Writing for Adults

Over at Mad Genius Club today there is a discussion of “What are the Hard Limits for Writing?” James Young makes a very good point about what are no-goes for writers today, above and beyond personal brick-wall-hard limits. He’s discussing adult fiction, although there are some overlaps with other age groups. One absolutely hard and fast rule: You cannot kill the dog (or cat, or hamster, or pet pony. Warhorses are a little different.*) Pets are off-limits, although I’ve read horror stories where this rule is broken – and then the pet comes back in some form to get even. Interestingly, this rule also applies to movies. In one of the scenes in the original Robocop, a thug murders one of the young (slimy) business executives. But first he takes the guy’s pet cat with him, and the shot clearly shows the cat departing with said thug. The director was taking no chances.

My limits are a little different from J. Y.’s although we overlap a great deal. In terms of genres, noir and horror just don’t work for me at all. I’ve tried them, and one chapter in the third Cat book is as close as I’ve managed to come to horror and still have the story work. The lurking unknown evil just doesn’t suit me, or vice versa.

With the partial exception of Rada Ni Drako, I don’t kill off families. Even in her case her half-brother and his mate and offspring were still alive when she last left Ka’atia. I suspect that even if the world weren’t under interdict, she would not go back. It’s important for her sanity that she can imagine that he’s still alive and happy. Accidents happen, disease happens, but killing off someone’s entire bloodline and forcing them to watch? No.

By now most readers have also noticed that I don’t write graphic sex. I can’t. I tried, once or twice. The results were lousy and not in an Attack of the Killer Tomatoes funny-bad sort of way. My mind just doesn’t go there convincingly. The scene turns into something worthy of the list of “How Not to Write Sex Scenes” that a romance writer produced.

Drugs? Not for the protagonist, at least not until either my Muse decides to sandbags me or the fad for “conflicted, drug-addicted protagonist on mean streets/ in suburbia/tormented artist” dies out in various genres.

Pointless death? No. And I include “secondary minor character we’ve come to like who gets spaced along with 283 other crewmen” in that list. *Glares in the direction of a Certain Well Known Author*

Ditto chronic diseases for the sake of chronic diseases and angst. YA books about chronic disease, literary fiction about cancer or mental illness . . . enough already. Yes, Rada is developing a form of autoimmune problem from the very nanotech that keeps her mostly functional (she suspects it but she’d not going to admit it to herself yet), and that may or may not come up at some point in the stories. She’s more likely to get done-in by a jealous business rival or cheezed-off Azdhag. Otherwise no.

Rape and sexual assault? Must be major, driving plot elements, not “oh, hey, let’s torture a character just to remind everyone that Sweeny McNasty’s a bad guy.” And off stage, always off stage. That is an absolute hard wall, red flag, no, not on camera ever point for me. It is too life-changing, too brutal and vile to happen lightly or in front of the reader. Or for me as a writer.

The worlds I write about are not sheltered spaces populated by soft fuzzy kittens and sweet-tempered unicorns in gardens of hypoallergenic flowers where blue birds sing. War, fighting, loss, death, fear, pain, love, hope, courage, honor, faith, those are all elements of what I write. Why? Because they are part of the world I live in, and the world my readers live in. But I don’t have to wallow in the dark side, to present grim/dark/hopeless/vicious just for its own sake. There are places inside me, as a writer and person, where I do not need to go. I know what lurks in the depths and shadows, and how close I’ve come to some ugly moments and deeds. That’s a beast I do not need to feed.

*If you are writing a children’s book about grief and coping with the loss of a pet, that’s an entirely different thing. And even there you don’t kill the pet. It always succumbs to old age.

11 thoughts on “Writing for Adults

      • Since most of the time your characters, ah, came back for seconds shall we say, no, your sex scenes weren’t bad. I had a particular “adult western” novel in mind when I was thinking of gratuitous assaults (and later on, badly-written nookie. I quit the book before the author had the chance for a trifecta).

  1. I write just enough to let the readers use their OWN imagination to fill out the sex scenes…LOL. Re James’ other rules, I only violated 2 of 10 so far, so I think I’m still good… 🙂

  2. Some of the rules don’t really work for realistic war stories, of course. Then again, a realistic war story belongs in the horror section. I can’t begin to count how many puppies and dogs we shot. Hundreds? Then again, they generally weren’t pets, but ferals. And you wouldn’t believe the casual, evil depravity that is normal over in the sandbox.

    Generally, war stories need to leave out the details, or just offer a view of one short period of time. I like how you handle the subject in the Elizabeth series. The worst of things happen off stage.

    • Oh, I agree. War stories are a different kettle of fish by their very nature, and I’ve read accounts and diaries that very few fiction publishers would touch.

      The little I’ve seen of human depravity up close and all too personal, and as much as I’ve read about history, inclines me to believe a great deal. That’s in part why I decided that my readers don’t need to have 17th century warfare, especially as practiced on the Eastern Marches, presented in Technicolor.


  3. By “Eastern Marches” do you mean the Holy Roman Empire’s southeastern frontiers, where they and the Ottoman Turks rubbe dup against each other? I don’t recall encountering the term before, so I am guessing based upon context.

  4. Thanks. Now I’ve learned something today. The fluidity of the borders in that region, and the frequency of raids and battles, and the taking of slaves, does seem to involve much marching.

    • March (Marche?) is a term for a territory, sub division, or feudal holding that is set up to defend or hold a contested border. The person formally in charge may be titled a warden.

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