Purging the Editor

I believe it is a given that those of us who aspire to write are also vociferous readers. A reader is a wonderful thing to be; however, I have come to the conclusion that sometimes this state of mind and being can be an impediment to an author aborning.  Reading a novel by James Lee Burke or Karin Slaughter or John Connolly or Chelsea Cain can inspire a reader to think, “I want to do that.”  Yet it can also be discouraging; one reads BLACK CHERRY BLUES by Burke and thinks, “I can never be that good; why bother?”  The fleeting dream is set aside, sometimes permanently. Part of the reason for this state of affairs is that in the case of a book (or a film, or a painting, or a music project) we rarely see what came before, the early stages that led to the final result.

Such does not hold true with respect to a construction project, to name but one example. We recently had the opportunity to watch an all but vacant shopping center in our area be transformed over a period of several months into a wholly done, over, remodeled, commercially successful unit. It was fun to watch. Readers generally do not get to watch the process by which their favorite author transforms a few hundred blank pages into a cohesive, occasionally unforgettable, experience. So it is that the novel, upon publication, seems to have sprung from whole cloth, seemingly effortlessly. We know better, of course. But it is difficult sometimes to fully appreciate it without seeing the ultrasound ourselves.

I hit an emotional low point this past week for a number or reasons that aren’t really important to this discussion; what is important is what brought me out of it, at least so far as creativity is concerned. I happened across an article in Slate entitled “Cormac McCarthy Cuts to the Bone.”  You can find the article here. It is an extremely interesting piece which, among other things, reveals that McCarthy’s classic novel BLOOD MERIDIAN was a far different book at publication than it was at conception. What really attracted me to the article, however, was the reproduction of two pages from McCarthy’s original draft.  They are instructive, even if you have never read a word that Mr. McCarthy has written or alternatively would not reflexively grab your copy of BLOOD MERIDIAN or THE ORCHARD  KEEPER if confronted with a fire and the resultant dilemma of what to save.  BLOOD MERIDIAN did not flow out of McCarthy’s mind without deep and dark consideration. If you’re having trouble getting your words out of you and onto the page, don’t let it be because you in your own mind aren’t “good enough” or “as good” as your favorite author. When your favorite author started writing, they weren’t good enough either. It takes several drafts, several cement pourings, if you will, before things solidify and become right. Don’t put your handprints and your initials into your work and ruin it before it is dry. Purge yourself of what playwright John Guare so brilliantly called “tiny obnoxious editor living in your head,” the one who tells you that you will never be as good as Stephen King or Elmore Leonard or whoever. Then let the construction begin. 

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Killing off good characters

WARNING: SPOILER ALERTS
Yesterday, I killed the dog.
I didn’t want to do it but it had to be done. The creature had been hanging around far too long and I had sort of grown to regret ever allowing it into my life. So I killed the dog.
I waited as long as I could — chapter twenty-two to be exact. But then I just typed the words and the mutt was gone. Now I have to endure the after-wrath. It won’t come for months because the book won’t be published until next year but I know it will come. There’s an unwritten rule in our genre that you never kill animals. Because if you do, your readers turn on you like, well, rabid dogs.
It’s not just dogs. It can be cats. I am a big fan of the British writer Minette Walters, read every book she put out. Until “The Shape of Snakes” and she had a character who tortured cats to death with duct tape. Repulsed, I threw the book across the room. I had seven cats at the time.
This rule about animals is not just limited to cats and dogs. It’s birds, hamsters, horses. I refused to see the movie “War Horse” until a friend assured me the horse didn’t die. And don’t get me started about what those damn pigs did to Boxer the Horse in “Animal Farm.” 
The killing of the good and innocent. It’s the toughest thing we writers do. I am often asked what books have influenced me most as a writer and my first answer is “Charlotte’s Web.” It taught me that yes, sometimes you just have to kill off a really good character for the sake of the story, even if it’s only a spider. 
Is it harder if it’s a human being?

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!

That’s King Lear speaking. He’s grieving for the dead Cordelia. She was the good daughter, if you recall. Now Shakespeare had no qualms about killing off the good. (That’s why they called them tragedies.) We writers are still learning from him after all these years, especially those of us in the crime genre where death is the main machine in our plots. 
I’ve been thinking hard about this lately. Not just because of the dog thing but because of “Downton Abbey.” When Matthew Crawley bought the farm on that country road my mouth dropped open. Damn! They killed the good guy! He’s never coming back. Unless Mary steps into the shower and declares that his death was just a dream.
I felt the same way when Bobby Simone did his Mimi bit on “NYPD Blue.” Ditto when Col. Henry Blake’s helicopter went down in “M*A*S*H.” And I was upset that Lane Pryce hanged himself in “Mad Men” before he had a chance to make things right in his sad life.
Is it different in novels? Do readers feel less invested than viewers? Or are the attachments they form in the pure ether of their imaginations even stronger than those forged by film?
Consider Charles Dickens. He delivered his novel “The Old Curiosity Shop” chapter by chapter to his fans and when he killed off his heroine, Little Nell, all hell broke loose. One critic wrote, “Dickens killed Nell just as a butcher would slaughter a lamb.”
Author Conan Doyle always wanted to kill off Holmes. (“I must save my mind for better things, even if it means I must bury my pocketbook with him,” he once grumbled.) When Doyle finally did Holmes in, thousands canceled their subscription to The Strand. Doyle eventually gave in and resurrected Holmes in “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”
Closer to home, a few years ago crime writer Karin Slaughter killed off one of her beloved characters. Readers were furious, many accusing her of doing it for the shock value and vowing to never pick up another one of her books again. Slaughter felt compelled to post an explanation on her website. 
Readers take these things personally. At least they do if you, the writer, are doing your job. It broke my heart when Beth died in “Little Women.” I was mad at Larry McMurtry for weeks after he killed Gus in “Lonesome Dove.”  It took me decades to understand why Phineas had to die in “A Separate Peace.”
In fact, I didn’t really get what Fowles was doing with that book until fairly recently when I finally got around to reading Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey.” Finney, I realized, had to die so Gene could find a way to live.
I wish I could say that in those decades between “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Hero’s Journey” that I have learned how to the handle death of the good. That is what the best books are supposed to do, after all, teach us about such big questions. But I think I have become a better at dealing with death as a writer. So let me offer a few suggestions for anyone who is struggling with this.
Make it worth something. You must create a bond between the doomed character and the reader so when that character dies, it has value. The death has to propel the plot forward or affect the emotional arc of another character. Check out this stellar passage from one of my favorite books “Smiley’s People” by John le Carré.

Slowly, [Smiley] returned his gaze to Leipzig’s face. Some dead faces, he reflected, have the dull, even stupid look of a patient under anaesthetic. Others preserve a single mood of the once varied nature – the dead man as lover, as father, as car driver, bridge player, tyrant. And some, like Leipzig’s, have ceased to preserve anything. But Leipzig’s face, even without the ropes across it, had a mood, and it was anger: anger intensified by pain, turned to fury by it; anger that had increased and become the whole man as the body lost its strength.

The death has to be organic. Make sure there is enough time for the reader to come to know the character. The death may be a surprise but there should be a subtle feeling of foreshadowing about it. Lennie Small in “Of Mice and Men” strikes an empathetic chord with the reader. That’s why his death at the hands of his best friend George to spare him from a lynch mob, is so powerful.
Don’t do it to fix a weak plot. We’ve all read books where another corpse is dropped and we go “meh.” Mercifully, I won’t include any examples here.
Keep true to your book’s tone. How do you want your readers to feel about this? Fearful? Deep sense of personal loss? Generalized feeling of human tragedy? Maybe you want them to laugh. Yeah, can be appropriate. I can’t think of any book examples but here’s an image I can’t forget from “L.A. Law”: Villainess Rosalind Shays accidently stepping to her doom in that open elevator shaft.
Don’t preach. Let the readers make their own conclusions about what the death means. Don’t tack on one of those awful codas where the hero stands around telling us what truths he has learned. And don’t, for corn’s sake, have someone say something like, “well, I guess we should steer clear of cannibals in the future.”
Be sure of what you are doing. Unless you’re in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s league, you can’t undo a death. At least not without some silly deus ex machina thing. I mean, I am glad that Spock didn’t really die from radiation poisoning in the warp drive tube. But I thought his rebirth was cheesy. I recently read a really good mystery by a successful author and I am pretty sure that the character he killed off isn’t really dead. (Can’t tell you the title; the author would kill me). I hope I am wrong. I hope the character is dead because it feels truer to this writer’s voice. Which leads me to my final point…
Let the end make room for beginnings. Pay attention to the survivors in your story and make sure death affects their lives. Leave room for redemption. In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” what’s so disturbing about Tom Robinson’s death is its awful inevitably. After falsely being found guilty of rape, he tries to escape but is shot by prison guards. But are we left in despair? I don’t think so because through this experience, Jem and Scout are learning about the dark complexities of the adult world. And at the end, there is Jem, keeping Scout from squishing that little roly-poly bug. There is hope in his need to protect the most vulnerable. There is hope for us all.
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THE VENGEANCE ANTHOLOGY

by Michelle Gagnon

I hope you’ll excuse a little BSP today. I have a short story out in the new Mystery Writers of America Anthology, VENGEANCE, edited by the wonderful Lee Child. Plus I think there’s a lesson to be learned from the long, occasionally tortuous journey this story has had over the past twelve years…

Some background first. This was the first real piece of crime fiction I ever wrote. I composed it while working with the San Francisco Writers’ Workshop back in 2000. I’ve never been much of a short story writer, but at the time I was just diving back into fiction, and figured that playing around with briefer pieces might help me find my voice. So this was one of the first (and only) stories I ever wrote. Shortly afterward, I started working on my first book (the one that never sold), and then, eventually, moved on to writing THE TUNNELS.

I always had a soft spot for this story, but had no idea what to do with it. Filled with hope, I submitted it to a few literary magazines. After it was roundly rejected by them, I shrugged and put it away in a drawer.

Fast forward to 2004. Lee Child was headlining the Book Passage Mystery Writers’ Conference, and at the last minute I scraped together enough money to attend. On the last night of the conference, all the participants were invited to read a short piece of fiction, kind of an informal critique exercise. I wasn’t happy with the opening of my novel yet, and was considering skipping the event entirely until I remembered this story. So I pulled it out of the drawer, dusted it off, and read it that night. All in all, it was well received; Lee attended the reading, and spoke with me afterward about how much he’d liked it. Which was terribly flattering, but again, I had no idea what to do with it. So back in the drawer it went.

Fast forward another seven years, to 2011. Lee emailed me out of the blue and asked if I’d ever done anything with that story from the Book Passage reading. He explained that he was putting together an anthology for the MWA centered around the theme of vigilante justice, and thought my piece might fit in perfectly. He asked if it would be all right to include it. Once I finished turning cartwheels across the room, I said yes.

So this week my little story, the first piece of crime fiction I ever wrote, was published alongside the work of some of my idols, including Lee, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Karin Slaughter, and Zoe Sharp. To say that I was honored to be part of this anthology would be a tremendous understatement. It really is a dream come true.

And from it, I’ve learned a few things:

a) It’s impossible to judge the true value of a writing conference. Sometimes they might seem like a waste of time and money, but you never know what may come of the contacts you make there.

b) Never empty that drawer. The story that can’t find a home today might bear fruit years down the road (or even decades!)

c) Never give up. I have to confess, when those literary magazines first snubbed my work, I was disheartened and almost tossed in the towel. I really thought the story was pretty great, and discovering that not everyone agreed was crushing. It was hard to go on when it felt like what I was writing might never be appreciated, or even read, by anyone outside my critique group. Eight published or soon-to-be-published novels (and one short story) later, I’m really happy that I decided to forge ahead.

What follows is an excerpt from my story, IT AIN’T RIGHT. The VENGEANCE Anthology is currently on sale at bookstores and online.

IT AIN’T RIGHT


“It ain’t right, is all I’m saying.”

Joe just kept walking the way he always did, shovel over his shoulder, cigarette clinging to his bottom lip.

“You hear me?”

He stopped and turned, lifting his head inch by inch until his eyes found my hips then my breasts then my eyes. A dustdevil whirred away behind him, making the bottom branches of the tree dance like girls on Mayday, up and down. He stared at me long and hard, and I felt the last heat of the day seeping into my skin and down through my bones, reaching inside to meet the cold that burrowed in my stomach early that morning.

“She’s dead, ain’t she?” With his free hand he scratched his belly where the bottom of his ‘Joe’s Diner’ shirt had pulled away.

“Yeah, but just cause she’s dead don’t mean she should be put down like this.”

He looked past me, towards where the road met the hill and dove behind it, wheat tips glowing pink in the twilight. “What else we gonna do with her?”

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