Killing the Dog

One famous maxim about writing is “Don’t kill the dog”, its premise being readers will tolerate a lot, but killing a beloved pet is beyond the pale—you risk losing your readers who can forgive a lot, but not that. Of course, rules are made to be broken if there is a good enough reason. Old Yeller and John Wick both kill the dog. John Wick’s story has to justify the murder and mayhem that ensues because a horrible injustice was done to him and his dog, Daisy. This is how we know what bad people John is up against so anything he does is justified (and they are trying to kill him as well, so, self defense). It may be cheap and cheesy short hand, but it gets the job done. Old Yeller, like so many children’s books, is trying to teach kids a lesson that is good for them. I abandoned children’s books from an early age because of the “lessons.” I asked myself, incredulous, the Little Princess is supposed to suck up all the abuse she got when she was suddenly poor, then all was forgiven when she was rich again? I don’t think so.

Children’s literature disgusted my grade-school self, so I turned to murder mysteries. Death usually happened early and off-stage. The rest of the story was about catching the bad guy(s) (usually through cleverness and perseverance) and dispensing justice. I didn’t need those depressing children’s books. I learned my “good for you lessons” from “The Twilight Zone” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”. The bad guys may not always have been caught by the authorities, but the universe had a way of evening things up. One way or another, justice came and no dogs were harmed.

Beyond avoiding killing the beloved pet, how authors write about death and violence depends on the genre. The mysteries I was reading when I was a child were mostly “cozies” with characters like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple or Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey. But not all mysteries are cozies, and I have enjoyed gritty novels, films, and television programs as well. These can get extremely violent, and the morality sometimes is ambiguous. No one would describe the writing of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, or Thomas Harris as cozies. True crime can be the most violent of all genres, sometimes with little or no justification for the violence, but hopefully, because the crime has been discovered, solved, and written about, justice was finally served. In the end, most readers and viewers want some sort of justice, even if it is the Twilight Zone kind.

You may recall I’m a fan of horror fiction. Once upon a time, a lot of the violence in horror was fantastical and often had some moral basis underlying it. Fairly stern censorship also limited the depiction of violence during certain eras, but a sub-genre of horror has arisen in the last decades that is increasingly violent. Though “classic” horror still persists, non-human monsters and psychological thrills have in many cases given way to slashers and gore—who dies and how can be pretty much no holds barred.

Our views on violence have changed over time, and our attitudes are affected by the context. How would you write this story? A man slaps another man in a very public setting to defend his wife’s honor. At a certain time and in a certain place, this would demand a duel. In a tragedy, the loyal husband would be killed or maimed. A comedy, a mystery, a romance, a horror story would likely all handle the situation and its outcome differently. In real life, Will Smith gets shunned, and Chris Rock gets sold-out audiences. Assaulting someone in public is not acceptable, we say, suggesting nowadays we have a lower tolerance for violence in real life than in fiction or in the past. But do we?

A man claims self defense, and is free to walk the streets after killing someone. If the man “in fear for his life” is a White police officer and the “threat” is an unarmed Black man, how do we feel about that? How do we read it? How do we write it? Or if a man has a permit for his gun, is startled awake by yelling men crashing into an apartment, and reaches for his gun, is he standing his ground and defending himself? And if the intruders turn out to be cops with a no-knock warrant and possibly the wrong apartment, is that different? Is it a horror story, a tragedy, or an extremely dark comedy? Does race, gender, nationality, social status of the victim or the cops make a difference? Should it? I image how you read it and write it, may very much depend on your personal experience.

If you have a friend or relative who has been the victim of violence, or you yourself have been victimized, you might respond differently to a fictionalized account of an incident that resembles your own. If it’s personal, all abstraction is gone—this was real, this happened to me, and I’m not detached, I’m not okay with it.

How realistic is the violence in modern fiction? How realistic should it be? A convenient fictional device is to hit someone over the head to render them unconscious, removing them from the action but not killing them. In reality, this kind of attack can lead to permanent brain damage or even death. In the novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption”, Stephen King describes a beating that renders a man permanently crippled. This is entirely possible. People who are violently attacked don’t usually jump right back up and carry on as though nothing has happened. Few authors describe the true toll of violence on the body and the mind.

Writers are told there can be no story without conflict. One quick and easy route to conflict can be a fight and a body count. The people who die may become ciphers, not real, not important except to show the prowess of the one killing them. In the real world, dead people have families and friends who mourn them. I have long thought that if more stories told about the aftermath of violence, the emergency rooms and months or perhaps years of physical therapy a victim might endure, it might seem less attractive to those who try to emulate their fictional heroes or anti-heroes by assaulting others. The quiet scene of the family at the grave side does little to show how damaged a death leaves family and friends. Yet for all the discomfort and reluctance authors (and perhaps their publishers) may feel, some stories have addressed the aftermath of death—its effect on those left behind, the ones truly grieving and feeling all the pain. Some novels and memoirs deal honestly with the pain of loss. Do we really want to read about this? Isn’t it painful and uncomfortable? Should it be?

I wonder how we will write the violence of the war in Ukraine. The Russian soldiers have been told a story—that Nazi’s are committing genocide against Russian-speaking people—so any violence they commit is justified. But even if they believe this, how could anything justify the torture, rape, execution of non-combatants, the indiscriminate deaths of children, pregnant women, and old people? Even animals are not safe from the violence. Ukrainian cows have been shot dead, in one instance while they stood in their stanchions waiting to be milked. I doubt there is any evidence that they were Nazi cows. Once violence is unleashed, it is often hard to contain. The Russian soldiers seem to have lost sight of what it is they are trying to accomplish, unless the death of every living thing in Ukraine is their true goal.

I fear violence and death casually depicted in fiction may desensitize people and should be used carefully, yet truthful depictions are required to ground a story in the sometimes grim realities of the world. Storytellers have a responsibility in how they portray those realities. I believe we must write honestly about the consequences of violence, the harm that can be inflicted, mental as well as physical. One of the things that makes Stephen King a great horror writer is that in as little as a paragraph he can make you care about a character so when he kills off that person in the next paragraph, you are horrified. And we should be horrified when someone is killed by violence. Anyone. Not just the dog.

Image: Bourbon, a dog who is very much alive. By Laurie Jackson-Prater.

How Not to Write and How to Not Write

Stephen King’s wonderful book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, is something every aspiring writer (and maybe every reader) should read. I haven’t read it in quite a while and am due to revisit it. There are many great books on writing–how to, what the writer’s life is like, how to edit and plot, and all kinds of good stuff. I have a lot of these kinds of books and have read most of them and have gotten a lot of books on writing from the library. Some of the books are better than others, but anything that teaches you something useful is good. I haven’t seen too many books on how not to write, so let me see if I can fill a tiny bit of that void with some advice on how NOT to write and even how to not write. (They are different, trust me.)

First how not to write. Don’t write “in the style of” someone famous and much loved unless you’ve really made a study of how that person writes. You can certainly borrow plots (Shakespeare did) and some great stuff has come out of what was started out as fan fiction. But if you want to write in the style of, say Jane Austen, make sure you understand her wicked sense of humor as well as her time and culture. Paying tribute may be a great way to start, but honestly, you have your own voice. Find it. Use it.

Second, don’t slide over plot points. If it’s important to the story, give it some time and effort. Don’t spring stuff out of the blue without some foreshadowing. “Oh, and by the way, she was an orphan with a twin who was raised by witches,” you write in chapter twelve when suddenly, conveniently the twin appears. Readers hate that. It’s like cheating. Find a way to hint at or even tell about something that becomes important later.

Third, don’t pick you mom and your best friend for editors. They will love it no matter how bad it is. Get someone who will be honest AND instructive. “This is terrible” isn’t useful criticism. “I don’t understand this part” or “I wish you told me more about…” is. Part two of this is, don’t ignore criticism of your work. Fix it or explain it or make it better. If one person has trouble with it, likely others will too.

Don’t use “just”. The problem is, once you use “just”, it just invites all its relatives and just starts showing up everywhere, like in every paragraph and sometimes in every sentence. If you just mean “merely” or “simply” or “only”, use those instead if you must. If you mean “right and fair”, “just” is okay. Just do a word search and eliminate them all. Then if you re-read and in spots it makes no sense, just add it back. Just sayin’.

Don’t use cliches. I know everyone says this, but gosh it’s tempting to use the shorthand of cliches. Don’t do it. Don’t describe in exhausting detail things that don’t move the plot along. Don’t use slang unless your audience is familiar with it or unless it is integral to the story and you make it clear by the context what it all means. Don’t kill the dog. Or the kid. Unless that is what the story is about. Make sure you know what your story is about. And stick to it. The detailed sex scene may be earth shattering, but is it relevant? Of course there is a lot more, but this is only a blog post, not a book. Let’s get to how to not write.

You won’t get any writing done if you have no place to do it, no place where you and your thoughts can collude in some level of peace and quiet. And when you insist on not being disturbed because you’re writing, make sure you’re writing. You won’t write if you don’t have a time to write, a time set aside to focus on what you want to say. You won’t write if you put everything and everyone ahead of writing, if you’re never a little selfish, just for a little while. You won’t write if you spend too much time doubting yourself or thinking your work should be perfect on the first draft–it won’t be, but that doesn’t mean anything. You won’t write if you give up, but you also won’t write if you plug away at something that is making you bored and frustrated and disgusted. For Pete’s sake, give it a rest. You can always come back to it. And if you give in to the despair of writer’s block, you won’t write. But it will pass. An idea will mug you when you least expect it, and you’ll get back to writing and abandon not writing, so in your face, writer’s block!

I don’t pretend to know much about writing or how to write well, but I do write. I plan to keep doing it. Hope this helps.

Image: Some writing books. The rest are in the public library. By Marilyn Evans

Inspiration

(This post contains spoilers).

Last weekend, my husband and I attended the Kansas City Symphony. Jonathan was especially taken by Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor and pianist George Li’s wonderful performance. I myself am always a sucker for Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 in A major, especially since its stately second movement was used in the Nicholas Cage movie, Knowing, as the world ends in a solar flare. But the real surprise in this concert was a newer composition: Michael Kurth’s A Thousand Words.

Mr. Kurth was there in person to talk about the four movements of his work, each a musical picture worth many words that described the emotional experiences that inspired them. The first was a sunrise, the crescendo lasting as long as it takes the sun to rise above the horizon. The second was an amazing piece invoking with industrial zeal both the cliffs at Reynisfjara and the Sloss Furnaces of Alabama. The third movement paid tribute to his late mother, and the fourth was a carnival-like dance party.

Having tried my hand a couple of times at composing, I always wonder, where does all this really great music come from? The Muses, of course, the Gods, Heaven, Nature, but apparently it also comes from art. Later this year, the symphony will be performing Pictures at an Exhibition, Mussorgsky’s tribute to the art of Viktor Hartmann.

Last week I also was listening to a collection of Stephen King’s short stories as I drove from place to place on errands. The Bazaar of Bad Dreams includes an author’s introduction explaining his inspirations as well as comments afterward about the writers who might have been on his mind at the time he wrote the stories–his mentors, to some extent. None was more obvious than the story written in an approximation of the voice of Elmore Leonard.

For all that Nature is a powerful inspiration, I think the art of others may be a more powerful stimulant. Fan fiction arises from this but need not stop there. I have been told that the wonderful Lois McMaster Bujold began what was to become the Vorkosigan saga as fan fiction, but it became something whole, huge, and amazing all by itself. Just as there is nothing new in this world (a debatable point, but one often stated), there are no two things exactly alike. Infinite ways of telling stories, interpreting feelings, creating art rise and fall. How many interpretations of Shakespeare’s works have there been? And Shakespeare was inspired by older stories he borrowed freely but made his own.

I think we need never fear being derivative if we put our own soul into our works to create our own art. Art begets art no less than living creatures beget their own replacements. My works may never achieve the heights of those of King, Bujold, Mussorgsky, or Shakespeare, but wallowing in great art is its own reward, even without the bonus of inspiration.

Image: White Iris by Vincent Van Gogh. Print, from the collection of Marilyn Evans.

A Little Help From My Friends

Not long ago, you may recall, I was ready to shove my latest novel off a cliff and hie myself to a commune or convent or some other place that begins with a “c”. Instead, I put down the computer and stepped away from the writing. Then, I handed off the draft to my long-suffering friends to read, critique, or shove off a cliff. Bless them, they not only slogged their way through the novel, they provided feedback, suggestions for improving it, and praise!

I’m a social sort of creature. I like camping with a few hundred sweaty people once or twice a year. I like going to other people’s readings and publicly reading my own work. I like sharing the voice that got into my head and made me write what I wrote. I like helping out other writers with what I’ve learned so far, not that I’m any kind of expert, but, as they say, in the land of the blind, a one-eyed dude can be helpful. I like praise and positive feedback, because, who doesn’t? But more than all that, I like honest opinions that will make my work better.

I have the great luck to know some good writers and dedicated readers who can spot a fatal flaw in a novel. These folks are worth their weight in gold, booze, pet sitting, or nearly anything else they ask of me. Without these friends, I could consult editors (some for hire) who can yank me back from the edge of the cliff my novel and I are about to dive over.

Stephen King tells the story that his first novel, Carrie, was rescued from the trash can by his wife, Tabitha. She thought it wasn’t so very bad. I know how Mr. King felt when he chucked his novel. I’m glad he had the sense to listen to his wife and glad she saved that story.

My friends were able to spot the pretty decent story buried in the work I had gotten too close to, and they are helping me fix it. I think in the end, it’s going to be a good, possibly great, story, but that wouldn’t have happened without a little help from my friends. Thanks, guys.

Image: Me (in there somewhere) with a few of my friends at Lynn and Susan’s hand fasting. Photographer unknown.

Reading and Writing

I went to the library recently to grab a few audio books to amuse me while I made a long car trip. While I was there, a saw a woman teaching another woman how to read. The progress was slow and painful, but it was happening. I thought what a wonderful thing that was, both on the part of the teacher and of the learner, to give the gift of reading to someone who doesn’t have it, and to learn to read and experience all the worlds that reading opens.

When I mentioned this incident on Facebook, a friend quipped, if you have audio books why bother to learn to read? Of course, not being able to read closes so many doors, but having audio books is a pretty wonderful thing, too–I can “read” without having to take my eyes off the highway, learn something interesting as I travel, be entertained instead of bored, pass the time in good company, and get through books I might not have time to otherwise.

My love affair with reading started when I was on a camping trip when I was about five years old. Before turning out the lantern, my dad was settling down in his sleeping bag to read as he did every night, at home or away. My brother, Paul, was reading his preferred literature, a comic book. I had nothing. I borrowed a comic book from Paul so I could read, too (even though I couldn’t read yet), and I was hooked for life. I still try to read every night before I go to sleep, and as often as I can manage in between.

Like so many people, I love that image of the man standing on top of a ladder in a library, books under his arms and one between his knees, completely engrossed in yet another book. This picture captures what reading is like for me and others like me–we know what it is to be hijacked by a book. For some of us, reading is a passion, but also a practice for our craft. Stephen King has said that those who don’t have time to read will have neither the time nor the tools to write. I suppose a great many people who read imagine they can write, but reading and writing are very different things. Still, it would be hard to write and write well if one didn’t read, and if you weren’t just a little bit in love with the written word.

When I got where I was going on that long car trip, I handed out a couple of my cards that have information about my book. This often happens when I’m asked, “What are you doing now that you’re retired?” One of the people I gave a card to, a relative, is a librarian, and said he would like to order a copy for his library. I said if he did, I would come and sign it. I wondered as I drove home what would be appropriate to write in the book to be shared in a library in a small town. I thought about all the wonders of reading and how much I have loved it, especially when I lived in a small town. I decided a good inscription might be, “Read every day, and you will always have adventure.”

Image: Captain Jack and Molydinum Wu helping us read. By Jonathan Hutchins.