Friday, February 25, 2011

The Artist Conundrum with Guest Blogger: Karen McCullough

Meet mystery author Karen McCullough today at the Book Boost.

Here's what she had to say...

Authors – Are We Artists or Content Producers?

Some days my mind isn’t really interested in doing the hard work of extracting a story from my brain and splashing it across a computer screen. At those times, my brain meanders in odd directions. A day or so ago, while it was refusing to ponder the next jam my heroine would be getting herself into, the odd thought that is the title of this post passed through.

At first glance, the answer is: we are both. The two shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, should they? Why can’t an author be both artist and content producer? When we write, we strive to fulfill our own unique vision in the words we set down, but at the same time we very much want to see our work spread out and be widely read.

And there’s the rub, by golly. Most writers know there are times when what we want to write is over-ruled by our brains telling us, “You can’t do that.”

Why not? Because the book won’t sell if I do it.

There are rules about what you can and can’t do in novels. Not just the rules of the language, grammar and usage, but genre conventions as well. Romances require a satisfying outcome to the main relationship. Mysteries must show that justice is served in the end. Thrillers had better have you on the edge of your seat with suspense.

But there are unwritten rules as well. Major outbreaks of violence and gore are okay in horror, but not in most other genres. And no matter what the genre, you don’t kill the dog.

I write primarily to entertain—first myself and then others. And I really do want others to enjoy the stories I tell. That implies the need for some self-censoring. Of course, all story-telling is self-censoring in a way. We pick and choose which details and events to tell and which to leave out in order to create the most vivid image possible in the readers’ minds. So it shouldn’t be hard to leave out the things no one wants to read.

But sometimes the story seems to demand some of those things.

In the book I’ve recently republished in a Kindle edition, A Question of Fire, I have a scene where the bad guy (and he really is a nasty customer!) captures the heroine and wants information from her. I debated for a long time what I could reasonably have him to do to her. And even that turned out to be too much for my test readers. The story as finally published had the guy beat her up a bit and threaten her a lot more, before she finally caves in and tells him what he wants to know. (But she has a plan! Yes, she tells him the truth, but she figures out a way to use that information to defeat him. No, I’m not going to tell you. You’ll have to buy the book to find out what she does.)

Anyway, back to the scene. I had to make some trade-offs. It probably diluted the nastiness of my villain to tone down his actions, but it made the story more readable. Or maybe it didn’t, since I’d already showed that this villain had tortured another character for the same information, though that was all done off-stage.

I had a dilemma of a similar sort with my current release, A Gift for Murder. The original manuscript had a scene I liked very much where my heroine observed some artwork that was in one of the booths at the trade show and was struck by the way some artists deceived the viewers, suggesting things that weren’t true or weren’t quite what they seemed.

I thought the scene had a lot of philosophical resonance with the fundamental nature of trade shows, marketing, selling, and also covering up murders. My very good editor had a different take on it. The scene didn’t really say much about the character, slowed the pace, and didn’t advance the plot at all. She was right, of course, and so it came out. The scene is on my website now for anyone who might want to read it. (Go to the book page for A Gift for Murder and click on the “Deleted Scene” link.)

In both cases, my “artistic” sense of the story included scenes that I strongly felt should be in the book. But that bumped up against editors/beta readers who had other opinions. Guess whose opinions carried?

I want others to read my books and enjoy them. I want readers to enjoy them so much they’ll buy all of my stories. Whatever artistic vision I might have (and I don’t delude myself into thinking I write great literature) can and will work through what stays in the story. That’s good enough for me.

A Note from the Book Boost: Karen, I appreciate your take on this topic. How we (as authors) end up editing our work in order to make it work in the marketplace is probably much different than what we'd end up with if it was left entirely up to us. Whether the "industry" or the "artist" is right will probably never be truly decided. Thanks for joining us today. Please tell us more about your book.


When Cathy Bennett agrees to attend an important party as a favor for her boss, she knows she won't enjoy it. But she doesn't expect to end up holding a dying man in her arms and becoming the recipient of his last message. Bobby Stark has evidence that will prove his younger brother has been framed for arson and murder. He wants that evidence to get to his brother's lawyer, and he tries to tell Cathy where he's hidden it. But he dies before he can give her more than a cryptic piece of the location.

The man who killed Bobby saw him talking to her and assumes she knows where the evidence is hidden. He wants it back and he'll do whatever it takes to get it, including following her and trying to kidnap her.

Cathy enlists the aid of attorney Peter Lowell and Danny Stark, Bobby's prickly, difficult younger brother, as well as a handsome private detective to help her find the evidence before the killers do.


(NOTE: This is a different excerpt from the one on my website. It’s from a scene well into the book that shows a lot about the characters. One name is starred out to prevent spoilers.)

Peter shook his head, then drew her close and squeezed her briefly against his body. He glanced back up the hill at the rock that had been home to them last night. "How's Danny?"

"Still asleep. He needs it. I don't know how he kept going as long as he did."

"I don't either." His eyes narrowed and darkened. "This morning I put the windbreaker back around him. I saw... burns on his arms. And those weren't all scratches from bushes."

She nodded in answer to his unspoken question. His green eyes blazed with a rage akin to what she'd felt last night when she'd seen the marks on the boy. Still felt when she thought about it.

"Who did it?" he asked in a cold, tight voice.

"I don't know. ***** probably; if he didn't do it himself, it was his idea, and he gave the orders."

"Damn him." Peter clenched his hands as though wishing the man's neck was in his grip. "I'd like to have fifteen minutes alone with him." He grinned wryly. "I know—unorthodox sentiments from an upholder of the law. Still, what I’d like to do to him right now isn't legal."

He looked out over the hill, into the distance, but he wasn't seeing the landscape. The bright fury in his face faded into that familiar brooding look as he stood still and quiet. Cathy thought she knew what he wrestled with and didn't have the words to help him. She could love him for the loyalty that inspired his overactive sense of responsibility, yet still be appalled by its effects on him. Was that what Danny saw in him, one of the things that inspired his admiration? Possibly. If it took one to know one, Danny should certainly recognize it in someone else.

The irony of the situation struck her and she laughed aloud at the humor of it. Distracted by the sound, Peter turned a questioning glance on her.

"It's my weird sense of humor again. Look, we're a fine trio of guilty consciences." She tried to stifle the laughter that made it difficult to talk. "You feel guilty about pushing Danny into hasty action. Danny feels guilty because his words put us in danger, and, worse yet, because he couldn't hold out against their torture and threats. And I have to learn to live with my mistakes. I never should have trusted *****. If I'd reported what happened last Friday and gotten the police involved... Who knows? And if I hadn't stopped you from talking to Danny right away last Saturday, none of this might have happened."

"The thing is," she continued, "we're the victims here! The villain is wandering around the countryside, killing, kidnapping, and torturing without a single qualm, except about how he's going to get back that incriminating book."

Peter listened with stunned amusement, then started to laugh also as she finished. He sat on the side of the hill and wrapped his arms around his knees, still shaking with mirth. For an unguarded moment, his face was bright, vivid, and handsome, lit by his own amusement and the morning sun.

A painful twisting somewhere inside made Cathy back away a step. Unfortunately, when she put her foot down, something, probably a pine cone, unbalanced her. She fell backwards, painfully and embarrassingly. Peter stopped laughing and came to her. In response to his query, she shook her head, denying any discomfort. He was too observant to be fooled, but wise enough not to push it. He helped her get back on her feet.

Want More Karen?

Karen McCullough is the author of ten published novels in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres and has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy. She’s also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards contests. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. Her most recent release is A GIFT FOR MURDER, published in hardcover by Five Star/Gale Group Mysteries.

Visit her website here:

Pick up a copy of her book today! Click here.

1 comment:

Karen said...

HI Kerri -- Thanks for having me on the Book Boost BLog!