Several years ago I wrote a couple murder mysteries. Had an agent, had an interested editor, and had a suitable publisher. Then the reality of e-books arrived. Soon thereafter, my agent departed for Europe, my editor was fired, and my (might-have-been) publisher gave up on crime fiction.
Was I discouraged?
So I did the rational, responsible, adult thing. I put the manuscripts. . . away and got on with other stuff. But those stories kept ticking in my head, and finally I transferred them to a computer writing program, converted them to e-book format, and put them on line for sale.
My protagonist was what I called an accidental detective: no training, no wish to solve crimes, but a flair for being in a bad place at an awkward time, with a strong sense of responsibility. He could not stop himself from digging in and trying to identify and neutralize a serial killer.
Strange to say, I sold a few copies. And by a few I mean not enough to rouse the suspicions of the IRS. Not enough, in fact, to rouse their awareness. Still, I had several positive reviews, none of which I wrote myself or paid for. Along the way, however, something else kept nagging at me. Even as I was writing the first draft of each book, I had to kill off several people.
You see the problem.
Perhaps you don’t.
The problem was this. To make the stories work, to abide by dicta of the genre, I had to kill off — total in the two books — seven people. And that’s not counting bad guys who got their comeuppance. Just innocent folk who were in the wrong place, or wearing the wrong clothes, or speaking with the wrong accent, at the wrong time.
Okay, they were fictional characters. Figments of my imagination. I tried, in those first drafts, to give them identities, lives of their own. But the fact was, they were interchangeable plot contrivances; there wasn’t time to bring them to life before having them killed. So in succeeding drafts I gave them almost no identity at all. They were little more than off-stage references.
And that’s how the books went for sale on line, and how they sold those few copies. And how they might still be selling a few now and again. But those fictional innocent nonentities continued to bother me. I had killed seven perfectly innocent unsuspecting human beings, without having given them lives, with never a “pardon me” or “by your leave.”
Writers have killed off their subjects for as long as people have handed down narratives of human life. Abel. Patroclus. The list never ends. But in the good ones, which is to say, in those stories which hold us, which engross us, which stay with our culture, either the victim or the killer — most often, both — has time in the narrative to come to life, to make us understand motives and pain, desires and vengeance.
No such features in my books. And so I put them aside. Better to kill an ordinary book than to kill an ordinary person, even an imaginary one, who never was given real life.
[NOTE: This is preliminary to a post, tomorrow or Wednesday, in which I try to come to grips with our violent society.]