Is Your Book Tone-Deaf?

By. P.J. Parrish

I don’t get to read for pleasure often, so when I ducked away to Sanibel Island last week, I took a couple paperbacks and my Kindle, all loaded up with stuff I’ve been meaning to get to.

It was like a unleashing a starving stray dog on a smorgasbord table. I finished Joyce Carol Oates’s short story collection “The Female of the Species,” woofed down a couple old John D. MacDonalds, Tom Franklin’s “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter” and Gilbert King’s “Devil in the Grove.”

When I ran out of stuff, I turned to the shelf of ratty paperbacks in our rented bungalow. There was a book by an author I hadn’t heard of before. I love discovering new authors, so I read the back copy. Good premise. I skimmed the first page. She had me. I took it down to the beach, lathered up with sun block, and settled in. I was ready. I wanted to be seduced. The first chapter was really good. A female cop, a grisly setup, a clear narrative voice, taut writing that teased me to turn the page.

So I did. And damn, I wish I hadn’t because things went downhill fast. This female cop suddenly turned into a blithering mess. Worse, her ex-boyfriend came sniffing around and after she took him back, he took over the case. HER case! Suddenly, this cop — traumatized though she might have been — allowed weasel boy to take charge of everything. Worse, the writer LET HIM DO IT! Every time there was a new twist in the case, it was weasel boy who led the charge. Where was our heroine? Weeping and whining on the sidelines, a pathetic Hamlette, torn by indecision.

The thing degenerated into a mass of bad romantic cliches. Complete with a see-it-coming-a-mile-away pregnancy that by book’s end gives our girl a good reason reason to quit her police job and make waffles for weasel boy. I was furious. Do you ever have the urge to throw a book across the room? I was sitting on the beach and would have heaved this one into the sea oats but I might have hit a turtle nest so I got up and threw it in the Dumpster.


It wasn’t because I hate women in distress books. The female in jeopardy is a standard of our genre and in the right hands, this can sometimes rise above cliche. But this author was dishonest. She started out with a premise that promised a woman of strength and depth. And I had expectations that this character would rise above her awful trauma through her own grit and courage. As I read this book, I found myself thinking about another book I had read, Theresa Schwegel’s “Officer Down,” which won Best First Edgar. This author also had a damaged heroine whose lover muscles in. But Schwegel let her heroine solve her own problems. The woman cop wasn’t waiting for Dudley Do Right to right her ship.

In the end, I decided I was angry about this other book because I had been misled. I don’t begrudge readers romantic escapism. Hell, I used to write it. But this book was so schizophrenic it was like the first three chapters were written by Germaine Greer and the rest by Phyllis Schlafly. (Yeah, I’m showing my age there). If your setup is a dark tale of a woman cop’s redemptive journey, you can’t switch tones mid-book and start going for the Rita Award.

Tone is so important. And it’s not really the same as mood. Tone is the narrator’s attitude toward the subject — be it playful, ironic, dark, hardboiled, romantic — whereas the mood is what the reader feels by virtue of the setting, theme and voice. And I think tone is something often overlooked by some beginning writers. You, the writer, have to know in your heart what kind of book you are setting out to write. And then you should bend all the powers of your craft to that end. Poe called it Unity of Effect and wrote about it in his essay “The Philosophy of Composition.” He believed that a work of fiction should be written only after the author has decided which emotional response, or “effect,” he wishes to create. And once that was decided, everything else — theme, setting, characters, conflict, and plot — should serve the effect.

We do this via the countless choices we make as writers. What words we use, what imagery is in play, what the sentence structure is, what details we put in (as well as those we leave out). Here’s a visual.:

Both are photos of the Everglades. I’m choosing them because I also went on a “swamp walk” hike in the Corkscrew Swamp this week. The first photograph is by Susan Schermer. The second is by Clyde Butcher. Schermer’s is lush and color-saturated, with emphasis on the birds and setting sun. Butcher’s is desolate, empty of all apparent life and in stark black and white. The first is somewhat sentimental; the second almost existential. Both artists made choices about what details they wanted to include — or leave out — in their work, how they lit their landscapes, the types of trees, the quality of the water.

Same subject, different tones. Each is successful in its own way. But you can’t mistake one for the other.

So what’s my point? I’m not asking anyone to buttonhole their work. It isn’t necessary to try to psyche out editors and the folks who shelve the books at Barnes and Noble. (Is this neo-noir? Is it chick lit? Is it teen dystopia? Do we even care anymore?) I’m not even talking about all the sub-genres we tend to impose upon crime fiction. Some of the best stuff being written in crime fiction right now crosses so-called divides and genres.

What I am asking for, I think, is consistency. And honesty. Be honest with your readers. I don’t mean be predictable. Being honest means finding a tone for your work and sticking with it so that the reality you create on your pages is believable and satisfying. If you want to write romance or romance suspense, go for it and do it well.

But don’t promise me Katniss Everdeen and then give me Donna-Too-Dumb-To-Live. The book will end up in the Dumpster.

Fear Itself

I have been a bit off of the radar this week, and it is just as well. If there was a way to hit the reset button beginning, oh, about 5:20 AM on last Sunday morning and moving forward up until about right now I would do it. There is a rock band named “We Were Promised Jetpacks;”  we were also promised transporter beams and time travel too. Where’s my time travel? Regardless, one cannot drive forward with their eyes glued upon the rearview mirror so we are going to talk about something pleasant, like what scare the hell out of me. And you.
Dark genre fiction is driven by fear. Stephen King was motivated to write PET SEMATARY by the fear of losing a child to the grim reaper. Authors who write what I call “fish out of water” books (think A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT or, perhaps, THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER, and keep reading from there) often are motivated by fear that they will find themselves suddenly thrust into a situation where they are powerless; maybe they feel that way all of the time. They are what they fear; they write what they fear.
I’m working on a project dealing with fear —watch this space later this year for more on that — but I thought I’d give you my three biggies and ask you for yours. Here are mine, in descending order:

Spiders: My earliest experience of spider-fear occurred when I was four years old on a Saturday morning. I woke up with my nose about an inch from the wall and a black widow spider was staring back at me. I screamed, jumped out of bed, and ran from the room. My dad came in and dispatched the evil thing, but the damage was done. Talk about your psychic imprints. In my house, a Taurus Public Defender is considered a defense de rigueur against arachnids. 
Narrow, tight places (no, I don’t mean that): I was in kindergarten when I discovered that I was claustrophobic, though I didn’t know the word. I was with a couple of classmates building a fort out of oversized blocks when they thought it would be funny to wall me up, Edgar Allan Poe style. I went crazy. I was actually rescued from that entombment by a classmate named Beverly d’Angelo, who went on to become an actress, but that is a whole different story. Anyway, this one has gotten worse over the past several years. It’s ironic, given that I grow ever closer with each day to being placed into one of those small boxes and surrendered back to the earth. I wonder if one is related to the other.
Heights: I get a nosebleed on a stepladder. I actually am not as bad as I used to be, to the extent that last summer I was able to stand on the observation deck of the Louisiana State Office Tower without shutting shut my eyes once.
Strange? Yes. I’m not chicken-hearted. I have faced down evil people on the street with less fear than I experience when I catch a spider in the basement. Snakes and rats (of the two or four-legged variety) and the like hold no terror for me. I don’t have a significant gag reflex or a fear of choking or the like. But fears? Oh yeah. I’ve got more than my share.
I’ve bared my soul. Please bare yours. What scares you?

Happy Birthday, Edgar! And welcome “home”

Today is the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe, who is one of my literary heroes. He would have been 201 years old (no spring raven), and is considered the inventor of the detective-fiction genre.

According to AP and other media reports this week, Poe’s descendants have decided that the author’s official “home” city will continue to be Baltimore, where Poe died in 1849. Other cities that were competing for the title of Poe’s hometown include Boston, where Poe was born in 1809, and London, where Poe lived as a youth. While living in London, Poe was reportedly inspired by the ravens at the Tower of London.

We tend to think of Poe as cadaverous and depressed-looking, based on daguerreotypes of the author. But a new  watercolor image of Poe unveiled this week shows the author as a vibrant–even happy-looking–young man. 

Oh, and not to bury the lead, but Joe reminded me that MWA has just announced its list of Edgar nominees for 2010. Good luck to all!  

On a sad note, the mysterious visitor who has been delivering roses and cognac to Poe’s grave on his birthday for 60 years, failed to appear this year. We hope this doesn’t mean that any ill fate befell the mystery visitor.

My favorite story by Poe remains  The Tell-Tale Heart, which was inspired by a superstition known as the Evil Eye. The plot was based on a true crime that took place during Poe’s lifetime. This story was the first one that introduced me to the concept of an unreliable narrator–you don’t know whether he is insane, or whether supernatural forces are actually at work. This type of narrator is still my favorite in paranormal stories (I don’t have much use for in-your-face paranormal characters: werewolves and vampires, oh my!) 

What’s your favorite work by Poe?