Friday, September 26, 2008


“We see the effects, but not the incidents themselves … We as writers would do well to absorb this lesson: Violence, like sex, is strongest when it’s implied, not shown.” William Kowalski (The Writer, August 2008)

As a connoisseur of movies, I admit that when it comes to a choice between watching a Dirty Harry flick and watching Beaches, I usually pick one that promises to make my day. After all, a man has got to know his limitations, and I feel lucky watching a story that will have me clutching the armrest with white knuckles. This is not to say that I avoid Kleenex movies. It’s A Wonderful Life is one of my favorites. But when I want to escape, I tend to do so with a bag of popcorn, an extra-large Dr. Pepper and plenty of gunfire on the screen.

It’s probably no surprise, then, that I paused when I found the quote above while playing catch-up with my magazine reading. What's the point of subscribing if you're not going to read? The context of the comment above is about violence as part of the background, setting the mood and tension for the entire story. The author uses The Great Gatsby as an example. Though F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is still on my Books-To-Read list, I think I understand Kowalski’s point. Violence in the form of war, and the physical problems it left on the character of Jake Barnes, definitely shaped the background of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. It helped the reader to understand Jake’s frustration, and what drove him to drink so much. Yet, when I look at book sales, and who is on top of the markets, I still ask the question: is violence stronger when it’s implied?

I think the answer depends on the audience. If the author's target is the literary market, maybe violence can be avoided. If the market is horror, he may not get a large audience without it. As an avid reader of Dean Koontz and Elmore Leonard, I have come to expect violence and would be disappointed if either one left out the key ingredient.

Granted, just like sex scenes, an author can take things too far. Some time back, my brother and I were talking about movies. I still remember the words when he described a movie I had not seen. “It had a lot of yeah-right moments.” Enough said. I scratched it off my list. The same experience can happen when reading, or even listening, as was the case just last week. On a whim, I decided to listen to a free audio book available through the internet. The first chapter started out well. The author had my attention. Even though the violence was graphic, I still kept listening. By the second chapter, however, all hope diminished. The deal breaker came when the author crossed the boundaries with one of those yeah-right moments. Using an ax, the character severed both of his legs below the knee … using only one swipe for each leg. Now, I’m not a doctor. I have never been to medical school. But common sense tells me it just might take more than one whack to severe your own leg, especially when the probabilities are high that you will hit either the femur or the tibia in the process. To paraphrase Senator Clinton, I knew it would take a willful suspension of disbelief to continue. I didn't.

Just like sex scenes, violence is one of those areas that should be avoided if you don’t know how. I like Tess Gerritsen's approach (The Writer, September 2008). “I’m not so good at depicting violence,” she said. The gruesomeness in my books is always after the fact. I have investigators walk into the scene, see what’s left behind, and try to imagine the crime.” As one of her readers, I did not have to experience the violence in real time. My stomach churned just as much after-the-fact.

To be fair, the reason I included the first part of Kowalski’s point above (We see the effects, but not the incidents themselves) is to agree with him on one level, and then make a point of my own. A crime or horror writer doesn’t have to risk a yeah-right moment when all the reader sees is the aftermath. The reader can visualize for herself what happened, and the violence will be just as powerful. Stephen King did this extremely well during a scene in The Dark Half, where an unsuspecting landlord pays a visit to a tenant who has just been murdered. The scene actually made me hold my breath for a moment.

Is violence necessary? Not if it doesn’t fit your market. If it does, which is often the case in my writing, an author who doesn’t know how to depict violence can create just as much of an impact by showing the results. It would be better to write around the violent act than to lose a reader through a yeah-right moment.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


Tuesday afternoon, while sitting in the cab of my supervisor's truck somewhere in the middle of Dalhart, Texas, my BlackBerry buzzed my hip. Looking down, I saw that I just received the e-mail notice I had been waiting for, and my world turned lighter as I read the words, We're Live! My flash fiction "Beyond The Pale" is now officially published, and you can find a link for it over on the sidebar of my blog.

This now gives me the opportunity to write about a couple of issues.

Back in the summer of 2000, due to symptoms of pregnancy induced hypertension, a condition that can lead to serious consequences for both a mother and her baby, the doctors admitted my wife to the hospital and delivered our first born. At only thirty-three weeks in the womb, and weighing three pounds eight ounces at birth, our son spent the first two weeks of his life in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit). One day, my wife and I visited our son during feeding time and struggled with getting him to burp. Naturally, since it was our first, and a premature baby at that, we became alarmed at the slightest little thing. When we asked for a suggestion, however, one of the nurses simply replied, "Persevere."

More than eight years have passed since then, and that one line still resonates with me. As with most new things in life, the principle is the same for writing. When you're stuck in the middle of that story, trying to find your way to the end, persevere. When you're looking for the right lines in the dialogue, persevere. When you're trying to get published...

I took that principle to heart with this latest piece, "Beyond The Pale." I originally submitted it as a short story to a writing contest. It didn't make the cut. I then submitted it for publication to an e-zine. They turned it down. Then, I took a lesson I learned from Heather Sellers, author of Page after Page and Chapter after Chapter. She believes that rejections are opportunities to see your story in a new way. So, I sat down, tweaked my flash fiction a little more and sent it out again. I don't know about three times being the charm, but in this case I didn't give up on the story, and the third try found the right fit between the editor, the story and me.

And what a right fit it has been between the editor and me. In my experience with editors, I can say, with an eye of objectivity I believe, that Jake Freivald is the best editors I have worked with, and not because he chose to publish my piece. When it came time to work on some edits, he presented his position, laying out the reasons why something needed to be changed. In each case, his objective was not to make the story different, but to improve it while holding on to its spirit.

This brings me to another issue: editing. I remember working with some people on the Writer's Digest Forum, who appeared to have a wall up to anything. No matter how persuasive a person's comment had been, the author continually argued against any change. I can understand an author knowing his/her story, and holding fast on a certain issue, but I failed to see the merit in arguing every case. The attitude led me to ask why the story had been submitted in the first place. Was it only to receive pats on the back? To say, look at this, see how great I am, come learn from me? One of the lessons I took away from the WD Forum was to always be open to suggestions. Nobody has it right all the time. Another lesson I learned is that this business of writing is...well, to use a cliché, when it comes to writing and editing: it's nothing personal, it's just business. In my case, I saw Jake Freivald's points as an opportunity to learn something new--about the craft of writing and the business of publication.

To Jake Freivald, I hold up my glass. Thank you for teaching me. Thank you for seeing my story for what it was.

And now that the disco ball has stopped spinning, and the last bottle of champagne has been uncorked, it's time to get back to another story that continues to whine at me like a spoiled child. Sometimes, stories are just like that. They beg, they plead, the whimper and moan, as if they're entitled to my time, to getting their way. Often, they are right.