Friday, December 19, 2008

Killing Children and Puppies

Okay, I think I'm goign to cross-post this one here. There was some discussion over at BookEnds LLC blog about keeping innocents alive, and I took the time to say how and when I think it works or doesn't. Here's that comment in full.
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I will not continue a book after the author loses my trust.

Depending upon the tone of the book, killing a child may be the item that kills that trust.

There was a western comedy-satire, written by a black writer, with a racist white narrator and a black bounty hunter main character. It was quite funny, and the white narrator seemed like he was likely to learn something by the events in the book, chasing after his stolen wife with help he has swindled from a black bounty hunter. So I read it and enjoyed the first half.

Then the white narrator let a black child die. The book lost my trust, but I kept reading. Bad mistake.

The main challenge of the book --recovering that kidnapped wife-- was never satisfied, and the black bounty hunter suddenly transformed in the end from a realistic character to some superhuman avatar, and it all collapsed into metaphor and hyperbole.

The ending was so unsatisfying -- enough that I'd almost apply the word "racist" to it -- that I decided never again to continue reading when an author lost my trust. Killing that child meant that the author was promising something other than I wanted, and there was no reason for me to continue reading.

And, if I remembered the author's name, I'd never read another book of his that had a white character.

On the other hand, I've just completed reading "The Pesthouse" by Jim Crace, a lyrically pestilent book where he starts by telling us everyone in Ferrytown is going to die, then introduces us to a 9-10 year-old boy who lives in Ferrytown, and shows us exactly what happens. In Jim Crace's post-apocalyptic America, nature is merciless, and so are the people. Even the baby who the main character cradles through the book is at risk of its life. (...But no spoilers here...)

The difference is, that was part of the promise.

There is only one unbreakable rule: DELIVER WHAT YOU PROMISE.

In my estimate, the promise is the first 1/6 of the work, perhaps the first 50 pages of a typical novel, the first 20 minutes of a typical movie. That's how long you get to set your own rules.

After that, YOU MUST FOLLOW THEM. If you change the rules, you've violated my trust, and there's a trash can with your book's name on it.


Shawn S. Deggans said...

For every "MUST" in writing, there are probably twenty exceptions that work well and twenty that show how the "MUST" must be.

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

This is the way I felt about "His Dark Materials" set.

And I think there better be at least a 100-1 ratio between the 'musts' examples and their "well-done exceptions" or they're merely recommendations.

"Never be boring!" is one example of a MUST.

(Don't remember when I started following your feed, but here I de-lurked at last. Hi.)

Dal Jeanis said...

There is an argument that BAIT AND SWITCH is fair, as long as the switch is "better than" the bait, for the same people that will take the bait.

There is also an exception that you can subvert unwritten expectations, as long as you do it in such a way that it does not make your early promise a lie. For instance, the author easing into the idea that the light-skinned races are the "evil" ones, in Earthsea.

Welcome, Amy Jane! Yes, DON'T BE BORING appears a good rule, although I submit that it is a rule that cannot possibly be followed. What is interesting to one reader may be deadly dull to another. Some people actually enjoy those five-page descriptions of rooms that they used to do in Victorian times.(!)

In order to not be boring, you have to have a specific type of reader in mind--often yourself, but sometimes another specific person or a type. If you write something that is fascinating to yourself, it will at least not be boring to people like you.

But, to provide a satisfying reader experience, you (1) must decide upon an audience, (2) meet that audience's needs, (3) make a promise that that audience desires or would enjoy, and (4) deliver on that promise, or deliver better than that promise.

Recently I read that the first page sells this book, but the last page sells the next book. It's attributed to Mickey Spillane. Good thing to keep in mind.

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

DON'T BE BORING is actually the hardest for me to disregard (on purpose).

I'm one of those who constantly must fight the temptation to please everyone.

My writing began with a NaNoWriMo, and to keep word count up I simply jumped from "interesting" scene to interesting scene. When my darling and long suffering husband then read my first draft (have I said how much he loves me?) his two comments were: finish it (he wanted to know the ending) and slow down.

But I've "worried" so much about being "boring" I find slowing is one of the hardest things for me to do.

Conversations end up being my methodology, and as I write I'm often fighting the flashing neon sign: BORING boring BORING the whole time.

{shrug} We do what we can.