Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Career Suicide -- Unbreakable Rules

I can't kill Fams - telepathic animal companions. If I have any "trademark" in my writing, it is the animal sidekicks, particularly in the Heart Series.

That means I can never kill Fams unless I want to kill my career. My readers wouldn't stand for it. Not only would they write me HATE mail, they would never buy another book of mine. I can't kill Fams in the past, in the intervals between books, or offstage.

This presents a problem...'cause in Heart Quest, people WITH Fams are dying, and the Fams are there at the time. So, one must ask the question why the people are killed and the Fams aren't. One can't simply answer - Robin Can't Kill Fams. I have to provide a REASON, which, even with a fantasy series, can tax my imagination. Much thinking. About how the victims are killed. About why the victims are killed. About how the Fams might escape. Huh.

The other one sure way to kill a ROMANCE career would be to kill off a heroine (say Danith D'Ash in HeartMate) and recycle T'Ash as a hero (or vice versa).

YES, THAT MAKES ME SHUDDER, TOO. In a romance you promise the reader a happily ever after, and even if YOU know the hero or heroine will die or divorce shortly after the story ends (and I haven't been able to figure that one out, but some authors say it's so), the romance reader's expectations are that the Happily Ever After will stick. I believe this, too.

I saw a writer break this rule, once. She argued she had to be true to herself and her story and her characters. Her editor let her do it. It was not a pretty sight. She's writing under pseudonyms now.

I'm sure that mystery has unbreakable rules. Know them.

Do not break them unless you want your career kaput.

Love to all,



Blogger Bernita said...

Writers hold our dreams in their hands. Do not destroy them or we will get you for it.
It's very simple.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005 at 3:33:00 PM EDT  
Blogger wilddunz said...

Have you seen Misery? Some people may be true to their writing, but I'll stay true to my legs.
What? Oh, Misery wasn't a true story? Well, all the same.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005 at 3:40:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think a lot of this has to do with the tone that you set in the books. If the tone is not dark in the beginning, then readers won't flow with you to a darker tone in follow-up volumes. If you need to make the series get a bit darker (as JKR is doing with HP), you have to use a lot of caution. I personally don't like mysteries where an animal or pet is done in, although usually I don't mind a bit about the people toll--go figure. The people who are the victims in the cozies that I prefer are usually made out to be pretty rotten, so maybe that plays a part. I think I was damaged in childhood by "Bambi" and "Old Yeller" and other stories where some animal is doomed.

I think you DO have to be aware of your audience. These days, "branding" means that your stuff is being sold just like Sugar Frosted Flakes, and if you build an audience that expects a Jerry Lewis ending or a happy ending, then you can't really pull the rug out from under them without them crying "Foul!" If you start a different series, though, maybe you could have a different tone from the beginning (and a pseudonym to go with it--then the publicists can "tell" that you are writing under the pseudo so your hardcore fans can find that series as well.)
It's not the most "true to art" situation, but I'd rather have an audience that I could sing to than *not* have one, and if it meant I could only sing nair-nair songs in public, well, then that's the price of fame. Or something like that.

If you write chick lit, there must be shopping. That is simply a fact of life. (wink) If you write YA, everyone can die, but there must be a green shoot reaching out from the hero's houseplant so he can know that there's hope. That kind of expectation comes with the genre.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005 at 4:24:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diana Peterfreund said...

Oh dear.

I read lots of chick lit, and very little shopping. I think killing and torturing characters and/or animals is a very different situation, however.

Stephen King wrote in ON WRITING (fab book, btw) that he's killed the entire population of the planet several times, and people are fine with it, but he kills one dog, and he still gets hate mail.

I think "don't kill the cat" is an old saw of genre fiction.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005 at 6:57:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Jenny Barnhart said...

I was wondering then... How do we know when to push the limits of an accepted genre to make something new and exciting? To test the limits of the readers tolerance and open their minds to new and maybe radical ideas? When does it become acceptable to 'kill the cat'? Genre's change and expectations shift with the readers demands.

It's a very hard thing to find what's acceptable all while trying to put a new twist on an old genre.

But the warning is noted: I won't kill any cats.

Jenny Barnhart

Tuesday, August 30, 2005 at 7:19:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Deidre Knight said...

Jenny asks:
“I was wondering then... How do we know when to push the limits of an accepted genre to make something new and exciting? To test the limits of the readers tolerance and open their minds to new and maybe radical ideas? When does it become acceptable to 'kill the cat'? Genre's change and expectations shift with the readers demands.

It's a very hard thing to find what's acceptable all while trying to put a new twist on an old genre.”


I think that taking chances is the way to make a splash in this current market. At the same time, I think there are parameters of trust. Does this mean you can’t kill a cat? I’m not entirely sure. But I can say this—there are limits that can push emotional buttons for a reader that are sometimes simply too strong.

I’m a diehard Pat Conroy fan, but I will never forget the scene in PRINCE OF TIDES when the lion bites the head off the seal at the circus. I hurled the book across the room, cringing all over my body. On the other hand, I will admit that I appreciate angst in my stories, so I don’t mind having the envelope pushed in a lot of ways.

But, keep in mind, you can take chances, do something different, but not violate the reader trust. That’s my two cents.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005 at 7:41:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Jenny Barnhart said...

Thanks for the answer. I do know how it feels to have an author let me down. I was so disappointed with the characters that I never finished the story and that is a huge thing for me to do.

I guess we'll never really know where the limits are and where he can push past them until we try.

Keep trying.

Jenny Barnhart

Tuesday, August 30, 2005 at 8:13:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Nalini Singh said...

I think part of it for me is when the writer is clearly using the 'kill the cat/hero etc' as an easy way to generate shock, when it's not necessary to the story as a whole. As a reader that's easy to spot and it makes me (1) mad and (2) not respect the writer because they've taken the easy way out.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005 at 8:46:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Deidre Knight said...

Nalini, you nailed it. That is IT! When I feel they're just jerking me around, I resent it. Well said!

Tuesday, August 30, 2005 at 8:49:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just joshing about the shopping in Chick Lit (that's why I winked.) But the point about reader trust is well taken. Readers trust us to know what's right for the story and to fulfill the promise that we made when we began drawing them in. ("A Story is a Promise," after all.) Sometimes there are inevitabilities in stories. In some stories, you know that something awful is going to happen at the black moment or at the climax. (Those are the stories that I beg off on reading, as I know I won't be able to enjoy them. A woman's got to know her limitations.) In other stories, the promise of a happy ending is so strong that if a bittersweet ending or some tragedy comes along, the reader feels cheated. Here we have read all 300 pages, and suddenly we don't want to go on reading. Sometimes it *is* just a "shock value" thing, but other times it is what's inevitable for that story.

I feel that if I start out a story with a light-hearted tone and witty dialogue (think "The Thin Man"), the reader is going to expect that no bunnies are harmed in the making of this vivid, continuous dream. The tone has to match the theme of the tale, or else there can be a mismatch and the reader gets hit by the line-drive. I don't read horror, and that's because I know what's promised. I don't want to miss out on the Happily Ever After.

People read so they can believe. They read so they can experience lives not their own. They want so badly to come out of it smiling, even if that's through their tears.

Pandora left us Hope in the box. Readers want to feel that hope at the end of any story. Hope that things will turn out better in the long run, hope that it was all worthwhile, hope that tomorrow is another day. That despite the sad parts, life is worth living. I think that's what we're saying here, in part--that you need to never break the contract with the reader which says, I will give you hope.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005 at 1:08:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would post another don't. Do not, ever, ever, have a hero from a past book in a series cheat on his ONE TRUE LOVE in the next book in the series. This ia a huge no-no for me. Once the hero finds his one and only, he has to stay the hero that I entrusted with that heroine's heart and soul.

When this happened with an autobuy author recently, I was honestly surprised by how betrayed I felt and how ANGRY with the characters I was. My rational side tells me to get over it, however, my irrational side pretty much insures I won't buy another book by this author.

On some level, he cheated on me and to my inner reader, no excuses to rationalize the behavior can obscure that bottom line.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005 at 7:40:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Diana Peterfreund said...

I meant "don't kill the cat" as an industry inside joke, much as a bunch of doctors might say, "if it's bleeding, stop it." Sometimes, obviously, something needs to bleed a little in order to cleanse the wound. But, it's a good guideline and it's something we all get to drink heavily and toast to at conferences: "to not killing the cat" etc.

I think a lot of this comes down to getting to a point in your craft where you trust yourself and your ability to write the story. Know the rules before you break them. Robin here obviously knows that for her and her story and the people who read that story, the Fams cannot be killed. It would be a betrayal. Another person might understand the rules nad knowingly break them, understanding that in this case and with his skill set, it will work out fine.

I think, to go back to the Rowling example, that she has very carefully *groomed* her readers to realize that nothing is sacred here. She's going to kill people. A lot of people. People we love. But we've come to expect it, because she's been killing people for several books now.

As Nalini was saying, is a matter of purpose. It's also a matter of knowledge -- what's right for the story, right for you career, right for the reader's expectations. And the problem arises when writers mistake ignorance for confidence or mistake what the reader's tolerance for expectation-breaking is.

Because you can play with reader expectation and blow them away ("I never saw it coming!") or you can play with reader expectation and make them feel betrayed.

I think it's a difficult line to tread, and it takes a great degree of ability and understanding.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005 at 9:18:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember reading a fantasy romance trilogy, where each book dealt with a different generation of a particular family. After reading the first book (incredible story) and falling completely in love with the hero and heroine, I read the second book. It features the daughter this time, and in that book, the mother (heroine of the first book) dies of cancer and the father (hero of the first book) is left alone and lonely.

As I read to the end of the scene where the mother takes her last breath, I stared at the book in disbelief for a minute for letting out a primal scream and dropping the book on my desk like rotten meat. I didn't touch the book for weeks afterward, until I could get over the mother's death.

The entire first book was about her and I felt so betrayed by the author for killing her off!

Thursday, September 1, 2005 at 5:52:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Diana Peterfreund said...

Some famous writer (I think it's Linda Howard) said that she won't write another book in a particular multi-generational series becuase it's so far along now that eventually she'd have to kill the patriarch off, and she can't bear to do that.

Thursday, September 1, 2005 at 11:19:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Joyce Wells said...

I must have broken the first rule. In one of my early poems, titled, I Killed the Cat, I killed a cat who stalked me.
Now in my sequel to my first romantic suspense, I have killed the hero of the first book in the first chapter of the second. But I did set up an Epilogue in the first that indicates that all might not end up well with the couple. It seems as if I've committed "career suicide" before I've even started. Argh!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008 at 8:59:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've thought a lot about character killing--the why and when of it. In horror or tragedy there is lots of death, but I don't read those genres, and in mystery the deceased is often a plot device more than a character. In the kinds of stories I like reading, a character death must have meaning and it is only allowed to happen to one of two types of characters. First is the sacrificial lamb. There are some characters who are weakened (usually by something outside their own control) and they are allowed to die, even though I may love them. Think Tara in Buffy, think Mouse in The Matrix, or Scarlett O'Hara's first husband. Why is this acceptable? I think because it reflects life. Weakened things (people, animals, plants) do not live as long and we have to accept that or go mad. The other type of character who can die is one who is evil, or who has been evil and is now redeemed, or has been good then turned evil, or some other combination of evilness and goodness. The best sacrificial story deaths are the ultimate acts of redemption and involve a death that saves others. Think Spike in Buffy or Boromir in LOTR. And just to show how hard a concept this is to get around, even Tolkien was unsure. He said that he thought he should kill off a hobbit (either Sam or Pippin), because he didn't know if he had enough sacrifice, but when it came time he just couldn't do it. And why is that? Besides their universal loveableness, they had done nothing that made death deserved so required no redemption, and they had become too strong in themselves to play the sacrificial lamb. My theory.


Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 9:22:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Joyce Wells said...

Thanks for your comment, you've given me a lot to think about. I think that the death of the hero of the first book in the beginning of the sequel might be a type of "sacrificial lamb" killing. He must die for the heroine to move on with her life, otherwise, a boring second book with no conflict for her.
But I don't want my readers throwing the book down in disgust. In suspense novels, don't the readers expect the unexpected sometime? And can't that be the death of a not necessarily beloved character. (Some of my reviewers said they wanted to him up upside of the head at times--whatever that means).

Sunday, April 6, 2008 at 8:50:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, I didn't review that posting. It should have read *hit him upside of the head...*

Sunday, April 6, 2008 at 8:52:00 PM EDT  

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