Tag: thrillers

thrillers

Conflict, Suspense, Terror: When Is Too Much Too Much?

Almost the first thing a budding writer learns is the importance of conflict—internal, external, situational, relational. Conflict is what creates story. As Donald Maass famously says, “The cat sat on the mat” isn’t a story. “The cat sat on the dog’s mat” is a story. Suspense is created when the outcome of conflict is unknown or delayed. This is a gross simplification, of course, but if the tension on the page isn’t felt by the reader, the conflict falls flat. Suspense taken to the extreme creates terror. I read once that out of all the living creatures on earth, human beings are the only ones who like to scare themselves. We pay money to watch horror films and buy books that scare the living daylights out of us. If you need an example, check out Emilya Naymark’s recent blog on påskekrim , Norway’s obsession with reading crime novels at Eastertime. But when is too much too much? Some years ago I discovered a thriller writer who will remain anonymous (well known, very skilled) and began reading her series featuring a female medical examiner. I knew I was reading scary stuff about violent crime and serial killers, but the writing was […]

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Welcome Emilya Naymark

Today I am thrilled to introduce one of our new Miss Demeanors, Emilya Naymark.

Emilya: Years of hearing my husband’s tales of buying drugs in the city got my gears churning and instead of helping him write his memoirs, as we always joked I would, I up and made him a lady and stuck him into a crime novel.

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The Thrill of a Thriller for Non-Thriller Lovers

Okay, I’ll say it. I find many, more likely most thrillers boring. I know. I must surely be in the minority, but someone has to say it. Non-stop action with weaponry technologically impossible to imagine page after page is as monotonous as any repetition. It’s like having sex in every scene. Who cares? I said most thrillers because there are some fantastic exceptions. Books where writers have taken the time, however brief, to artfully engage the reader in the story in which the action takes place. Books where writers have captured the reader and facilitated an attachment with the character(s) so there is something/someone to care about during the wild ride ahead. One of my favorite thrillers is Harlan Coben’s Tell No One, one of his earliest novels and the one that landed him on the NY Times bestsellers list forever. During the first several pages we meet a young doctor, a pediatrician, who works in an urban setting and witnesses his patients falling prey to sociological problems beyond his medical talents. He is honest and sincere and has in his short time practicing medicine learned not to judge. We like him. We soon learn he has had his own […]

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Congratulations,Cate!

This week marks the publication of my fellow Miss Demeanor’s new book, One Little Secret. You’ve probably seen it mentioned on all sorts of “Best Of” lists and it’s well worth the acclaim. Truly a chilling and suspenseful story. And, it has a fabulous pink cover!

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Things Thriller Writers Do On Vacation…

I went to Porto, Portugal earlier this week. There were many things on my must do list, including visiting the Livrario Lello and tasting port in the city that made it famous. But also on this list was visiting the catacombs by the Church of Saint Francis.

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Scandalous! Examining Sex in Banned Literary Classics.

“The material to which children are being exposed in certain classes in Republic Schools is shocking… This is a book that contains so much profane language, it would make a sailor blush with shame. The “f word” is plastered on almost every other page. The content ranges from naked men and women in cages together so that others can watch them having sex to God telling people that they better not mess with his loser, bum of a son, named Jesus Christ.”–Wesley Scroggins, Springfield News Leader The book that Scroggins was suggesting banning from the public school curriculum back in 2010–not in the 1970s, as one might expect–was Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, a classic anti-war novel regularly listed in the top 100 books of the century by literary scholars. Reading his editorial, one might expect to find a graphic sex scene a la Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream. In reality, not much happens. The PTSD-suffering hero, Billy Pilgrim, is transported (or believes he has been transported) by aliens into a zoo in which human beings are observed by little green men. An actress is sent there to be his mate. They’re both nude, a detail that is stated rather matter-of-factly in the text. The actress, Montana, is understandably frightened. And… wait for it… nothing happens.  Eventually, a couple passages later, it is revealed that they had intercourse with all the pornographic detail of a college manual on affirmative consent.  “In time, Montana came to love and trust Billy Pilgrim. He did not touch her until she made it clear that she wanted him to. After she had been on Tralfamadore for what would have been an Earthling week, she asked him shyly if he wouldn’t sleep with her. Which he did. It was heavenly.”–Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five.  Sexual morality is really subjective. And one man’s scandalous will always be another’s “what’s the big deal?”  But the bigger problem with critics of sex in literary classics is that they are interpreting the scene as about the physical act of intercourse and not seeing what the writer intended to reveal about the character or society through the sex scene. Literary writers–in fact, most writers that don’t specialize in erotica–have no interest in penning porn. What we want to do in an intimate scene isn’t titillate but provide perspective on our character and the world in which they live.  Vonnegut was writing about a character whose psyche had been wrecked by war. The alien scene mirrors his own abuse at the hands of German soldiers. The sex scene illuminates Billy Pilgrim’s own powerlessness with regard to one of the acts that people view as integral to their humanity–the choice whether or not to procreate with another person. Pilgrim doesn’t even have a choice whether or not his forced compliance will excite him or not, as he later has a wet dream thinking about this incident. The sex scene is about how his experiences have robbed him of agency.  Let’s take another scene in a more modern classic: Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner. In the scene, which I won’t excerpt here because of length, a young boy is gang raped by bullies while his friend (the narrator) hides. The scene, while horribly painful to read, is necessary because it is what brings about the protagonist’s moral crisis, the running from which defines his life. One of the central questions that the protagonist asks in Hosseini’s book is can you be a good person if you look the other way when bad things happen? The answer that I believe it delivers is “no.” And getting to that answer, along with the protagonist, requires that the reader appreciate the horrors of what we turn a blind eye to.  If a reader sees the scene only as a horrifying gang rape, he misses the point–and, because of that, naturally wants the book banned. I’d argue that no parent wants their sixteen and seventeen year old kid reading about gang rape. What we should want, as a society though, is to create sensitive people that can understand how our humanity erodes when we ignore the horrors around us.  My all time favorite on the banned list because of sex is Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, which I had the privilege of reading in high school. In the book, Cholly Breedlove rapes his daughter Pecola. The rape and incest is repulsive and depressing, even seen, as it is, through the eyes of the rapist.However, Morrison doesn’t include it for shock value. She is illuminating how a life filled with abandonment and demoralizing prejudice has warped Cholly, as well as trying to show how pain is passed through generations as sure as any abnormality in the DNA. As Tupac said, The Hate You Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody.  If there is a lesson for writers to take away from these banned classics, it is that a sex scene should always be about far more than sex. That’s what separates even graphic scenes in literature from pornography. If there is a lesson for readers, it’s to look beyond the descriptions of the physical acts to what the writer wants you to see: the characters, the emotions, the plot–even the moral.  In the best sex scenes, there’s always a moral.     

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Let's Talk About Sex… Scenes

Continuing on my theme this week of how much of our human bodily functions should make it into fiction, I would like to discuss sex scenes.  Human beings have sex. If you’re a believer in Freudian psychoanalysis, it’s a primary reason why we do much of what we do. Freud postulated that how a person pursues intercourse, as well as what he or she does while having it, betrays that individual’s true nature.  “The behavior of a human being in sexual matters is often a prototype for the whole of his other modes of reaction in life,”-SIGMUND FREUD, Sexuality and the Psychology of Love  Even if a novelist doesn’t subscribe to Freud’s theories, they still have to deal with the fact that interactions between people have a physical component that can give rise to sexual tension.  With few exceptions, if a novelist wants to create believable fictional characters and show them over any length of time, interacting with anyone, they have to address sexual desire, attraction, and, sometimes, the act itself. And that means they have to grapple with how much to show or tell. There are different rules on how much detail to go into for different genres and sub-genres. In cozy mysteries, the action typically must happen off screen, if at all. In most of my favorite thrillers, there’s at least one sexual interaction that does more than cut away after the characters kiss. In romance novels featuring adult protagonists, catharsis is often achieved by the physical union of the romantic leads. How much catharsis is necessary depends on how much tension was built up throughout the whole book, as well as the tone of the novel.  As a writer of psychological suspense stories and domestic thrillers that often involve couples, I consider a sex scene pretty much a must have. I use them, however, not to titillate, but to illuminate the power dynamics at play between characters and reveal behaviors that a character would naturally cover up in a less intimate setting. The sex in the book isn’t just about the sex. It’s about showing a character’s true nature.  Showing and not telling demands a little detail. But it’s a delicate balance. The goal is to add tension, not turn off my readers with too much gushy prose. In my book, Lies She Told, my protagonist Liza is a writer that addresses this issue of how much is too much in one of the chapters. After penning a sex scene about Beth, the flawed hero of the book that she is writing, Liza says:  “Writing about sex is tricky. Readers want details to stoke their own erotic fantasies, but they don’t want to be in the imagined room listening to each moan, witnessing every awkward position change. Intercourse, even for the most liberated observer, is embarrassing. Porn is rife with examples. People say uncalled-for, dirty things. They obviously fake orgasms. They scream words more suited to the hook in a Daft Punk song. Harder. Better. Faster. Stronger.”  When writing a sex scene, as when writing all scenes, I try to think about what my characters are trying to communicate to each other and say about themselves. I want to treat the act as another form of dialogue or inner monologue, intended to unveil personality traits to the reader. For some characters, showing what I want only requires describing a kiss and then fading to black. For others, I need more detail.  So, writers and readers, weigh in. What do you want to see? When do the details become too graphic? If we’re not writing 50 Shades, should we all be fading to black?

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To Pee or Not to Pee? How much mundane human activity must an author include for a character to be believable.

 I will probably get myself banned from all future literary consideration by writing this, but James Joyce’s Ulysses did not blow my mind. I read the famed novel as an adult after it was named one of the best books of all time by a panel of experts at Harvard University. However, after I finished it–and I did finish it–what I remembered most was not my empathy for sensitive, cuckolded Leopold Bloom or the profoundness of his musings, but how often the main character had to urinate during the day.  In truth, Leopold Bloom probably didn’t go to the bathroom any more than an average person does on a given afternoon. Really, I think he went twice (though the peeing in the dream sequence clouds it for me). And I get that part of the point of Ulysses is to paint a portrait of a man going about his day. But even being subjected to Bloom’s necessary bodily functions twice in the course of a 265,000 word novel gave the act a relevance that, for me, took away from the larger work (or, at least, distracted me enough that I forgot what point of existence I was supposed to be pontificating upon at the moment). When I write, I always remember Ulysses, its acclaim, and then wrestle with the question of my characters’ basic needs as human beings. Does my point-of-view protagonist need to relieve him or herself during the course of the book in order to be believable? Can I just let the reader assume that urination has happened off screen in the space between chapters? Can I gloss over the potty breaks — i.e. After I got dressed and ready– or do I need to bring my audience into the loo? These same questions can be posed with regard to eating, drinking, sleeping, masturbating, etc. (All of which Ulysses does during his day around Dublin, I might add). Do authors need to show and tell? If so, how often? Personally, I’ve drawn the line differently based on specific characters and my selected point-of-view. In my upcoming book, One Little Secret, one female protagonist bathes while her husband is shaving, another puts on her makeup and thinks about her marriage, and yet another spends much of the third act fighting exhaustion after having not slept the prior night.  I included these details of washing, grooming, and sleeping not so much to make my characters realistic as to reveal something about their individual states of mind. The character in the bathroom scene is concerned that her husband finds other women more sexually enticing. As a result, the vulnerability of her nakedness juxtaposed with his grooming (perhaps for someone else) is something I wanted to show in order to reveal my character’s insecurities in an arena that would aggravate them. I included the makeup scene for a similar reason–it allowed an exploration of the character’s thoughts about a particular subject, as well as enabled her to cover something up, both literally and metaphorically.  In the book that I am currently working on, I write a bit about sleeping and eating because my character is struggling with how to mourn someone and accomplishing these basic tasks show something about her state of mind. Still, I worry about whether I am doing too much or not enough. I don’t want anyone to read one of my books and feel disconnected from a character because they didn’t do any of the necessary human things. At the same time, I have a limited number of words. If I spend a few hundred of them on bathroom breaks, perhaps the reader will get bored. Worse, he or she might put down the book thinking about how they’d like to flush it in the toilet.  So writer friends and readers, what is your opinion? Must writers include such details for realism’s sake or can we skip them?    

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Irish Inspiration

Seanchaí: An ancient Irish oral storyteller whose tradition carried on through centuries.–Museum of Irish Emigration. EPIC.  I recently returned from a family vacation in Ireland with my immediate family, parents, siblings, and nephews. We planned the trip, in part, to trace the roots of the Holahan surname and learn more about my father’s heritage. Both sides of my dad’s family–the Holahans and the Whalens–are Irish, though they emigrated so long ago we weren’t sure that we would be able to learn much about them.  We learned quite a bit, as it turned out. Apparently, the family is descended from knights and the forbearers of the word hooligan, which may or may not explain a lot–depending on whom you ask.  The best part of Ireland, for me, however, was seeing how much the country celebrates its storytellers. As an author and semi-Irish American, I feel part of that storytelling tradition by virtue of watered-down blood and very much unfiltered passion. Not surprisingly, one of the highlights of the trip for me was visiting the museum of Irish Emigration, which devotes an entire exhibit to Irish (and Irish descent) storytellers from celebrated avant-garde 20th century literary icon James Joyce (Ulysses, Portrait of The Artist As A Young Man, Dubliners, etc.) to contemporary best selling author Emma Donoghue (Room).  Here are some of my favorite photos from the trip.        

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