Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Mayhem, Malice, or Sweetness


Terry here. Our topic this week is about our essential writing intention: whether we write from the good, the bad, or the ugly. And whether we consider one more marketable that another. 

I love to read a well-written book full of mayhem and nasty characters. Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog is a case in point. It's one of my all-time favorite crime novels. It held my interest from the first page to the end hundreds of pages later. Some of the characters were mobsters, members of the mafia, and prostitutes. Those were the good guys!  You know you’re reading “ugly” when members of the mafia are easier to root for than most other characters in the book. And I’m sure the book was a wild commercial success. 

Does that mean “ugly” books are more marketable? Not necessarily. There’s a market for every mood. Lori Rader-day has had huge success with her psychological thrillers. Yes, there are bad guys, but not truly ugly. I gravitate towards reading those books more than the sweetness and light ones. But then you get to Cartriona McPherson's delightful Dandy Gilver series. Books like those work for me  because they have a solid sense of humor. 

One thing not asked in the question was the marketability of humor. Humor is very hard to do well. But I think most successful books have moments of humor. Even the ones with really ugly characters usually have humor--sardonic, cynical, but funny in their place.


But that’s reading. Writing is different. I can write sneaky meanness, and psychological mayhem, but ugly, not so much. I write about an older chief of police in a small town who has a sense of justice and integrity, and feels a keen responsibility for the well-being of the town of Jarrett Creek, Texas. I have written some tough scenes, some hard scenes with “bad” characters, but they’re usually bad because of circumstances, not because of inherent evil. 

 The closest I got to ugly was in book #7, A Reckoning in the Back Country, which involved the heinous “sport” of dog fighting. I knew my readers wouldn’t be any more keen than I was to get into the details of dog fighting, but if I’m going to write about small-town, rural Texas, I have to include the less savory elements. To be true to the reality of dog-fighting, I had to get grittier than I normally do. One of my beta readers chided me because in an early draft I’d shied away from graphic details. She said, “You can’t write about dog fighting and not show a dog fight.” Period. I solved it in a way that I thought worked really well—I had Samuel remember in his childhood when his less-than-stellar father had taken him to a dogfight. The scene is blurred through the vision of childhood, but is still an ugly scene. My readers let me know that I skirted the edge, but didn’t go too far. 

I also used another trick to soften the ugly. I gave Samuel Craddock a puppy. Dusty is now his faithful dog—well, mostly faithful. His favorite person is deputy Maria Trevino. 
So at bottom, I suppose you could say I write from the “good,” but there’s a problem with that. Often, about halfway through writing a manuscript I realize I’ve made every character too “nice.” They’re friendly, happy, cheery, nice to each other. I always have to go back and give them a dose of reality. It simply isn’t realistic for everybody but the “baddie” to be oh-so-sweet. Even nice people can sometimes be cranky, sneaky, secretive, miserly, gossipy…etc. What I hope to accomplish is to give people a read that includes realistic attitudes, problems, and solutions. Sometimes reality is ugly; but sometimes it’s also good. 

 To answer the question, I write a mixture of the good, the bad, and the occasional ugly. With humor thrown in. 

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