I did a post on my own blog this week on editing that apparently surprised some people because my rewriting advice was less about punctuation and a lot more about doing “genre passes” – that is, doing several rewrites that focus specifically on heightening genre elements in your book: a comic pass for comedy, a suspense pass for a thriller, a sex pass for a romance (all right, emotional pass, if you will…)
And then some of the comments on that post sparked a whole discussion on another website in which someone who had read my blog was fuming about the idea of having to know the genre of your story while you are still in the process of writing it.
I don’t know, it seems kind of important to me.
I understand the reluctance to be pigeonholed. I think it’s a symptom of the new writer, mostly, because anyone who has written professionally has long ago come to terms with pigeonholing (Did they send a check? Then they can call it anything they want).
But I don’t understand the reluctance to be associated with the great books that are your story’s antecedents. I really don’t understand the seeming reluctance to even KNOW what books are your story’s antecedents. We all stand on the shoulders of everyone who came before us – which is why I went into such raptures about meeting Richard Matheson last month. But then, so did F. Paul Wilson, whose shoulders I also stand on, who specifically gave tribute to Matheson as one of the greats whose shoulders Paul is standing on…
You have to know what you’re aspiring to.
The challenge of genre is delivering something unique and compelling within a proscribed form.
Now, I happen to be grateful for a proscribed form, because it gives a shape to a story from the very beginning, and let’s face it, when you first embark on a project, story is a vast and amorphous mass, or maybe that’s mess. Any signposts in that chaos are lifesaving.
But also, the form is proscribed because genre fans are paying their money to get a certain kind of experience, which your publisher (or the film studio) will have promised through the advertising of the story – the jacket design, the flap copy, the one-sheet, the trailer.
Does that make those readers lemmings? Because they’re expecting and wanting a certain experience?
I don’t think so. It’s just personal taste and preference, and a consumer’s desire to know what you’re paying for up front. When I have time to go to the movies I don’t want to be forced to sit through bubbly (well, perhaps I mean airheaded) romantic comedies when I could be watching a good thriller. I know myself, and I know thrillers (horror, mystery) consistently hit my pleasure buttons, and I don’t have that much free time to gamble two hours on a movie or eight to ten hours on a book that may not give me the basic escapist pleasure that I’ll get out of a well-written or well-produced thriller.
But the danger of genre – or perhaps what I mean is, what I am finding unnerving about it – is the lengths to which storytellers seem to feel they have to go to stand out in the field.
Yesterday I did something I do periodically: I took about a dozen books – thrillers – from my TBR pile and read the first few chapters of one after another, not letting myself go beyond three chapters (or four, if they were very short chapters). Just seeing what caught me and why. (Great exercise for people getting ready to send out queries and chapters, right? Do yours stack up?)
Some really well-written things there, and some not so much, and no, I’m not about to name names.
But I have to say I was unnerved – and maybe I mean something stronger – maybe I mean revolted or repulsed – by the level of violence that these books started out with. Not just rape, but multiple rapes, brutal slaughter, torture, mutilation.
These were not horror novels, mind you. They are new thrillers. (And the word “rape”, much less “serial rape”, does not appear in the jacket copy of any of them, otherwise they would not have been on my TBR pile to begin with).
And yes, I did flip through the books to see if that level of violence continued. It not only continued, it escalated.
Now, I know that the success of SAW started a bad, bad trend in horror movies. I remember one very strong impetus for me to write my first novel was when I had a film executive in a meeting turn to me and say: “And then let’s have him rip her face off.”
That was when I realized I’d better make other career plans, at least until that trend mercifully died.
But can someone tell me when thrillers turned into torture porn?
I write dark stuff myself. But do serial killer novels really have to have body counts in the dozens these days? Do we need to be subjected to whole chapters of real-time torture or rape?
I wish I WERE going to the beach today, actually, because I feel like I need to be washed out, and like maybe I need a whole ocean to do it.
Rape and child abuse are horrific things. Maybe these authors feel they need to escalate to the extreme to fully convey the horror of the experience.
Or maybe they are distancing themselves from the real-life horror of the by making the violence over-the-top to the point of absurdity.
Or maybe they’re scared that they can’t write well enough to stand out without butchering dozens of characters at a time.
Or maybe that’s what the reading public wants these days and I’m just in denial about it.
I don’t know – what do you think? Does “dark” these days mean continual mayhem and slaughter?
Maybe I’ll go see a couple of bubble-headed comedies. Because suddenly, it looks like there’s not a whole lot around the house that I’m interested in reading.
It’s July 4, and I really should say something relevant, right?
When I was sixteen years old, I was an exchange student in Instanbul. There were a lot of hard things about that experience, but one of the hardest was being out of the country on the 4th of July. That was surprising to me, because as people around here have probably figured out, I’m one of those subversive radicals.
It’s a terrible irony – and tragedy – that the Declaration of Independence was written in a time of legal slavery, when women were considered property as well, and written by a man who “owned” slaves. But that summer out of the country I realized what a profound concept drove the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
It’s that Pursuit of Happiness that really sunk in for me that summer.
It was a violent time – students had been shot in political protests on college campuses, and as a blond American teenager I was sexually harrassed constantly and sometimes in fear for my life.
But that summer is when it clicked for me – that life is short and precious and I decided if I ever made it back to the U.S. I was going to live my birthright as an American and pursue my happiness.
And when I came back to college I majored in theater instead of law or psychology or anything else practical I’d been thinking about. Because life is short, and we have the right to happiness.
Happy Independence Day to all, whatever that is for you.