Thursday, March 28, 2013

Shock value: do you we need to put the reader through it?

by Colby Marshall

I recently read a very interesting blog post about gender and rape in fiction and the comments following it.  And while the post and ensuing conversation was all very insightful, one comment in particular intrigued me. It was :“Do I need to put the reader through this?” 

I wish more authors thought about this question. Violence for violence’s sake, for shock value is exhausting and off-putting as a reader. I’m glad to see an author asking that question, and hope others do as well."

I sat back and started thinking about this comment, because as an author, it is incredibly important to me to take care of my readers.  At the end of the day, I want to make sure people who read my books have a satisfying answer for whodunit, that they know what happened and why, and that they know anything else that they might otherwise leave the book feeling like I couldn’t manage to write a proper ending because my dinner was getting cold and the new episode of Downton Abbey was about to come on. 

I jest.  I actually don’t watch Downton Abbey.  Or eat dinner.

But this…this bugged me. After all, anyone who has ever read Chain of Command knows that it is basically a bloodbath.  With such a violent premise for a book, I'm sure many a person could read it and think at times it was violent for violent's sake.  However, as the author, I don't think it is.  When I was writing it, I didn’t think, “Now, what can I shock them with next?”  

That said, the idea that readers might think any of the violence in my books is there for the shock value made me ask myself an important question: "If I’m not doing it for the shock value, why DO I do it?" 

I found that I already knew the very simple answer.  I put in the violence because that is the way the story is formed in my head.

Now, let me backtrack here and clarify: I am not one of those authors who claims their characters speak to them at the breakfast table or tells them on the subway how they’d like to romantically pursue a different character than the author originally intended.  There’s nothing wrong with authors who work this way as long as you’re not the chick from Stranger than Fiction—that broad was crazy.  It’s just not how I operate.   

Even so, though, I do tend to have very specific visions of parts of my stories in my mind: characters’ physical traits, scene settings and locations, the movements of the characters, and yes, the events that happen in the scene.  I rarely sit down and try to think up scenarios and actions of characters.  When I write a scene, it is usually fully formed in my head already.  I might need to figure out logistics if anything turns out to be problematic, unbelievable, etc.—what editing is for, but the violence in the scenes aren’t ever contrived on my part purely to elicit shock.  They just are.

Which, for me, begs a new question.  As an author, I have a responsibility to my readers to take care of their satisfaction with the book, but at the same time, my job first and foremost is to tell readers the story.  After all, isn’t that why we as readers buy books—to read a story someone else has to tell?  Otherwise, we would all makeup our own stories all the time.  But no!  We want to be able to read someone else’s story, to live the story along with the characters never knowing what happens until the next page is flipped. 

So the question boils down to this: if an author’s foremost job is to tell their story, the one they conceived, molded, crafted, and nurtured, should the instinct of authors to take care of the needs and comfort of the audience reading the book ever trump that foremost job of telling their story?  If you think so, why?  If you don’t think so, what is your reasoning?

BIO:  Writer by day, ballroom dancer and choreographer by night, Colby has a tendency to turn every hobby she has into a job, thus ensuring that she is a perpetual workaholic.  In addition to her 9,502 regular jobs, she is also a contributing columnist for M Food and Culture magazine and is a proud member of International Thriller Writers and Sisters in Crime.  She is actively involved in local theatres as a choreographer as well as sometimes indulges her prima donna side by taking the stage as an actress.  She lives in Georgia with her family, two mutts, and an array of cats that, if she were a bit older, would qualify her immediately for crazy cat lady status.  Her debut thriller, Chain of Command is about a reporter who discovers the simultaneous assassinations of the President and Vice President may have been a plot to rocket the very first woman—the Speaker of the House—into the presidency.  Chain of Command is now available, and the second book in her McKenzie McClendon series, The Trade, is due for publication by Stairway Press in June 2013.   

Chain of Command is now available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Sony, iBooks, Kobo, other major e-readers, or in select independent bookstores.

Watch the official book trailer for Chain of Command here: You can also learn more about Colby and her books at 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Debut Author: Questions I never expected…

By Susanna Calkins

When I first started telling people that I was about to publish my debut novel—A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate--I didn’t know what to expect.  Most people were surprised astonished—after all, only my husband knew anything about my scribblings for the last ten years, and even he had only the vaguest notion what my story was about. 

So the questions I got asked—as well as what I didn’t get asked—surprised me.  No one asked me what had inspired the book, or how I did my research (those kinds of questions seemed to come up later). 

Instead, I got:

Is there much sex in it?  Uh, gulp. You’ll have to read it to find out. (Seriously, this was the number one question people asked me).  

Who’s your agent? Will he represent me? I found this question very awkward.  I didn’t want to shut the door behind me, but at that point, I had only known my wonderful agent David Hale Smith of Inkwell Management for a few days between the time I signed with him and when Minotaur bought my books. 

I’ve started a novel. Can I pitch it to your publisher? Well, gee.  I think that most agents, editors, publishers etc. are looking for finished products, which are ready to go. As everyone says… don’t spoil your book by sending it out into the world too soon!

Is your book much like Harry Potter or Twilight? Those books are awesome.  Everyone wants to read them. 
Okay, well, my books are mysteries, so I guess that’s different. Sure, my main character, Lucy, is about the same age as Bella. But she’s not from Washington. She’s English though, like Hermione, but really nothing like Hermione at all. My book is set in seventeenth-century England, but there aren’t any trains in it. Or horcruxes.
So you set your book in seventeenth-century London. That’s when Elizabeth I was the queen. Or was it Queen Victoria?  Close. Well, about sixty years after QEI, and 150 years before the other.  The monarch was actually Charles II. (Nope, not the one who was beheaded. His son).    

So you wrote a mystery.  Are you as exciting as Dan Brown?  Um…you’ll have to read it to find out?  (How often can I use that one?) 

Do you plan to quit your day job? Um…I don’t think many writers make a living this way.  (If my boss is reading this—Plus, I love my day job. I’d never quit! If he’s not reading, then I’ll stick to my first response. I don’t think most writers make as much money as what people assume). 

Are you going to make your book into a movie, like The Help? That would be pretty darn surprising, but hey if BBC or Masterpiece Theatre comes a-calling, they know where to find me!!!  And yes, I will see if they can cast you/your cousin/your child in the production.  

Do you think my sister/aunt/cousin/neighbor/long-lost pet would like your book?  YES!

Author Bio

Susanna Calkins is a historian and academic, currently working at Northwestern University. She’s had a morbid curiosity about murder in seventeenth-century England ever since she was in grad school, when she was first working on her Ph.D. in history.   The ephemera from the archives—tantalizing true accounts of the fantastic and the strange—inspired her historical mysteries, including A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she lives outside Chicago now with her husband and two sons. Connect with her at her website or on twitter.

Book synopsis: A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate (Minotaur Books/St. Martin’s Press) April 23, 2013
When someone she loves faces hanging for the murder of a fellow servant, Lucy Campion—a seventeenth-century English chambermaid—must interpret the clues hidden in miniature portraits, popular ballads, and a corpse’s pointing finger to save his life…all before the true murderer turns on her…