Tuesday, September 14, 2010

FAQ - What Are Your Limits?

Q: Are there things you won't do in your writing or things you just won't write about?
A:  Some readers  vow that they won't read a book if the writer: harms a dog, kills a cat, abuses a child, writes a prologue, puts in too much back story, ends on a cliff-hanger, leaves out the back story, writes about violence to women,  gets preachy and pushes a cause, uses adverbs, deploys the F-word, engages in stereotyping, writes dialect, uses italics, kills off an on-going character, uses the past perfect,  writes in a character (human or animal) just for the sake of killing it,  puts in/leaves out sex scenes  . . . I’m sure there are more. And I've been guilty of many of them.

As a writer of mystery, I'm fascinated by how strongly some folks feel about so many things in the mystery genre.  If I followed all these proscriptions, would I gain more readers?

Every writer has heard such warnings— "People won't buy books that ______." And if you want to hear readers express themselves passionately on any of these subjects, just spend a little time at Dorothy L. This online discussion group for mystery fans is an interesting glimpse into the thoughts and opinions of some of mystery’s most ardent and vocal fans.

 Take prologues. There are more than a few Dorothy L-ers who declare that they always skip the prologue and begin at the first chapter.  Always.  As if it were a point of honor. Puzzling.  I had prologues in my second and third books (ART’S BLOOD and OLD WOUNDS) but by my fourth book I was beginning to wonder if I was making a Big Mistake. So I took the prologue I’d written for IN A DARK SEASON and called it Chapter One. Hardly hurt at all.

It’s not so easy to adhere to some of the other requirements various readers have. Early on, I promised a friend that I would never harm a dog in any of my books. That was easy to do – especially since my protagonist’s dogs are based on mine. But then, after I’d mentioned this promise here, a reader made a plea that I would extend the same courtesy to cats.

Oh dear, where will it end, I thought, and in my post What About the Cats?  I explained why I couldn’t make any more promises of this kind. Bunnies aren't safe either. Or people. These are murder mysteries, after all.

The thing is, I finally realized that I have to tell the story and write the book the best way I can – the way the story unfolds as I tap away at my laptop -- not paying attention to polls or writing manuals or even fervent pleas from cat lovers because, in the end, if you tell the story well, you can break the so-called rules.  

No, you can’t please everybody. Somewhere, some day, some affronted reader is going to hurl your book against a wall and vow never to read another. So be it.

“You have to shatter the reader,” was one of the first things my editor told me – before she offered me a contract. So sometimes I write up to the edge of that fine line between engaging readers and turning them off – and thank heavens, there are no promises to keep.

Except for the one about the dogs – they’re still untouchable.
Posted by Picasa


joanna said...


Very interesting I am learning a lot from as your "fourth" book unfurls it self like a rolled up ball of lightening harmless in a ball but watch out...it is sure too please even the most difficult breed of consumer,

no cats too,please... they are tortured enough in this country and world.

Looking forward to your book -- regardless what you put in or out,

Love the front cover...

Poetry24 said...

Another interesting insight, Vicki. I'm really enjoying these posts.

I think, one of the biggest hurdles for some writers to get over is, the risk of giving offence. For instance, an old friend of mine once said, she could never write a sex scene, in case her mother read it. But I can understand how you have to tread that fine line, between engaging or alienating an audience. Great stuff!

Merisi said...

Authors or artists have a right to be true to themselves and therefore should write or create according to their own parameters. It may be a lonely endeavor at times, but the day writers and artists stopped daring would be a truly sad one.

Somehow this reminds me of discussions about the distinction between a fine line and a thin one. Some students get it, some never will.

Merisi said...

I should have written "artists" - that includes writers anyway.

Reader Wil said...

Your books are captivating and all those elements, you mentioned are in them. There is a continuous flow of events and that makes a reader curious to read further and see how the plot developes. I must confess that I don't read many prologues. I think those of the Shakespeare books and the plays by G.B.Shaw are often longer than the plays themselves.
Have a great week, Vicki!

Stella Jones said...

Hmmm! I think you should be true to yourself. If you diffuse too much, there will be nothing left. Write about whatever you like. Some people will like, others will not. That's life I suppose. I have asked myself these questions too.
I was also criticised for some things I wrote in my first book. I showed that the main character had a liking for sex and that didn't go down too well. I was truly surprised by the comments. The people who wrote them wanted the character to be chaste, celibate and sanitised but no-one is like that, are they? I was faced with the dilemma, do I change what I wrote or stay true to myself? I decided to stay true to myself in the hope that some readers would agree with me.
I shall now take a look at the link you gave us. Thanks for that. I didn't know there was such a thing.
Regarding prologues, I love them. I think they are necessary - not in all cases but certainly in mainly. It helps the reader to get a grip of the place where the story is going to be set and also a background of the characters or at least why the author is writing the book.
I am soon going to be posting a Halloween story on my Blog. It has a few chapters but it did have a prologue. Now I'm wondering if I should call that prologue Chapter One (lol)!
Very interesting post. Thanks.
Blessings, Star

Jesson Balaoing said...

great, i love this blog!

Unknown said...

I'm no expert but I do read books. I say don't worry about what others think. Be true to yourself. I'll never forget years ago reading THe Power Of One. Now I dislike boxing but I found myself totally engrossed in the fights. I still don't like boxing. I am looking forward to receiving your books. Intrigued.

Pat in east TN said...

Very interesting post.

I think you just have to follow your instincts when writing and go with the story line where it wants to take you. Some of the 'no-no's' you mentioned have been in some books I've read, and although at first I was taken back, when I continued on I saw where it really did need to be there.

Brian Miller said...

early on for me i set up a guiding list of things i would not do...once i got passed that it opened up a whole new world for me...i think we can paralyze ourselves and our muses if we try to please everyone...

Vicki Lane said...

Martin -- Though my mother's been gone many years, I did wonder what some of her friends might think if they read my books.

Merisi -- I'd not thought of that difference but what a fine distinction!

Star -- I,too, enjoy prologues as scene or mood setters. But I think they need to be fairly brief-- just a page or two -- not chapter length. Yet I'm sure there are exceptions to that 'rule' that I'd happily devour.

Helen T said...

I had heard the don't kill animals rule for a long time. That's why I was somewhat amused when Sharyn McCrumb's latest opened with the death of an innocent, rather large animal. I felt as if Sharyn was saying "take that, you rules people."

Michele said...

I agree that you have to do what you have to do, but thank god you're leaving the dogs out of the carnage.

Louise said...

I just turn the pages very fast, when I'm reading a book where animals are being hurt. But, movies are worse. I still get sick to my stomach at the violence done to the animals in "Dances with Wolves." I think it's because animals are true innocents, where even the best of humans carry some hint of evil within them.

Jill said...

I do agree with what you are saying. If people are going to be that picky then they are only limiting themselves. However....if you harm a giant pumpkin in a book....well....

NCmountainwoman said...

Very interesting. Not being a writer, I never gave a thought to how writers must carefully weigh the things they write about. I'm a very forgiving reader if the story is well told and the writing is good. I've read books that I truly enjoyed even when I didn't like the main character.

The one thing I cannot tolerate is lack of research. When I read errors of time and places it turns me off completely and I'll stop reading the book. I figure that if I know it's wrong, surely the author should have known.

JJM said...

I figure, as rules of thumb: if it's not needed for plot or character development, or for the mise en scène (as it were), don't put it in. Gratuitous scenes of any sort, but especially sex and violence, are a generally a sign of bad writing. Be true to yourself, but also be true to your audience. And always remember the power of the theatre of the mind -- what your readers conjure up in their minds' eyes is likely to be much more vivid than what you describe at length and in detail. (The "you" above being the general you, not a "You, Vicki, you".)

That said ... The moment I discovered Elizabeth's dogs were based on your own very real companions, Vicki, I suspected that, however worried she might be if they appear to be in danger, I as reader do not have to worry at all. Sort of lessens the suspense a tad. (Not a criticism, just an observation.)

As for killing off characters: I remember once, when I was still deluded I might some day become an author [wry grin], Scheherazading to an online writing group a very likable character, one of the two main "good guys" in the story, whom I deliberately created to be killed off by the Big Bad about 2/3 or 3/4 of the way to the end. I wanted that shock value ... Alas, Real Life intervened, and my co-writer and I had to drop the story.


Deanna said...

I always read the prologue when there is one. I consider it an insight into what is to come.

If you spend time trying to please everyone, you'd end up pleasing no one. So I say be true to yourself (and your publisher ;)

One of the things I dislike in a book is detailed sex scenes. I skip through those parts - it just seems too personal or something. One of the many things I like about your books is that you have relationships and sex but you leave a lot to the imagination on what goes on behind closed doors.

tattytiara said...

I didn't read prolopgues for an embarassingly long time simply because I didn't realize they were part of the book. I thought they were just something like an artist's statement or something. Where I got that idea I have not a clue.

bo parker said...

Ah, Vicki. You have clearly, precisely, ardently, and eloquently staked out your ground.

Elora said...


Excellent post! Follow your story, is what you are saying... I believe...wherever it leads. Again thank you for stirring the FAQ pot and keeping it simmering!
Love this exchange!

And thank you, everyone, for your contributions! This is such an opportunity!


Tess Kincaid said...

I once read that to be a great writer, you can't worry about what your mother might say when she reads your work. I think it's an excellent rule of thumb.

Marilyn & Jeff said...

A very interesting post - if you listened to everyone you would never write a book - it's your story so tell it how you want to I would say. Don't people realise that it is a story and not real life; I enjoy your posts.

Tammy said...

Not a writer, but an avid reader. Thankfully there are so many books out there that if I find one that 'turns me off' I can toss it aside and move on. I used to force myself to finish every book I picked up, but life is too short and there are too many books I might enjoy to worry of that any longer. As for the editor's (I think you said)advice if you 'shatter' me to often I just won't play anymore. ;-) Well written, well played stories that leave enough to the imagination, but solidly develop the characters (very important!) and plot line are what I want. The biggest pet peeve (pun intended) I have is when an author introduces an animal solely to have it killed off. Also if an animal is 'killed off' then I will just skip those pages and hope there isn't anything important that I might miss. I see and hear too much of this in real life, and as you know my heart is soft towards the animals. But there again, my choice, as is the author's choice on what they write.

Vicki Lane said...

Helen, Yep, that sounds like Sharyn's attitude, all right!

Louise- I have that same problem -- many a book that moved me deeply but I'll never read again. But sometimes books detailing animal suffering are meant to awaken people to a problem. Black Beauty is one. Nop's Trials, another.

"A giant pumpkin lay sprawled helplessly on a bed of straw as an overalled figure advanced, swinging a shining axe. The October sun glinted silver on the razor-sharp edge and then..."

I agree about the lack of research, NCmountainwoman. One never knows what error will catch a reader's eye.

Mario -- if one is writing a cozy, the victim is usually someone no one likes and it's just a puzzle to figure out who did it. But if you want the reader to be emotionally invested, sometimes bad things have to happen to good people and/or animals.

Deanna -- If I tried to write a really detailed sex scene, I'd probably end up laughing too hard to go on/ Very few people do this well, in my opinion.

Interesting, Tatty. I can understand why people might skip the acknowledgments that are sometimes at the beginning of a book as that's the author thanking people and saying maybe where his idea for the book came from. I enjoy reading this but others might not.

True enough, Willow.

Very good point, Marilyn. It IS fiction and that dead cat never existed in the first place. But we writers work so hard to make the reader care about our made-up characters that we shouldn't be surprised at these reactions.

I can think of two reasons to have an innocent character (child or animal)harmed. One is the fact that psychopaths often were abusers of animals in their youth -- and I used this once but you never actually met the abused animal -- the fact of the event was just passed on third hand.

The other reason is to show some horrible abuse of the innocent in order to set up a motive for a later retaliatory event. And I've done that several times.