Sunday, June 6, 2010

Guest Blogger - The Amazing Sophie Littlefield

(insert Joelle's ethusiastic voice here) Please help me welcome Edgar Nominated and all around amazing author Sophie Littlefield to the podium. If you haven't read A Bad Day for Sorry - you should! It is fantastic. So fantanstic that it received an Edgar Nomination. (If you leave a comment to this post you might win a copy of the newly released paperback version.) The next book in the series, A Bad Day for Pretty will be released on June 8th - that's in two days for all of you keeping score. I'll be at my bookstore first thing on Tuesday morning to get my copy. I encourage all of you to do the same.

Now without further ado - the blog stylings of Sophie Littlefield!


I was wandering through Target today with a writing friend who has a lot of acting experience, wondering aloud whether I had gone too far in the scene I’ve been working on. This scene has been giving me fits. The problem is that I can’t figure out if it crosses the line on the tasteless spectrum. I know that I find it pretty darn amusing, but unfortunately I’ve learned that isn’t much of a litmus test, since my sense of humor often seems on par with an adolescent boy’s. This scene is also rather gory, and I’m aware my debut novel already danced pretty close to the edge of acceptability for my readership. Once again, my own sensibilities aren’t very helpful because I’ll tolerate more violence than many of my readers. (I know, I know, it isn’t really fair to stoke your curiosity that way without revealing the nature of the scene, but it’s so far into the series – I’m working on book four, in fact, and book two isn’t even out yet – that it doesn’t seem entirely proper. But what the hell – I’ll just say that it involves severed heads. Uh, several of them, in fact, lined up in neat rows…)

So I’ve been thinking out loud, which is just a euphemism for whining to my friends and making every conversation about me and my concerns. I’ve received a variety of responses to my proposed scene, from “Oh my God, I’m gonna be ill” to “Yay, it’s been ages since I read a good severed-head story.” And while I’m rather proud of the diversity of my friendships, this hasn’t helped me figure out what to do.

Today, though, as we mosied through the toy aisle at Target, my seventeen-year-old son trying to get my friend’s three-year-old son to play dodgeball with the merchandise (yes, we were nearly tossed out of the store, yet another proud moment for me) – my friend only shrugged and said “every director I ever had said it was easier to pull me back than spur me on. I say go for it.” That got my attention – partly because I’d heard it once before. From my agent. I was working on my young adult series and was in the throes of a similar dilemma, having to do with how far I could go with a particular sub-plot for my teen heroine. “Write it as dark as you want,” my agent said, “because it’s easier to cut or tone it down than it is to add tension in later.” Let me tell you how that played out. It was my first young adult novel, and I wasn’t sure exactly where the boundaries were. Moreover, the more I read in the genre, the more the lines seemed to be moving. I had no idea what was okay and what wasn’t, but I was sure that I wanted to explore some darker themes. After Barbara, my agent, gave me the green light to write it as dark as I wanted – and added the safety net of a promised preliminary read before we sent it to my editor – I decided to go for it. I wrote it just the way I wanted to. The result was that it did get toned down. Both Barbara and my editor felt a few things had to go, ranging from language (who knew you can’t say f@#k in a YA?) to the overly predatory nature of an adult character. But the shadow of those details remained, even after the edits were made. The emotional tone remained the same, and – most important to me – I did not feel I shied away from the tough issues I had wanted to address.

Long before my first book came out, I worried about offending readers, and wondered if I ought to try harder to “mainstream-ify” my books. Deep down, though, I knew the answer to that question: I had written a lot of books that cleaved to the norms – like the bears’ porridge, not too cold or too hot, but damn near lukewarm – and they didn’t sell. A BAD DAY FOR SORRY was my “rule breaker,” a mad caper of a book that was more or less just for fun. I did a lot of things that we, as writers, aren’t supposed to do: I made the heroine plain and middle-aged. I let her use violence even when it wasn’t strictly necessary. I let her shoot a dog. (If that’s not a career killer, I don’t know what is.) But it worked. Somehow, I managed to connect with enough readers who tolerated my excesses, and I was asked to continue the series. Today, as my son lobbed a plastic SpongeBob beach ball right at me, I vowed to keep doing what I do – pushing the envelopes and taking chances with the books. Yes, there will be those readers who hate, hate, hate the choices I make. Yes, my editor may end up with a few more gray hairs when she sees what I’ve done to my characters. And yes, I fully expect that my revision letter will contain a fair amount of what-were-you-thinking couched in the editorial notes. I’ve turned in five contracted books so far, enough to know where my strengths lie. And “subtle” isn’t one of them.

What about you – whether writer or reader, do you think there are lines that books simply shouldn’t cross? And can you forgive the author who crosses them, if the story really grabs you?

23 comments:

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Hi Sophie! Thanks so much for stopping by at DSD! I loved A Bad Day For Sorry - shooting the dog and all. It's interesting to hear you talk about how far to push something. I've been a bit concerned about that in my newest WIP and I think you just solved the problem for me. Time to just go for it and worry about editing it back later. Thanks!

I can't wait to read A BAD DAY FOR PRETTY on Tuesday!!!

Hilary Davidson said...

Sophie, it's wonderful to see you anytime, anywhere, but I'm especially happy to see you on one of my favorite blogs. And I can't wait to read A BAD DAY FOR PRETTY!

As one of your more twisted fans (I say this with confidence), I'm intrigued by the severed heads... and happy to hear that you decided to go for it. Whether or not you end up toning it down, the strength of the scene and and power of your words will remain. I know that when I write myself into a blind alley, it's because I've been too timid to really go for it. My new motto: Embrace the crazy.

L.J. Sellers said...

Clearly, you're making good choices by not worrying about pleasing everyone. It can't be done.

I've crossed a few lines myself, and once you've done it and had readers love the story, it's very liberating.

Congratulations on all your success!

Carrie Lofty said...

Hey Sophie,

Best of luck on your new release! Hopefully the random gods of alphabetical order will seat us together at a booksigning once again some day.

Debra St. John said...

Hi Joelle and Sophie,

Great post...I think authors need to stay true to themselves and write what they love/believe/feel. I'm a firm believer that readership will follow, especially if we hit on those out of the ordinary (whether it be severed heads or murdered dogs) expereinces that really connect to a certain kind of reader. The kind of readers we want to read our stuff.

Pop Culture Nerd said...

Sophie, you know what camp I'm in. I completely agree with Barbara and your friend that you should always go for it, balls to the wall.

As for what line I wouldn't want writers to cross (well, they can cross but I wouldn't/couldn't read it): graphic scenes of what pedophiles do to children. No way I'd be able to handle that.

I love Hilary's slogan. Think I'll put it on a T-shirt. When people embrace the crazy, they'll have to give me a hug!

Kathleen A. Ryan said...

Wonderful post, Sophie. It's always great to hear the behind-the-scenes thought process that other writers go through ~ thanks for sharing your experience.

Congratulations on your new release ~ how exciting! Congrats, also, on your Edgar nomination.

Sometimes we have to push ourselves or have someone else nudge us. Just remember that saying, "what would you do if you knew you could not fail?" and go for it. Try removing any/all self-doubt, which I know is a biggie for most writers (I'm at the top of that list). Or, like Hilary says, "Embrace the crazy" ~ she's right!

Thanks, Joelle, for having Sophie guest post today.

Sophie Littlefield said...

hey joelle - thanks for having me here! And I am very intrigued to see how boundary-pushing works out for you. I read an ice-skating scene or two that had my pulse jumping and I am more than ready to see the same for the other kind of skating!!

Sophie Littlefield said...

oh Hilary my darling twisted sister...I'm putting you on speed dial for whenever I'm worried about veering into "too much" - - mostly because I suspect you'll always say "do it!" I kind of hate to be told NO in case you can't tell. :)

Sophie Littlefield said...

L.J., weren't you and I talking about this very subject a while back? "Pleasing everyone" - and I don't mean to bust anyone's chops because I sure did waste a few decades doing it myself - is one of those things that separates the girls from the women. Said with love to all you girls out there...hang in there, it gets easier.

Sophie Littlefield said...

Carrie, I am *counting* on being seated next to you until we are both dead, which I hope will be a long time and a thousand books from now.

Sophie Littlefield said...

Debra, that's the trick I think....when we're true to ourselves our tribe will find us. My darling Junior told me this morning that one of her friends called her a "badass geek" the other day - we agreed that was just about the nicest compliment a person could receive...so I told her to keep finding her people and stick with them...

Sophie Littlefield said...

Oh PCN, i love your spirit. Believe it or not, I too have lines I won't cross, writing or reading....but I have learned to TRY to keep my mouth shut about them because I feel like my books have offended enough folks that I owe the universe a little ummm, what's the word? Damn, I know there is a word for what I am trying to say. What the hell is it? it's like perspicacity but not.

Sophie Littlefield said...

Hey kathleen - your comment reminded me of this book i keep hearing about (haven't read it and don't even know the title) but i guess these academic researcher types were studying what successful people have in common and it was the WILLINGNESS TO MAKE A S#$TLOAD OF MISTAKES. I loved that. LOVED that! I wish I could go back through my life and whisper in my own ear, "Go for it!"

Neliza said...

I don't watch much TV, but I've seen what's on it. If it can be on TV, why can't it be in books? (And why can't people change the change or skip a couple of pages instead of calling a Congressperson?)

One of Murakami's books has Russians skinning people alive. Carry Me Down has a dad killing kittens. If the plot is good, the characters are well-conceived, and the sex/violence/rock 'n roll makes sense in that context, why would anyone argue?

That said, we let BP get away with murder, surely we can let a crime writer do it.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Joelle, hi Sophie,

Joelle told me I should read A Bad Day For Sorry- she was so right. It was big fun.

I am always being told to "tone down" my writing, but I think it's plain fun to do it your way first- severed heads and all.

Cheers and best of luck with your new book.

Sophie Littlefield said...

Neliza, I was on a panel with a guy a couple of years ago whose work I love but who, I know, has been advised by his editor to tone it down a little to grow readership. I think it's an interesting dilemma to have and I'd respect a person for going either direction. You got kids who need braces, maybe you're going to go a different way than the guy who's living in a cheap apartment with a couple of roommates...

Sophie Littlefield said...

hey Nancy, this is said with respect - it might be possible that the people telling you to tone it down, even if they love you, even if they have your best interests in mind, even if they are in the business - - might be wrong. I have this friend M who's in the same boat and so far I think she's been happy about deciding not to sand off her rough edges...and I think those who love her work, me included, are glad! Good luck....

Steve Weddle said...

Great stuff, Ms Littlefield, and thanks for stopping by and classing up the joint.

The NYT Book Review today mentioned BAD DAY FOR PRETTY. Looking forward to this one. Ah, summer reading.

You keep writin and we'll keep readin.

Sophie Littlefield said...

Steve - thanks to you and all the DSD'ers! I think you have more than enough class in the joint already. :)

Sophie Littlefield said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sophie Littlefield said...

hey Pam - thanks for commenting and I surely do hope you enjoy the book! so funny you mentioned the bookstore cards....today i went to play hooky with my sister and my daughter, and we scrounged up all the gift cards we had lying around so it felt like a "free" outing. yay!

Anonymous said...

Hi Sophie,

A Bad Day for Sorry was a great read! Congrats on your upcoming release - can't wait to read 'Pretty'

Deb G.