Tag: thrillers

thrillers

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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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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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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No One Should Fear The Big Bad Thriller Writer

On Thursday, one of the biggest conferences for the mystery/thriller writer community commences: ThrillerFest. I’m looking forward to seeing writers that I’ve gotten to know over the years and listening to their thoughts on our mutual craft. I am also looking back, remembering my first Thrillerfest–before I was published.   I had an agent at the time but no deals and no books. I went to the conference feeling completely outclassed and intimidated. The other writers, I thought, would feel that I was a phony for infringing on their territory without having proven myself. They wouldn’t want to associate with me. I’d show up at the cocktail party and be completely shunned.  That didn’t happen. I wish I could say it was because I am particularly charming, but it’s really because the mystery/thriller writer community is such a supportive group. There are a few reasons, I think, for this. The first is that most writers remember what it was like to be penning their first novel and feeling the same uncertainty that new writers feel. They identify with new writers and, with that identification, comes sympathy and a genuine sense of camaraderie.  A second reason is that most writers don’t see themselves in competition with other writers. A truly great book can generate interest in the genre and lift sales for everyone. Yes, I’d like my book to the be the one that does this. But, if it’s yours, it helps my sales too. For the most part, we all genuinely want one another to succeed.    This also goes for writers in our publishing houses. A great book means more money that the house can spend on an advance for another great book, maybe by a different author. To put a twist on the cliché about rising tides, a good rain fills the aquifers that we all drink from.  The other day, I was fortunate to meet a woman in my town that is writing her first novel. Her daughter, whom I had only met once, had read my last book and mentioned to her mother that we belonged to the same pool club. The next time that we were all at the club, she introduced herself and told me about her novel. She was clearly nervous that I might be annoyed talking with her about it. But I was anything but. It was so nice to be able to share my experience with her and listen to her own, which in many ways mirrored trials that I had gone through when starting out.  I know most of my fellow MissDemeanors feel the same way and are very generous with their time at conferences. So, if you run into any of us — or really any thriller writer (even Stephen King who, the one time I met him, was amazingly lovely and generous with his time) go say hi. They’ll probably be happy to chat.    – As far as most authors are concerned, they’re not competing against another author for a book sale, we are com

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Trusting Your Gut

As a journalist and now author, I’ve had more than a dozen editors. The best ones finessed my writing and ideas, getting the best story possible out of me and my research. The worst ones used me as a living tool to tell the story they wanted in their voices. The former resulted in some of my best work. The latter in some of my worst. I strongly subscribe to the every writer needs an editor doctrine. But I also believe that every writer needs an editor that respects him or her enough to bring out the best in the individual author. Writers need the freedom to tell their stories the way that resonates with them. The editor can help focus an author’s ideas and tell him or her where they are losing the reader, where the characters are falling flat, where the scene isn’t translating, etc. But the editor shouldn’t use the writer to tell the story in his or her head. It won’t work. It will read as strained as the process of creating the story will invariably become.     

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Create A Scene!

The beach air smells like laurel. Wild and green, the scent saturates the air, thinning the musky ocean beyond into a faint note in an otherwise floral perfume. I inhale it and realize how wrong writers are to say that the air smells of the beach. This beach in Nicaragua smells like no sandy strip of waterfront that I’ve ever been on before. Back home, in New Jersey, the beach smells like food. Salt-water taffy and charcoal grills. The crashing waves compete with the shouts of children, the calls of parents, and the blare of portable speakers blasting salsa and Bruce Springsteen. The humid air pulses with the energy of people: sweating, dancing, laughing, browning. In Nicaragua, I hear birds. Wind. Monkeys. No two beach scenes are the same. As I writer, I have to remember that and never get lazy with my descriptions. A beach in my story is a specific beach, just as particular as any character. Moreover, the way a beach scene is described depends on the individual that I have created doing the describing. A woman with a young child might note that the sand is too hot for feet not-yet-hardened by a lifetime of bad shoes. A surfer would admire the wave hitting the rocks and the way the white water travels in a perfect line from the cliff on the left to the one on the right. Scenes must always be specific, and they must always be viewed through the lens of particular character.   

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When To Write And When To Read

Hemingway supposedly said write drunk, edit sober. As a thriller writer, I tend to harness my anxiety for my art. I write caffeinated and edit extra caffeinated.  But there’s little I love more than reading on a beach. Writers need to read. To know the market and understand what kind of stories have been told and what still needs telling, we have to read the best sellers in our genre.  I don’t read when I am writing because I fear unconsciously appropriating another author’s voice, or that of one of her characters. On vacation, however, I tend to read a book-a-day.  I have been on vacation since Friday. Since I write psychological thrillers, I’ve read the following.  This is currently my reading view:  

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Must A Main Character Be Like Me?

I am in the midst of rewriting large portions of my fourth book this week. There are three POV characters in this story. One is an African American female police officer, aged 27, single sans kids. She’s been a cop for three years and is very smart with a high EQ, but a troubled history. Another is a hugely successful 37-year-old Black female orthopedist of West Indian descent that armchair quarterbacks injuries on a sports network as a medical commentator. She’s in a heap of trouble. The third is a 35-year-old former Caucasian attorney turned stay-at-home mom to twin boys, one of whom is autistic and homeschooled. She’s a walking anxiety disorder with a sharp wit. All the characters are American. None of them are particularly like me, though I am sure my personality and observations bleed into all my characters. Specifically, their back stories and cultural heritages don’t match my own (though the orthopedist is of West Indian descent and so is the Jamaican half of my family).  I have things in common with all of my POV characters, though. And, most importantly, I’ve done my research.  All this writing has me thinking this week about character creation. How like me should my characters be? How much latitude do I have, as a fiction writer, to create characters that have different cultural heritages and American experiences than my own?   In practice, I tend to err on the side of a lot of latitude, providing I’ve done the research and have a connection to the character so that they come across as a real person and not caricature. For The Widower’s Wife, one of my characters was a white male insurance agent math whiz. I am not white. Not male. Not an insurance agent. And definitely not a math whiz. But, I interviewed a female friend insurance agent and am married to a former math major. I’d felt like I’d done my homework. Still, I’ve been known to take too much latitude in my life. So, I asked the MissDemeanors for their take.  Q. When you write main POV characters, do you create people that share your gender and ethnicity or do they come from other cultures? Why? Alexia: I write main characters who share my race, gender, and socioeconomic background because I spent the first 47-ish years of my life not finding many/any middle class, African American, female main characters and I got tired of not reading about anyone who looked like me. #representationmatters. Susan: I tend to write main characters who share my race, gender, etc. because I feel I have something authentic to say from that point of view. However, I did write a novel with a protagonist who was an Indian young woman, and that was a challenge, but I tried to get around it by making sure she and I had points of intersection. So I made her a Christian. I definitely populate my fictional world with a wide variety of people.  Michele: I’m going to sound apologetic here, but the truth is I don’t feel qualified to write from the point of view of someone ethnically or racially different from me. I do feel I can write from a male point of view and I’ve written gay characters with some authenticity, probably because I have gay family members and friends. What I try to do is appeal to the universal themes and desires that all human beings struggle with. I applaud those who can write with more diversity than I and enjoy reading those stories. Alison: I have an extremely detailed knowledge of my ancestry because I grew up Mormon. I can go onto a Family Search website and see my ancestry (including when everyone was baptized and received various temple ordinances), which is mostly English and Swedish, with a little Scottish, Irish and Welsh thrown in. If you go back several centuries, there is some French. Needless to say, my experience is that of a fish-belly white woman. My protagonist, Abish Taylor, is also white (but, wait for it, she has auburn hair). Before my editor convinced me to write Blessed be the Wicked entirely from Abbie’s PoV, my favorite voice was that of the male police officer and returned LDS missionary. He’s also descended from Mormon pioneer stock, which means some variation of the British/Scandinavian mix. I’ll be honest, I don’t know if I could convincingly write another ethnicity for three main reasons: ignorance (I don’t know what I don’t know), fear (I’d be afraid to get something really wrong), and anxiety (I wouldn’t want to offend someone if I did get some thing wrong). Tracee: Susan and Cate may remember we (or I) were asked a version of this at our book even last year in Manhattan. The specific question was how did I feel about writing from a man’s point of view. For me the intersection or commonalities of culture and sociology economic situation are more restrictive than gender. On the other hand, if I really felt a story needed a character outside my comfort zone I think I would try. On the other hand…. would I get it right? I would never write a character simple to check a diversity box. I don’t think that’s fair to who ever really lives in that box. We all deserve authenticity. Paula: It’s a tricky question. I believe literature should reflect the multicultural world we live in and as an agent I try to do my part to champion writers who contribute to that multiculturalism. As a writer I believe that writers should in theory be able write about anything or anybody, but in practice in my own writing I am more cautious. My mystery A Borrowing of Bones features characters of different genders and ethnicities, but so far I only feel comfortable writing from the point of view of characters ethnically similar to myself. I do write his and her points of view, but both my hero and my heroine are former military and having been raised in a military family I hope that helps me pull it off. Robin: Authenticity is important to me – if a character is unrelatable they’re not fun to write and less fun to read. I have no problem writing in the voice of different genders. My best friends have always been men and they’re used to me asking lots of (sometimes inappropriate) questions. Socioeconomic diversity isn’t a problem, either. I’ve personally experienced the gamut on that so I have my own life to draw on. I’m also comfortable with writing gay or straight characters, being gay myself and having grown up, lived, and worked around straight people. Ethnicities are trickier because I worry about getting it wrong or the character feeling 2-dimensional. That’s where I proceed with caution and get guidance from friends. Looking back at the stories I’ve written, all have been set in and around San Francisco so multiculturalism is part of the world-building. Not to mention one of the reasons I love the SF (and NYC). When it comes down to it, though, it’s service to the story. I agree with Tracee, I won’t go out of my way just to tick a particular diversity box.  

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