I don’t usually give writing advice. But sometimes I do.
I have a thing for crime novels, especially those that delve into gritty, gruesome, grimy detail. I couldn’t begin to tell you why. Maybe a trained psychologist could, but I can’t. Since I myself am not trained in any type of law enforcement, nor in criminal or psychological arts, I appreciate it when crime novelists give me a little bit of background information about things like prison life and luminol and psychosexual perversions, as they pertain to the story at hand.
Recently I’ve been reading such a novel, and the author has been very thorough about giving me all of the background information I need to follow the story. I’m not equipped to go out and apprehend an actual serial killer myself, obviously, but I’m knowledgeable enough right now to hang out with these fictional crime solvers as they track down their fictional psychopath. I’m even enjoying the journey. But I was blown right out of the story late last night when the author committed what I personally think is the greatest writing crime of all. Here’s the setup:
Character A, a female forensic scientist, and her lover, Character B – an FBI profiler – have just had an argument over the phone about a personal matter. After they hang up, Character B immediately goes back to examining the series of disgusting crime scene photos he’d been examining before the argument took place, without stopping to digest what the argument had been about or what he might do to patch things up with the love of his life. So far so good. But that’s when the author committed the crime I alluded to earlier. She felt the need to tell me that the guy went right back to work so he wouldn’t have to think about the argument.
I’m quite aware that human beings don’t like to face up to their problems. I realize that they frequently bury them by focusing on something else until they’re ready to deal with them. How do I know this? Because, although I’m not a trained psychologist, I am a human being. I’ve had arguments with the love of my life before. Bad’uns. And afterwards I’ve buried myself in a book or a television program, or a bottle or two too many, so I wouldn’t have to think about the argument until I was ready to do so. Just like you have. Just like every other human being who’s ever been in love before has. So although I appreciate it when an author goes through the trouble of explaining odd criminal behavior to me, I don’t appreciate it when she feels the need to do the same with common human behavior.
I don’t appreciate being treated like a dummy.
As you work your way through your novels, whatever the genre, don’t commit the crime of treating your readers like dummies. Trust yourself. Trust your talent. Trust your reader.
Originally posted at Publishing Renaissance on February 25, 2009.