Saturday, April 13, 2013
Breaking the Taboo
by Kate George
There is somewhat of an unwritten law in writing about kids and animals. It goes something like "No Harm Shall Come to Children or Pets."
I’ve heard a number of variations of that rule through the years, and I pretty much stuck to it. That is, until I went to a writing seminar with writer/agent Donald Maass.
Donald spent some time researching best-selling novels and discovered that one of the things they had in common was a high level of emotion. I learned a lot from Donald Maass but the most surprising thing was that bestsellers didn’t necessarily follow the rule about kids and animals.
Forgive me for messing up this quote, Don, but here’s what I heard: “Don’t just kill the kitten, make the kitten save the child’s life and then have it die.” In other words, elevate the pet to the level of a hero and then when the reader is as attached as she can be, kill the sucker flat.
Yikes. “Really?” I asked. “Even in books with a lot of humor?”
Yes, even when books are meant to be funny.
I wasn’t sure I subscribed to that theory. The “no harm” rule had been hammered into me pretty firmly. I’m not really brave enough to break big taboos. And yet I did.
I got to the point in Crazy Little Thing Called Dead where something drastic had to happen. Something that would push my protagonist into acting against her own nature. She had to be reduced to a flaming ball of murderous rage. Actually Bree was more like a frozen ball of icy rage, but you get the drift. Something had to happen that was horrific. I suppose I could have had the antagonist kill one of her brothers, or her parents. But Bree’s family is not on the page much. Her fur-babies, however, are on the page quite often. They are her children, her companions, her joy in life. Her cat and three of her dogs die in a fire. Her beagle attempts to save her tabby before she dies.
Good lord, it’s awful. How could I have written that?
I knew there would be some fallout. Readers were bound to be upset. But I trusted Donald Maass when he said that the emotion would improve my books. I was not prepared for the level of hatred in the letters I received. I was called a murderer. I was told I should be blackballed. No one should let me comment on their blog. One woman who was particularly distraught told me that I am God in my stories and I could have saved the animals. They didn’t have to die. But that’s not how it seems to me. Stories unfold. They come to me. I don’t create them, at least not in a conscious way. I avoided the fire as long as I could, but it needed to be there.
Did you see Romancing the Stone? Do you remember how Laura Wilder cries while she’s writing her books, tissues everywhere? That was me. It didn’t help that we had recently lost a dog to cancer. I was a weeping mess.
The negative un-fan mail has been fairly intense; however, I am also getting a lot more positive comments. More readers telling me they like my books. Asking when the next Bree MacGowan mystery is coming out. I’m getting more “yes” mail than I’m getting “hell no” mail.
So what have I learned? Well, for one, Donald Maass was right when he said readers would become more invested. The readers that don’t like my books really don’t like them. Some would like to see me incarcerated for crimes committed. I haven’t pointed out to them that incarceration would give me more time to write. That might be insensitive. And frankly, I don’t want to give anyone any further reason to come looking for me. It’s scary how much some people hate me.
On the other hand the opposite is also true. It’s wonderful how much some fans like me. I get messages everyday telling me how much they like Bree.
Have my sales increased? Yes, but that may have happened anyway. The more you write, the more you sell. It’s kind of a rule. So the jury is out on the numbers.
Would I do it again? Kill pets? I don’t know. I do know I will push my characters out of their comfort zone. I will create situations that push them into doing things they wouldn’t normally do. Because that’s the stuff that compelling stories are made of. I’m not making any promises. I will write what I need to write for the stories. Whatever I write, not everyone will be happy, and that’s okay. My readers will be happy, and they’re the only people I have to please.
Do I recommend breaking the “no harm” rule? I can’t tell you what to write, but I can advise you to grow some pretty thick skin before you try it.
Kate George is the author of the popular Bree MacGowan mystery series. She lives in an old farmhouse in the backwoods of Vermont with her husband, four kids, and three rescue dogs. Visit her at www.kategeorge.com, or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.