Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Writing in the zeitgeist

On Sunday I posted a story about the Duchess of Yowl, and a t-shirt.
The original version of the story had a different ending.

These are the last five lines of the post you saw:
Duchess of Yowl: Too true. Get me the number for Barbara Poelle.

Me: Barbara is allergic to cats.

Duchess of Yowl: All the more reason my picture should be on this t-shirt. For all those unfortunates who can't have a cat.

Me: (aside) always thinking of others.

Duchess of Yowl: (from inside the shopping bag) I heard that.

The original version, the one that still cracks me up, is this:
Duchess of Yowl: Too true. Get me the number for Barbara Poelle.

Me: Barbara is allergic to cats.

Duchess of Yowl: How does she go on living?

You'll recall that last week we lost Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade to suicide.
It rattled a lot of people including some of my clients in a major way.

I kept looking at that final line and yes, it was funny, but it could also be perceived as making light of suicide.

In the end, I revised. It took HOURS to write around that first ending, and I went back to it more than once, but each time, I thought "nope, this is not the place or time for this joke."

There was a question earlier this year about querying a book with elements to the plot that might be perceived as exploiting a tragedy, but joking is different. Joking about some topics is just bad form.  There's even a joke about this: "too soon?" when a comedian cracks wise about something awful.

Well, yes it was too soon for a joke about suicide.
For some readers, it will always be too soon, but for right now, it's too soon for enough people that I felt the line needed to go.

Have you had to write around something in your books? How did you do it?


Kathleen Kalb said...

I'm convinced that part of the reason my first mystery didn't sell (and therefore the reason I am between agents, a whole other story!) is that there was a scene in which the main character is meeting with the governor of her state and they kiss unexpectedly. It was on sub last year, and no matter how much I emphasized consent, in my usual wryly humorous way, and made it clear that it was the surprising start of a relationship and not poaching, I KNOW it was radioactive. I'm still playing with sex and power in my current projects, but there's nothing that's so explicitly a potential #metoo moment. I want to get signed again!

Julie Weathers said...

I have a scene in Far Rider that is adult in nature and sexual and the last agent who thought FR should be a YA thinks a lot of people would find it objectionable. I'll leave it out on rewrite and I may rewrite the baddy who is loosely based on Elizabet Bathory. As GRR Martin said you can portray all the gore you want but graphic sex scenes send people into a rage.

Then, of course, I have the helpful people who have advised me to make Lorena an abolitionist if I want to sell Rain Crow. The historians who are helping with it, advise me to be true to the story and write it as if it were a real character of her time.

Hemingway got irritated with F. Scott because he was changing his short stories to make them more marketable for the magazine editors. He told him to stop whoring his writing out and write was was true, be damned what people think.

I think Hemingway is correct, but in today's PC world, it would be authorial suicide.

As for that line in the DOY story, how does she live? I would have left it. It doesn't mean she was suicidal. It's something akin to saying I can't survive without my morning coffee. Surely we aren't all that delicate that we have to avoid saying things like that now when celebrities commit suicide. While I'm struck by their passing, over 22 vets commit suicide daily every day. If we're going to change everything we do based on this act, we will be doing a lot of changing in our thinking, speech, and writing.

Ellen said...

It's often a problem for me on the Dorothy Parker Facebook page I manage. Parker has written darkly humorous poems about suicide, and made facetious remarks about shooting. People love her acerbic wit (and writers, in particular, enjoy her quip about The Elements of Style), but I have to very judicious about the timing of the posts.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I'm anxious to see what DONNA EVERHART has to say about this because she doesn't write around anything. She plows right through brilliantly.

Lennon Faris said...

I would have taken 'go on living' in a much less literal way. But I suppose being a writer is learning to see a word or phrase from ALL angles.

In the query for my YA fantasy, a character loses cognitive function because of a magical reason. I had to ask a few folks here how to word that. I did not want to make light of any 'real life' mental issues.

Just Jan - congrats on the win over the weekend! Yours was so entertaining. I enjoyed so many.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Like 2Ns, I will be anxious to see what Donna’s take is on this. She sure has hit some uncomfortable subjects head on. And she does it so well.

I suppose it might be easier in fantasy but my first takes on any difficult and emotionally charged subject from sexuality to prejudice to mental illness always comes out trite. It takes multiple revisions + 1 for me to get the resonance I am looking for, to get the context right, to make sure whatever the element is, a mother with what this world calls Munchausen by Proxy, being one of the elements I am currently grappling with, is necessary and realistically portrayed in the story. Despite writing fantasy. To get that suspension of disbelief necessary for fantasy to work, these things must be done well.

In a recent queryshark post, Janet mentioned the last 10% of edits before sending something out can take a very long time. Boy, no kidding. I have been on what I believed the last 10% of edits since January. And still have a lot left to get this thing right. Thank the forces of creativity and inspiration, that I found 1 amazing beta reader to get me over the hump.

Kregger said...

I never would have conflated your proposed ending with either Ms. Spade or Mr. Bourdain. Unless you had substituted either person for "Babs" Poelle, then yeah, I'd agree.

This wasn't a joke at the expense of either Spade or Bourdain. Readers will infer at their whim, that's on them.

Way back in the 80's after the Challenger disaster, the first recognized joke came within an hour of launch. Even in my irreverent disposition, that's crude.

I've never had to write around a situation because I'm typically clueless about any current social norms.

One Of Us Has To Go said...

I have a suicide attempt in my novel since my OCD drove me so so much and hard and merciless so that I could't stand it.

I'm not going to rewrite it cause it's a true story, even though I have totally fictionalized my whole story. It's NOT memoir (except for me it is ;) ).

However, I have not put the outrage I feel towards my mother about this into my story (so maybe I should rewrite it...).
There was a discussion on Twitter about those two suicide cases mentioned by Janet (I'm sure some here on the blog will remember), as someone condemned them as "being selfish".

When I had told my mother that I felt like jumping off a roof, her prompt answer (followed by a long pause only) was: "You can't do this to us!"

I've never told her how selfish she actually was and how she turned my desperation into something like I'm-so-bad-and-inconsiderate.

*Thinks about rewriting now*

P.S. I do NOT think about jumping off roofs anymore. I'm a happy person these days 😀.


One Of Us Has To Go said...

P.P.S. I'm usually not offended by most jokes about blondes, humourless Germans and possibly suicide jokes like this one.

As long as they are not related to mental illnesses or other serious struggles. So, this one by Janet was not based on a real problem (only for herself as she couldn't live without cats I suppose ;) ).

Sarah said...

I think E.M.'s point about editing is spot-on!

I also think it matters who's cracking the joke–even if it's a fictional character. I have a friend who used to joke about genocide. But she survived the 90's in Bosnia. My sister witnessed a murder-suicide. Guess what sort of jokes she made as she weathered flashbacks and nightmares?

Both of them earned the right to make those jokes. They battled what they'd survived through gallows humor. But if someone who hasn't borne the weight of tragedy jokes about it, it can feel like they're cheapening another person's hard-fought battle.

I know there are exceptions, but this is the rule of thumb that I fall back on.

Craig F said...

There is such a simple answer to this. It depends. You can be a crude as the big orange thing or as graphic as snuff porn if it is integral to the story. I have read thing that would have turned my hair white, if it wasn't already, but they held together because they fit the story.

You do have to pick your battles. I have also read things that weren't bad in any particular aspect but the quantity of it turned me away.

I have smoothed out a few sub-plots but have not yet subdued the main plot line of my work. I might do that eventually but it depends.

Sam Mills said...

Julie, I just wanted to point out that those 22 vets a day (plus all the non-vets) are exactly the folks who see news coverage of high profile suicides and feel despair ("if this successful person couldn't make it how can I?"). One way to show compassion for them is to be sensitive in how the matter is discussed publicly.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

My three books are about the horses, dogs and other animals who have suffered abuse or neglect, some of it pretty brutal, but ultimately found themselves at our sanctuary. Reading about the suffering of animals is difficult for many people. And it's tough to write about. While I felt it was important to show the reader what our rescues endured, it's also a delicate balancing act to know when to ease up on the details.

Interesting side note about our Donna tackling some gritty subjects: Donna and I are friends outside of The Reef. I have her books (of course!) and I've been to one of her signings. She's a champion of our work here. But she's told me, with much love, that she can't read my books. That whole animal suffering thing. I understand.

Claire Bobrow said...

One of my picture book MCs thinks he is allergic to something He’s not allergic, but this thing is causing him distress. Since allergies are no joke, I've been wrestling with whether that's okay. The story has been through umpteen revisions. In some versions, I've removed the reference to the allergy. In others, it's back, because it introduces his problem clearly and succinctly. I’m still debating what to do.

John Davis Frain said...

So much depends on context and where the reader is coming from. I can't speak for anyone else, but my guess is that someone who hasn't been affected by suicide might not be affected by the original ending. Whereas, someone who has been close to suicide, might see it as "too soon."

The original ending cracks me up too, especially when I picture the delivery. But I would have changed it as well. The phrasing, I believe, is what strikes close to home. Changing the ending is not giving in to political correctness; it's simple respect for decency.

"Too soon" comes much earlier in these days of social media.

KDJames said...

There's a Dorothy Parker facebook page? Link?

Humour can be so difficult. I'm constantly aware that my sense of what's funny is way too dry and/or sarcastic for most people. Especially online, where no one can see the twinkle in my eye or the slight smirk of anticipated laughter. I don't think I "write around" that kind of thing in fiction -- there's no immediacy involved, for one thing -- and might even be more likely to address it than not. But I sure as hell have deleted a lot of blog comments and emails before hitting send.

I don't think the original ending trivialized suicide. It was commentary on the self-important attitude of cats, and of one well-known and beloved cat in particular. In addition to the larger social consciousness, that context is also important in this forum.

It would have been a whole other thing if you had framed the post as being *about* suicide, if you had said/implied that Bourdain or Spade were allergic to cats and then made a remark to the effect of it being understandable that they couldn't go on. THAT would have been trivializing not only suicide, but their own personal struggles, whatever they were. That would be crass, no matter how much time had passed. But that's not what you did. At all.

You've got a good ear for your audience here, Janet. I think you can trust it, and us.

Julie Weathers said...


I did a story some years ago about a horse program that is based in Colorado Springs, CO at the Air Force Academy stables. Billy Jack does a program for at risk and recovering vets where they work with the horses and then learn to ride. Each vet is responsible for the care of a horse. There are no therapists. Most of them have had their fill of therapists and they just clam up around them.

They talk to the horses and then they start talking to each other and the walls start coming down. They accept no money from the government because if they did then the government would step in and tell them what they had to do, who they could reach out to, and slap untold regulations and red tape on them. It's all donation supported and it has remarkable results.

Billy Jack says he gets letters all the time from people who have been through the program who admitted they were giving up. They came to shut their families up and then they were going to end it all.

Someone is yapping now we need more medicine. No, we don't. My son refuses to go to the VA for anything because of the way they have over medicated vets here leading to several vet deaths. If you refuse to take the medications, they will turn you into the government as a "danger".

The first thing vets need is not to be classified as potential domestic terrorists by their own government and treated as the enemy when they get home.

BrendaLynn said...

Twitter is landing this Canadian writer on her ass faster than a fat kid on a seesaw. The wildly polarized debates leave me slack-jawed and looking around vaguely for someone to apologize to.
My current WIP is a mystery featuring an adulterous preacher detective whose mistress gets murdered.
Religion, guns, sexuality. All hot topics. I’ve now spent two months editing it to the left, then to the right, back to the left, time for a nap. Yesterday I saw something that finally put an end to my effort to please all sides. ‘Write as if no one will read it.’ Freedom, finally. Even if no one ever reads it.
And yes, I saw it on a Twitter meme.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

I rarely bother with Twitter, and for good reason. Sometimes it's not good to be that immersed in the world.

Anyhoo, about a decade ago I was getting a book ready to query (final editing pass) when life mimicked a dire event I had in the book to no less than three people very close to me, in three separate incidents, all within a month of each other. I had to put the book aside for a few years (yes, years) before I was able to go back to it. Had the book already been contracted and under deadline, I honestly don't know if I could have soldiered through.

Only the distance of time and the seeing of the three people moving on, was I able to go back to the book and view it from the fiction that it is.

Janice Grinyer said...

I wrote about suicide in the last contest. Too soon?

No. Because right now there is someone out there who is struggling with those thoughts. Unfortunately, more than just someONE, but many.

Lifeline hotline exists for that reason- to be there 24/7 for anyone who is thinking about suicide or knows someone who they are concerned for.

I read an interesting article that compared the use of words in culture, and how important they are. Back in the day the word "cancer" was said in hushed tones (i immediately thought of Betty Ford and how her outspokenness on having breast cancer changed lives for so many women) Today it is a fact of life, and no one thinks less of someone because they have "cancer" due to everyone talking/writing, even joking about it. What if we were to change that about mental illness, such as depression? Would there be the same affect? Would it become something familiar, not to be ashamed to talk about, and suicide could be prevented because of knowledge, openness, and the ability to seek help without being shamed?

Changing cultures is always a fascinating subject to me. I tend not to run away from difficult issues, but meet them head-on due to this.

Julie Weathers said...


I wrote a response that blogger ate and I didn't bother re-writing it later. But the gist of it is this. A couple of historians I have consulted about RC have told me to write the book as if it were absolutely true. Stay true to the time and the characters. Stop worrying about what people will think and what is politically correct. It may lose some readers, but it will make for a far better story. These people are products of their time, not 2018.

It's good to have some things out in the open. Other things I could live without quite so much of. I took the grandson out to buy some plants for a little garden he wants. He likes science and gardening. He thinks. He may change his mind about gardening when he figures out there's a lot of work involved. Anyway, on the way home, is yet another ad for ED. "Are you suffering from erectile dysfunction? If so, you should know our science has proven...."

He looked at me. "I like science. Can we buy that?"

"No, let's find a different project to work on. I'll look at your science project book when we get home."

Ellen said...


KDJames said...

Thank you, Ellen! I've liked the page, as I'm certain one more clever distraction is *just* the thing I need.