Kill the character?

I’ve discovered there’s a brouhaha among Karin Slaughter’s readers, some of whom are not happy that she killed off a major character in her most recent novel, BEYOND REACH.  Reading the comments on the discussion board, I’ve learned that: 1. Angry readers can be very scary people, and 2. Killing a main character has consequences.

I’m reminded of Arthur Conan Doyle and his ill-fated decision to kill off (temporarily at least) his beloved character Sherlock Holmes.  The firestorm of readers’ protests eventually forced Conan Doyle to resurrect Holmes in a later story, where he explained that Holmes had miraculously survived that fatal tumble over the falls.

At least he didn’t resort to the lame “Dallas” explanation: “It was all a dream.”

As a mystery writer, I regularly kill off characters.  Most of the time, those dead characters aren’t people my readers have grown attached to, or they die in the first act, before we get to know them.  If the character is particularly likeable, it’s painful for an author to kill him off, although I’ve done it on more than one occasion.  In GRAVITY, officials in Mission Control have only moments to decide whether to blow up a spacecraft and kill the astronaut riding inside it.  Their struggle to make that inevitable decision is all the more dramatic because the astronaut they’re condemning to death is a lovable guy.  But Misson Control has no choice.  He’s only a secondary character, but because I grew to care about him, his death was one of the most devastating scenes I’ve ever had to write. 

In THE SURGEON, I was fully prepared to kill off Jane Rizzoli.  She was, in fact, supposed to die in the climactic scene in the cellar.  She wasn’t the major character; she was only a secondary character, and not a particularly likeable one, so killing her wouldn’t have broken any hearts.  But as I was about to perform the coup de gras on her … something stopped me.  You know what it was? She’d grown on me. She had so much heart, she’d faced so many struggles, that to end her life there struck me as appallingly unfair.  So I let her live. (And I’m damn glad I did.) 

But in BONE GARDEN, a major character does die toward the end.  A number of my readers have written to tell me how shocked and moved they were by that death, but no one has yet expressed any anger about it.  Everyone seems to understand that it was necessary to the plot. They also understand that the death was integral to the major theme in the book: that wrongs committed in the past can somehow be redeemed by what people do in the future. Yes, the death was painful to write.  Yes, I hesitated to do it. But without that death, the tale would lose its power.  I also made sure I gave my readers the chance to process the tragedy, by allowing the book to coast on for a few chapters longer than I normally would after the mystery was solved. It gave my characters time to grieve as well, and to eventually look back on the death with a sense of perspective.  When the book ended, I wanted my readers not to feel grief and dismay, but a bittersweet and healing sense that, yes, life would go on. 

One of my favorite books of all time is LONESOME DOVE.  At the end of it, one of the two main characters dies and I remember sobbing in disbelief after it happened. Was his death necessary to the plot? Not really; he could have ridden off into the sunset, and the story still would have had a satisfactory resolution.  But McMurtry chose to kill him, and initially I felt betrayed. He also did something very wise: he didn’t end the book abruptly, but gave me time to grieve.  He gave me time with the surviving characters and let me see how the death would affect their lives for the better.  It was a masterful way to end the story.

Killing a major character can be a courageous artistic move … or it can be a disastrous one.  The difference is in a writer’s reason for doing it.  Is it merely to shock?  Is it to merely to get rid of a character you’ve grown tired of?  Then you’re probably going to have legions of angry readers writing you hate mail.  But if the character’s demise sets off its own dramatic chain of events, or if it’s necessary to the theme of your story, then you may have to do it. 

And hope that your readers will understand — and forgive you for it.

I declare today a no-whine day

Merry Christmas, Kwanzaa, Chanukah, and solstice!  And “ramen” to my Pastafarian friends.

My very best to you and yours!

cropped donkeys

Writing as a mental illness

Christmas drives me crazy.

I know I sound like Ms. Scrooge, but as the holiday season comes around and everyone else is making merry and decorating their trees and going to parties, here’s what goes through the mind of a novelist under deadline: 

“What?  I’m supposed to interrupt my writing to go SHOPPING?”

It’s not that I don’t love Christmas.  It’s just that there’s so much stuff that has to be done, and it distracts me from the book I should be working on.  I once suggested, a bit desperately, to my husband, “Let’s forget about giving any gifts this year and just have a nice dinner out.”  

That did not go over well.

Every year, as I frantically toss tinsel on a Christmas tree that’s already turned brown because I’ve been too busy to water it, I tell myself, “Someday it will be different.  Someday I’m going to enjoy a normal Christmas with no deadline hanging over me.  I’ll bake cookies and fruitcakes and wrap presents.  I’ll compose elaborate five-page Christmas letters.  I’ll transform the house into a holiday wonderland.  I’ll throw a party for 100.  Someday, I’ll actually look forward to it!”

I’ve been saying that for years.  So far, “someday” hasn’t arrived.

I’m beginning to think that being a writer is a mental illness that deserves its own DSM classification, perhaps a sub-category under Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders: “Symptoms include anxiety dreams, inability to relax, intermittent feelings of inadequacy alternating with delusions of grandeur, hypersensitivity to criticism, and an abnormal preoccupation with people who don’t even exist.”

Oh, how I would welcome such a diagnosis.  Because then, when my family and friends complain that I’m not getting into the Christmas spirit, I could tell them, “I can’t help it.  I’m mentally ill.”



Writing’s a 24/7 job

Night before last, I woke up in a sweat.  I couldn’t get back to sleep because I was having an anxiety attack about my next book.  Oh, it’s nothing new — I have these from time to time, and sometimes I’ll lie awake for hours, mulling over what’s wrong with my plot, whether I’ll be able to fix it, whether I’ll meet my deadline.  When I finally do fall asleep, that anxiety follows me in the form of dreams.  Mine usually involve showing up at school for a test and suddenly realizing: I FORGOT TO ATTEND ANY CLASSES!  But I know what those dreams are really all about: how the writing is going.

No matter where I am or what else I may be doing, this job is never far from my mind.  I’m either worried about how my last book did, or I’m worrying about how my next book is taking shape.  I can be sitting on a beach on vacation, yet I’ll never really relax because I know that there’s a half-written novel waiting on my desk and I have only a few months to finish it.  I can’t remember the last time I really, truly let go of the job.  Six months ago, I was sitting on a sailboat in Turkey, surrounded by ancient ruins, yet this little voice kept whispering, “Why aren’t you working on your next book?  You can’t afford to sit back and have a good time!”

It’s hard for any writer to complain about this job.  Winter winds may be howling outside, but we get to work in nice warm offices.  There’s no hard labor, no heavy lifting.  Yet because our work is mental, because the writing of a book takes months, we can’t really set it aside at the end of the day when we get up from our desks.  The work hangs over us, even while we lie on the couch watching Star Wars for the 57th time.  It invades our sleep, distracts us from conversations, makes us impatient with our children.

Sometimes I love this job.  Sometimes I hate it.  But I have to say this about it: it’s never, ever boring.

Email problems

For the past few days, I’ve been unable to retrieve (or send) email.  If you’ve tried reaching me but haven’t received a reply, there’s a good chance I never got it.  Be patient!  I hope I’ll get my service back in the next day or so.  And you might want to try re-sending it, just in case I never got it.

Don’t fall off the trail


Yeah, I haven’t blogged in awhile.  Life does get busy, and there are times when I just want to sit and brood.

Lately, I’ve been mulling over how tenuous a writer’s career can be.  You feel like you’re always walking a narrow and dangerous path, and one bad move can send you over the cliff’s edge into oblivion.  That’s why I’m using my donkeys to illustrate this point.  They’re slow and steady and sure-footed creatures.  When you take a ride down the Grand Canyon, the trail companies don’t put you on a horse.  Oh, no.  Horses are easily spooked and known to bolt unexpectedly, which is a disastrous characteristic when you’re on a cliffside trail with a thousand foot drop-off.  Instead, they use mules, which are horse/donkey hybrids.  Horse DNA gives a mule its size and strength.  Donkey DNA gives a mule its steadiness and caution.  If you startle a donkey, it won’t bolt.  It will stand still and think about things before it takes action.  That’s also why donkeys have a reputation for stubbornness.  Before you can make it do anything, the donkey has to think about it and decide, “okay, it looks safe, so I guess I’ll cooperate.”  

A writer’s career is like walking an endlessly scary cliffside trail.  I was reminded of this after corresponding with a very well-known thriller writer, a writer with a long and bestselling past.  About a decade ago, after establishing a reputation for thrillers, this writer wrote a completely different type of book, a book of the heart.  It didn’t sell well.  Ever since then, sales have slumped, even though the quality of the books hasn’t.  And now the editor has told the writer it’s time to go begging for quotes from current “big-name” authors to help sell the next book.  This author used to be a big-name author.   But one little slip, one little miscalculation, and there you go, tumbling off the trail, frantically grabbing for any handhold before you hit bottom.

This is the way a writing career feels these days. 

Most of us become writers because we love to tell stories.  We sell our first book and think our worries are over — we’re published!  but even after you’ve sold your tenth or twentieth novel, there are so many ways to fall off the cliff.  You write a few books that don’t sell well.  Your editor gets fired, or your imprint closes down.  Or — and this is what I’m hearing more and more —

You don’t write fast enough.

I’ve written 20 books in 20 years, and you’d think that’d be fast enough.  But for commercial writers, it turns out that a book a year is no longer fast enough.  In fact, it’s damn slow.  The industry looks at Nora Roberts and James Patterson, who turn out multiple books a year, and whose sales just keep growing.  The secret to success, it now appears, is to write so fast that your name is always on the stands.  So now when writers ask, “How can I boost my career?” the advice they’ll hear from agents and editors is, “write two books a year!  Or three or four or five!” 

Oh yeah, and while you’re at it, make sure they’re all masterpieces. 

It’s gotten to the point where my measly book-a-year schedule feels like a slacker’s pace.   

Early last summer, I had a conversation with a highly honored literary author.  As writers are wont to do, we were both whining about how tough a time we had finishing our most recent books.  “I’m exhausted,” I told him.  “It took me fourteen months to write my last book.  I felt like I would never finish it.  It was the endless project!”

He laughed in disbelief.  “Fourteen months?  That’s all it took you?  It took me five years to write mine!”

And I thought: What? Your editor let you have five years?  If I took five years to write a book, I’d be out of a contract!

Ever since then I’ve been consumed with jealousy that I don’t get five years to write a book.  I don’t get five years to polish and hone every single sentence to perfection.  I’m just trying to meet my deadlines.  Granted, he’s a prize-winning literary novelist, and his last book is selling extremely well.  When his books get published, they are EVENTS, and attention must be paid by every critic under the sun.

Good luck getting that kind of attention as a commercial writer.

But as my husband pointed out, yes the literary writer gets reviewed in every single newspaper in the country.  Yet even if his latest title sold more copies than my latest title, I’ve sold far more books than he ever will.  Because I’ve written more of them.  So whaddya want, my husband says.  Money or respect?

It reminds me that even though I may grouse about lousy reviews or the way commercial fiction is scorned and undervalued by the critics, at least for the moment I’m lucky to still be walking the precarious trail that so many other writers have fallen off of.  I’m still selling books, still earning my living as a writer. 

But I can’t stop worrying about that drop.