No Kids Allowed!

LBenedictAug08 We’ve been graced with some extremely talented guest bloggers these past few Sundays, and today is no exception. I’m thrilled to introduce author Laura Benedict, whose debut ISABELLA MOON kept me up all night when I read it (and certain passages induced further insomnia the nights that followed). Her latest is CALLING MR. LONELY HEARTS, and based on the stellar reviews it’s also a must-read.

Without further ado…
I worry sometimes that I’m corrupting the nation’s youth. (Okay, maybe just a teeny-tiny portion of the nation’s youth. Perhaps nine or ten of the little darlings.) I worry that the line between adult and young adult fiction—particularly fiction with a supernatural bent—is so blurred that young readers are stumbling into material that they shouldn’t be exposed to. Back in the day (let’s not go too deeply into which day), the lines were pretty clear: Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Dean Koontz were all the rage with their edgy language and adult situations. Fourteen and fifteen year-olds could pick up the books without too much criticism, though they were hardly fodder for school libraries. Soon after, the brilliant R.L. Stine came along for the younger kiddies, and J.K. Rowling blew off the door to the (not too) dark side for eight and nine-year-olds. The kids who grew up reading Harry Potter, as well as their younger brothers and sisters, are now looking for more: more fantasy, more witchcraft, ghosts and vampires. They’re looking for escapist literature.bene_lonely heartscopy

Many have found Stephanie Meyer and her Twilight series. My own teenage daughter adores these books. I haven’t taken the plunge. At sixteen, Pomegranate’s a fairly mature reader. She’s got a strong background in Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman literature, so she’s no stranger to edgy sexual and social relationships in fiction. She loves Shakespeare. I don’t worry too much when she reads, say, The Godfather or Hannibal because she seems to keep the violence and language in perspective—plus, we talk about what she’s reading.

A few days ago, I was signing books at my local Barnes and Noble when an eleven or twelve year-old girl picked up one of the paperback copies of my novel, Isabella Moon. Isabella Moon is a ghost story. The girl started reading the copy on the back of it, and when her mother came up to the table, the girl told her she wanted to buy it. I tensed.
Don’t get me wrong. I want to sell books. I just don’t want to sell books to children. I don’t write books for children. I write books for adults.
Both Isabella Moon and Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts are full of what one might euphemistically be called “adult situations.” Meaning lots of sex, buckets of violence and language that might not make a sailor blush, but will instantly bring a scowl to my mother’s face. There are vast numbers of adults who don’t like their books spiced with such things, and sometimes it’s hard to tell from a book’s cover what it might contain inside. (Sometimes clichés are spot-on.)

I’m certainly not casting any blame on J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer. I celebrate them because their books have brought kids to the bookstores in droves. It’s their subject matter that muddles the situation. J.K. Rowling’s books—for the most part—have a Halloween kind of darkness to them. Like every good Disney protagonist, her hero is an orphan. He lives in a boarding school. He’s goofy, but kind of cool. My understanding of Stephanie Meyer’s vampires is that they’re edgy in a West Side Story kind of way. Strictly PG or, maybe, PG-13.
But true evil isn’t PG-13. I look at evil as something that can insinuate itself into a person and wreak emotional and spiritual havoc. I look at it as something that can overflow into life-shattering chaos. Its habits and proclivities can be seductive, but they can also be brutal, sexually-charged and terrifying. Evil is chaos. Evil is unpredictable. It’s never pretty—at least not for long. I explore evil through my own work, but, in the end, I know that my work—just like Rowling’s and Meyer’s—can only approximate true evil. Even so, I have to ask, "How much is too much?"

My daughter has read my books in manuscript form, though I must confess that they were lightly redacted versions. Several pages had large Post-Its placed over the titillating parts like pasties on an exotic dancer. (Yes, the last time I saw an exotic dancer was in an Ann Margaret movie!) I don’t know if she peeked. Perhaps she did. And that would be a shame-on-mommy kind of thing. But I know her. I know that if she has questions, or something freaks her out, I’m there to answer her honestly.

Unfortunately, I can’t be there for every thirteen or fourteen year-old who picks up my books. I can only hope their parents are around, paying attention.

I told the mother of the girl at Barnes & Noble that she might want to look at Isabella Moon before her daughter read it, that it contained some adult material, and was quite frightening. The mother appeared unconcerned, and even bought Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts for herself, bless her. Perhaps the daughter was a mature reader, just like my daughter. I’m skeptical, though. I gave them my card with my email address and asked them to email me with their thoughts about it.  Maybe it’s just the mother in me, worrying.

So, speaking as a mother, if you’re under seventeen, don’t buy my books!

www.laurabenedict.com
Notes From the Handbasket
CALLING MR. LONELY HEARTS, Now available from Ballantine Books!
ISABELLA MOON, Available in trade paperback

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Beginning A Series

by John Gilstrap
http://www.johngilstrap.com/

On Wednesday, Joe wrote of the trauma of ending a series. He likened it to a death in the family, and that seemed apt to me. I think that’s also the way fans feel when they know that a series is coming to an end. I confess to feeling a certain melancholy when J.K. Rowling placed the final period on the Harry Potter series. There was a sadness to the conclusion of the saga, of course, but for me it was more than that. I had come to look forward to my annual or biannual journey into the story. It was a passion and a pastime that I could share not just with my son over those years, but also with people on the subway.

Remember Jack Ryan? In the early ’90s, you couldn’t board an airplane without noticing that 80% of the male travelers had their noses buried in one of the Tom Clancy novels. Personally, I lost interest in Jack Ryan’s saga toward the end, but during the time he was important to me, he was very important to me.

Steve Hunter’s Bob Lee Swagger, Bob Crais’s Elvis Cole and John Miller’s Winter Massey are more literary friends with whom I love to spend time. Oh, and Jeff Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme, too. Sneaky Pie Brown not so much, but then I’m not much of a cat person in real life. Once they start talking, my powers to suspend disbelief fail me. That said, I’d walk a mile to hear her friend Rita Mae give a speech. I heard her once at Magna Cum Murder in Muncie, and she was a hoot. More recently, I’ve bonded seriously with Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas.

In June, I launch a series of my own, and I confess that I’m worried. I’ve always written stand-alones in the past, and I find the prospect of this long-term relationship with Jonathan Grave and his friends to be a bit daunting. In the early draft–all 750 pages of it!–I found myself developing so much fodder for future books that the main story for Grave Secrets (the first installment of the series) became hopelessly bogged down. I fixed it, and now the story is really tight, and I’m thrilled with it; but now I have to write another one. Same characters, different story.

And more pressure. It’s one thing when fans buy your books because they like your writing–that’s the main (only?) dynamic in stand-alones–but now some percentage of fans are going to buy the next book because they like the characters to whom they were introduced in the first. That’s a good thing, of course, but it adds a whole new dimension to crafting the story. The last thing I want to do is disappoint readers, and it seems to me that by creating a new series, I’m increasing the likelihood of doing that. Remember when Clarice Starling fell in love with Hannibal Lecter at the end of Hannibal?

Okay, I could never disappoint readers that badly, but I still worry.

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The Killer Inside You

Folks, we have a special treat for you today. The extremely talented and charming thriller writer Tim Maleeny has graciously joined us. Read on to discover what villainy lurks beneath his seemingly cheerful demeanor…and remember, comment to be entered in a drawing for a $50 gas card!

This past week has been dedicated to villains we love:

Con men who seduce us into parting with our life’s savings, charismatic academics who persuade us to invite them over for dinner and then eat our livers. Smiling politicians who pretend to be our neighbors and then turn out to be, well, politicians.

All variations on a theme, all creatures with an innate magnetism that draws us towards them when every rational instinct is telling us to run away. It’s no wonder the consensus among writers is that you can’t have a great story without a great villain.

So here, for your consideration, are some rules of thumb for keeping your villains suitably loathsome over time.

OK, this guy gives me the creeps, but he is kinda cool…

A lot of first-time novelists — and many bad Hollywood films — make the mistake of painting villains in two dimensions, with no redeeming or aspirational qualities. But if you think about your favorite bad guys, many of whom have already been mentioned in this killer blog by other authors, the villains are pretty damn interesting.

Often it’s their power. Darth Vader might be evil, but he sounds like James Earl Jones and can choke a guy from across the room, just by bringing his fingers together. Who doesn’t want that power the next time their boss (or spouse) berates them?

Sometimes it’s their charm. Think of Alan Rickman in the first Die Hard movie. Smart, funny, even likable — but still a convincing villain willing to kill scores of people just to steal some money. Now try to remember the bad guy in the second Die Hard movie, then give up immediately because it sucked. The series didn’t get back on track until they brought some personality back to the villains.

Bigger and better

It’s not only OK, it’s essential that the villain be better than your protagonist in some way — smarter, stronger, perhaps more money or charm. Or perhaps just more determined.

Lex Luthor is a lot smarter than Superman. The Joker less conflicted than Batman. Hannibal Lecter is less prone to acid reflux than Special Agent Starling.

But it’s the contrast that’s important, the juxtaposition of qualities you loathe with characteristics you wish you had. A great villain makes you hate them at a visceral level because, deep down, part of you envies them as well.

Don’t fall in love

Your antagonist is not your protagonist. Say this again like a mantra before you write another chapter.

Caveat — this isn’t about all the superb novels and films in which a flawed character follows an arc of redemption — recognizing that most great stories since The Odyssey have been about that inner quest. This is about writers who fall in love with their villains to the point that they sacrifice some of the moral repugnance needed as an essential ingredient for a memorable bad guy.

(Easy example is Hannibal Lecter in any of the titles written after Red Dragon and Silence Of The Lambs. If those books had been written first, he wouldn’t be the icon of evil he is today.)

I want to be intrigued by your villain, but I also want to feel some self-loathing or fear at my own attraction to him.

The killer inside me is also inside you

I believe reading or writing crime fiction is cathartic. It is the literary genre driven by a moral compass that finds true North in the heart of the characters. Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances making impossible choices.

Crime fiction can also reinforce a set of values shared by most people but which often aren’t politically correct. Reading Lee Child might satisfy your own personal sense of justice that’s frustrated by the countless slights and indignities of everyday life. Reacher can do the things you only imagine doing but which you know are right. Rules or no rules, he’ll see that the right thing gets done.

But another great aspect of crime fiction is that it lets you work out your inner demons, especially the ones you didn’t know were there. It’s a sidelong glance in the mirror for those of us who don’t always want to look ourselves in the eye when shaving. That’s where the villains come in.

The brilliant Patricia Highsmith demonstrated with The Talented Mr. Ripley that every character believes he or she is in the right. They might be acting out of necessity, ambition, or some twisted sense of honor, but most villains don’t see themselves as being in the wrong, not in the absolute sense. I’m protecting my family has been a great defense for everything from bank fraud to suicide bombing.

Under the right (or wrong) circumstances, any of us is capable of doing horrible things. Great villains give you goosebumps not for what they do, but because something about them sends a frisson of recognition up your spine.

For one terrifying moment you saw yourself in them, and you felt the blood on your hands. And much to your horror and secret delight, it felt damn good.

Happy reading. See you in hell.

Special Note: Join us next Sunday, August 31 when our guest blogger will be international bestselling author and International Thriller Writers VP, David Hewson.

Person David Hewson
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Bad Villains…and not in a good way

Michelle Gagnon

Kicking things off today, I’m thrilled (no pun intended—sorry) to announce a SUPER DUPER BRAND NEW CONTEST. We’re holding a giveaway this week:
Comment on our posts from now through next Wednesday,
and we here at The Kill Zone will toss your name in the hat for a $50 gas card. I know, that’ll buy you what, roughly 2 gallons? Hey, don’t blame us. We’re not the ones gouging, just a loveable group of writers trying to give your wallet a break…

And now, on to…BAD VILLAINS

We’ve all seen them. Those beady-eyed little guys wringing their hands as they chortle (ever notice that? Heroes never, ever chortle. The minute a character does that you just know he’s evil). They generally want to take over the world, but might be willing to settle for killing someone in a particularly terrible way. And they’d just love to tell you all about it first. One classic bad villain trait is that they live to hear themselves talk. In my humble opinion what made the Austin Powers films so funny was the “Dr Evil,” character, who epitomized every bad villain cliché. (Remember the group therapy scene with his son? “My childhood was typical. Summers in Rangoon, luge lessons. In the spring we’d make meat helmets. If I was insolent, I was placed in a burlap bag and beaten with reeds. Pretty standard, really.”) Hannibal Lecter was scary, sure, but the ultimate villain has to be Dr. Evil. Who else could come up with an “evil petting zoo?”

For me at least, villains are the most difficult characters to create. The heroes and heroines, laughable/loveable sidekicks, and victims are easy, I could practically write those in my sleep (well, not really. But you know what I mean).

But a villain that comes off as frightening and not comical is a far different beast. It’s all too easy to slip into mwa-ha-ha mode. Worse yet is to have them engage in “monologue-ing,” explaining monotonously why they’re doing what they’re doing, and how they’ll get away with it (when of course, that discourse inevitably leads to their downfall).

It’s harder still to avoid clichés. After all, since the beginning of recorded time nearly every story has featured a villain, from Medusa to Iago to Mr. Hyde. Joe’s post yesterday noted how many classic villains are fairly interchangeable. And that’s precisely the problem: how do you make your villain new and unique, not just another Hannibal-esque hybrid?

In my latest book, Boneyard, I had a particularly hard time. One of my villains came to life easily. I added some traits to him in successive drafts, but felt like I nailed him down without too much trouble.

And then there was the other guy. Man, he was a problem (serves me right for having two bad guys, I suppose). I had done voluminous research on serial killers in an attempt to make him as believable as possible, but kept encountering the same pitfalls. I felt at times like I was making villain soup, adding a pinch of Bundy and a dash of Dahmer, but he still seemed bland. Up until the final draft I cast him as a religious fanatic, quoting scripture to explain his motivation. But every time I read over his dialogue I found myself squirming. It felt very forced and contrived, never a good thing.

Someone once said, “the villain is the hero of his own story.” It’s an important thing to remember. We’ve all known people who have been able to justify terrible acts to themselves. They did it for the greater good, or they didn’t have a choice. To me, those are believable villains.

So I slashed away with my red pen, leaving far more of his motivations to the reader’s imagination. In the end, I was happy with him. But with every book the problem must be freshly confronted. I’m wrestling with a different guy now, a real slimeball who’s motivated both by greed and hatred. Yet at the moment he’s more whiny than scary, not a good thing. And he keeps pulling at his handlebar moustache and asking about the rent, which is just annoying. Ah well. Hopefully I’ll get him by the line edits…

So, dear reader, what say you? Who’s your favorite “bad villain,” and why? Remember: comment and your car might thank you for it later. Tune in next Thursday when I announce the winner and ponder why Second Life avatars only seem to come in one breast size.

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The Best of the Worst–Villainy Week continues

By Joe Moore

As villains week continues in the Kill Zone, it’s time to discuss some of our favorite villains and what motivated them to be so villainy. Before we get to my list of favorites, let’s start with a review of some well-known rogues and scallywags. Of the books and movies we’ve all read or seen, which villains remain in our memory as truly great? Some obvious names come to mind:

norman-bates Dr. Hannibal Lecter. If he says he’d like to have you for dinner, have some reservations.

Norman Bates. He and his mother will shower you with attention.

Dexter Morgan. You don’t want him working on your case.

Darth Vader. Anyone that sounds like James Earl Jones with asthma can’t be all bad.

Count Dracula. What a pain in the neck.

dracula1Freddy Krueger. Maybe he’s just fashion challenged.

Lex Luthor. It takes guts to match wits with the “S” man.

These are some of the more memorable villains, but there are many others that may not immediately pop into your mind. Yet when you think about it, they are every bit as worthy of mention. They all have one thing in common–they scared us.

Here’s my honorable mention list along with their motivations:

Wicked Witch of the West. She was frightening enough, but her flying monkeys did me in. Like other great villains, she was out for revenge.

hal HAL-9000. “Open the pod-bay door, Hal.” Dave had enough to worry about. Add a computer with a mind of its own in outer space and you’ve got a really bad situation. Of course, HAL was just trying to protect himself. Self-preservation is a great motivator.

The Queen (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). Here’s a classic case of jealously. There can be only one “fairest of them all”.

jaws The Alien (Alien) and the Shark (Jaws). These two are pretty much the same character in different environments. What’s scary about them both is that they’re just doing what comes natural, but they’re doing it to survive in their world. In reality, the humans were the invaders.

Martians (War of the Worlds). Here’s another case of self-preservation. Their planet has gone down the toilet and they need a new neighborhood to homestead. First item on the invasion agenda: kill all the earthlings. BTW, other than the flaming passenger train scene, I thought the remake of this movie was not very scary. But when I saw the original version as a child, it had me cowering under my theater seat, especially during the basement scene.

Bonnie Parker & Clyde Barrow. Here’s a good example of anti-heroes. Yes we knew that B&C were bad. Yes, they robbed banks. Yes, they shot people. Yes, Clyde had E.D. But they were so lovable, you just had to sit back and watch them self-destruct. Sort of like a car wreck you pass on the highway.

myers Jason Vorhees (Friday the 13th) and Michael Myers (Halloween). These two guys are also one and the same, just different masks. Both are out for revenge, although Michael’s hard drive has definitely crashed. I think they’re memorable because, unlike most villains, there’s no reasoning with either one of them. It’s like talking to a block of ice only with less response.

The Blair Witch. I know, most people thought this movie with its shaky-cam and cheesy documentary style was really lame. But if you got beyond the hype, it was built on the tried-and-true “haunted house” scenario that had some very scary undertones. Again, a case of self-preservation. And how many villains can you remember that frightened their victims to death without ever making an appearance?

frankenstein The Frankenstein Monster. The ultimate anti-hero villain. The creature was created out of different human body parts justifying his extreme mood swings. Brilliant.

We can’t have a good story without conflict between the hero and the villain. Whether the villain is a person, place or thing, it must be compelling, three-dimensional, and driven by a motivational factor of which we can all relate. And in some dark recess of our mind, the villain must reach down, grab our fear, and expose it like a raw nerve. Otherwise, we might as well be watching Saturday morning cartoons.

Final thought from the master villain, Dr. Lecter, “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.”

Did I miss any of your favorite villains?

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Villain week, continued: What I love about bad guys

By Kathryn Lilley

Yesterday Clare asked us to describe our notion of the ‘ideal’ villain in fiction.

I’ll be honest—when I pick up a thriller, I want the slayer to be super-sized. My killer’s got to be so cold and bad-ass, he’s doing the Monster Mash all over the page, leaving behind a trail of bloody footprints.

Fiction-wise, that makes Hannibal Lecter my kind of evil doer. Also Dexter Morgan of Darkly Dreaming Dexter—and Dexter’s actually likeable as he plunges the blade into his victims.

I don’t know why I prefer to read about fictional villains who are larger than life. Maybe it’s because I came of age in the seventies, an era when serial killers seemed to be stalking the nation’s youth as well as our collective psyche via the nightly news. Ted Bundy, David Berkowitz, John Wayne Gacy, and later the BTK Killer—each psycho’s saga chilled me to the bone. I started to dwell on all the ways I could possibly die at the hands of a cold sociopath. I probably got way too carried away with my projections, to the point that I’d scan the faces of charming, needy young men and smiling clowns, searching for signs of a hidden killer within.

It’s the recreation of that goose-bump factor that gets my reader’s juices flowing these days. But I also know that there’s no lack of chill potential in “everyday” murders. To do some research for today’s blog post, this morning I pulled a book off my shelf called Scene of the Crime, Photographs from the LAPD Archive. It’s a picture book filled with vintage images of murder victims and crime scenes.

One photo and its caption from 1951 haunted me all day. A platinum blonde is shown slumped in the passenger seat of an automobile. A black rivulet of blood streams from one ear. According to the caption,her name was Libby. She’d been shot four times by her boyfriend, who’d left a message written on the back of a check:

“She died instantly,” her sweetheart killer wrote. “…painlessly and mercifully, happy with joyous thoughts that could never be brought to reality…The back of her head faced me. I looked at her beautiful new silver blonde hair and I squeezed the trigger…I have no beliefs other than that the end fully justifies the means. And a few paltry dollars made her so happy!”

Now that’s chilling.

Breaking News: Last week’s winner of DYING TO BE THIN

Seanchai won last week’s contest for a copy of DYING TO BE THIN over at the Kill Zone!

Seanchai, send me your mailing address and I’ll mail you a signed copy this week! (I tried to post a notification to your blog but I couldn’t get it to post). Best, Kathryn

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