By John Gilstrap
My next book, Hostage Zero (July, 2010) features a new character who happens to be a veteran of the Battle of Fallujah, a 2004 gulf-war maelstrom that evolved into one of the great U.S. Marine urban warfare victories of all time. In relating a story from that time to another character, this very likeable guy refers to his Iraqi insurgent enemies as “Hadjis”—this war’s equivalent of Kraut or Nip. Hey, when you’re trying to kill them, insulting them doesn’t seem like such a big deal. At least I didn’t think so.
My copy editor, however affixed a yellow sticky with a rather passionate note that the H-word was offensive, and that if my character used it, the readers would stop liking him. She suggested that I eliminate all uses of the term. We agreed to disagree.
In a previous book, an early draft included a line of dialogue in which my protagonist (a cop) showed disrespect for the gay community via a throwaway line that dealt with slip-on shoes and reduced gravity. My then-agent’s assistant, himself openly gay, told me that that was a truly offensive reference within the community—I had no idea—and that the line changed his whole opinion of my character. I was stunned, and I deleted the reference without a fight.
The difference between the two instances was that the gay reference truly was a throwaway line that I probably would have trimmed anyway, just during the normal course of editing. Besides, I know a number of really fine people who happen to be gay, and I try not to make anyone uncomfortable.
On the other hand, the remark in Hostage Zero actually plays a part in the course of the story. And if readers don’t understand the honest place from which the epithet arises in my character, then they’re either way too sensitive, or I’m not as good at my job as I need to be.
My question to the blogosphere today is how far are you willing to go to appease readers’ sensitivities, especially when in the POV of a character? Is it possible in today’s literary environment for a good guy to retain the moral high ground even after he makes an insensitive remark?
Okay, now on to today’s anonymous writing sample:
AN EMPIRE LADY
I don’t usually poison someone on the first date, but this time I’m willing to make an exception. Dame Blanchard always said improvisation is a necessary part of espionage and, as Monsieur Hugo crosses the room to the mahogany sideboard, I sense the danger I’m in. His tall, taut frame appears sinewy and strong beneath the immaculately pressed evening suit – he could easily overwhelm me with his physical strength and so I reach out for the beaded purse dangling from the arm of the chair, ready to draw out the vial of arsenic I always keep on hand. Monsieur Hugo turns before I can extract it and I draw out a silver cigarette case instead. I place a Gauloise cigarette to my lips, staining the end with deep red lipstick, before offering him one with an arched look, designed to convey the kind of brazen audacity I hope masks my fear.
“Champagne, ma cherie?” he inquires, dark toad-like eyes bulging.
“Oui, merci,” I reply with my most calculated-to-charm smile. I wonder, was it my accent that tipped him off? Had I inadvertently betrayed the fact that I grew up in the gutters of Le Havre rather than the gilded drawing rooms of Paris? Dame Blanchard had cautioned me that, as a military attaché, Monsieur Hugo, had an uncanny ear for dialect. Had he suspected me all along?
I shift in my exquisite, hand sequined gown to reveal a peek of ankle, the merest flash of a jewel-encrusted silk shoe. Perhaps lust will entice him to draw out this little charade of ours. His eyelid’s flicker even as his traitorous smile remains rigidly in place.
Our glasses clink in a toast. “To the King,” I murmur, seeing my own blue eyes reflected in his black gaze. We may as well feign loyalty to King George – the French are supposed to be our allies after all.
“To the King,” he echoes, watching me closely.
The battle of wits – and my survival – begins.
This piece is a living example of a story with good bones under a heavy layer of fat. I enjoy the setting and I enjoy the character and her voice, but it’s all way too thick and chewy for me. Sentences meander and compound too much. The simple declarative sentence is a writer’s most important tool.
For me, the present-tense telling is a crippling burden here. When used even by experienced journeymen, the present tense is a contrivance; here it’s an albatross, made even albatrossier by the fact that it’s a historical piece.
At the risk of being presumptuous, I’ve taken a stab at a full re-write of the submission to illustrate some tightening and stylistic changes that I think make the piece more engaging. I kept to the original skeleton, and I tried hard not to screw up the voice. This just seemed like the most efficient way to offer constructive criticism and trim over 100 words in the process:
I don’t usually poison someone on the first date, but tonight was a night of firsts.
As military attaché Monsieur Hugo crossed the room to the mahogany sideboard, I sensed danger. Sinewy and strong beneath his immaculately pressed evening suit, he could easily have overwhelmed me.
I reached below the arm of my chair to draw the vial of arsenic from my beaded purse, but when he turned unexpectedly, I withdrew a silver cigarette case instead. I placed a Gauloise to my lips, staining it with red lipstick before offering him one. I hoped my arched look masked my fear.
“Champagne, ma cherie?” he offered. His dark toad-like eyes bulged.
“Oui, merci,” I replied, praying that my accent did not betray my origins from the gutters of Le Havre. Dame Blanchard had cautioned me that Monsieur Hugo possessed an uncanny ear for dialect.
I shifted in my chair to reveal the merest flash of a jewel-encrusted silk shoe beneath my sequined gown. His eyelids flickered even as his traitorous smile remained rigid.
Our glasses clinked. “To the King,” I murmured. The French were supposed to be our allies after all.
His eyes remained locked on mine. “To the King.”
The battle of wits – and battle for my survival – had begun.