(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?