Unkilling more people in Saint Justice – 2020 Writing Week 23

Mike GristWeekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

This week I got a fascinating review for Saint Justice:

“Captivating, enthralling. I finished the book. Quite an amazing study of human attitudes and behaviors. However, for this reader there was just too much violence. Not at all certain I will read the next. For sure I need a bit of time before considering it.”

It was a 3-star review. You wouldn’t think so from those first two lines, right? Captivating, enthralling. That’s good, no?

Then, the violence let it down. God damn the damn violence!!

I wrote a post on the Self-Publishing Formula Facebook page on this topic:

Age rating on thrillers

I’ve been getting some reviews highlighting the violence of my conspiracy/vigilante thrillers. I’m still relatively new to the thriller genre – and maybe being used to watching 18 or R action movies, and things like Game of Thrones, I tend to think a lot of violence and such is normal.

Yeah, so maybe it’s not that way in these genres.

I read a thriller writing advice book that said – ‘Go to the end of the line’ – and put that into practise. I guess the end of the line I see is too far…

Do other authors of thrillers grade themselves to like an 18 / R certificate? A PG15? I’d love to hear what Mark Dawson thinks and does with his thrillers – especially as he worked in the BBFC…

Well – it got some good responses. A lot of people telling me to just write what I want to write, which is nice but not terribly helpful. With Wren it’s the social issues I want to get across, not the graphicness of the violence. Talking about this with other folks made me think about it more seriously.

I went to the BBFC site and read through classification discussions of previous movies. I read about how they gave Die Hard an 18 (low 18, largely for footage of knees getting shot out), how Pulp fiction got an 18 (solidly 18, but more for the scenes of enjoyingdrug taking than the violence), and others.

It was fascinating. I learned that the factors that turn viewers off and make a movie head toward an R instead of an 18, moving into ‘transgressive territory’. It’s things like sadism, whether it’s goodies or baddies enjoying the pain, gory and graphic detail, shots lingering on violence, slow motion that makes violence look cool, blood, death that feels real.

They made fascinating points that, because James Bond dispatches bad guys with a casual one-liner, that death is not as bad. It gets lighter, or his charisma carries the day somehow. The damage seems less.

In Wren I’m always talking about damage – mental and physical. There is some injury detail. Perhaps worst of all, there are times when the horrible stuff piles up. It used to be, after Wren gets taken captive, that he watches first Abdul, then Henry, then Demeter, then Mason, then Sinclair die in a row. Horribly. Tortures didn’t occur on the page, but the scars they left were described. Conceptually, it was super dark.

I’ve already been grading this violence down. Still though I’m getting comments that people like the book, but the violence and intensity makes them not want to read anymore.

I talked to Brad, in my marketing group, and he gave me some tips after reading some of Saint Justice. We talked about different genres of thrillers, and it was really elucidating.

I’m writing Espionage, Conspiracy, Vigilante thrillers. For this genre, Jack Reacher is at the darker end. A few people die. We won’t see much blood. I, on the other hand, have been writing following the advice I read in a how-to-write-thrillers book, which was heavy on James Patterson examples and offered the advice – ‘go to the end of the line’.

So I did. but James Patterson writes serial killer thrillers – and those can be incredibly dark and horrible. They’re both thrilers, but they’re different genres. If I want to hit my genre properly, which the cover does, I need to follow genre convention and not keep turning people off.

So, what have I done:

  • I unkilled Demeter. This was actually really easy. He got killed so the Alpha could make a point, on top of another point – but honestly, the first point was shocking enough. It’s cleaner now, less horrible, and nobody will miss his death (or even his reappearance – he was never much of a character anyway).
  • I graded instances of blood and violence further. In the fight with the road captain, Wren broke the guy’s finger in the struggle for the gun. Now he doesn’t. In the fight with the assassin, Wren put him in camel clutch and strained his neck, resulting in the guy’s death. This was unnecessary – so I unkilled this bad guy, and jus thad Wren use camel clutch as a submission tool.
  • References to Cheryl and Teddy’s vampirism and cannibalism reduced.
  • I added more light notes. Wren barely spoke to Henry and Abdul when they arrived, now they have a funny bit of awkward patter. A bit more with Alli and various others. Through the end the humor dissipates, but I think that’s OK, as stakes get intense.

Will this do the job? I hope so. Next up is probably book 2. I’m hopeful I already graded this enough, but maybe I’ll need to take another look. Book 3 probably needs it too.

Oh, I got some other great feedback about book 2, from a beta reader, commenting on issues that strained credibility:

  • Wren skydived after only ever doing 3 basejumps before, fell from 20,000 feet which is too cold and too oxygenless to do without special gear, flew at terminal velocity for too long, and saw people from 5,000 feet, when they would not be visible. Excellent stuff, and all fixed now.
  • Wren bought a ticket for a plane only 30 minutes later, gave sass through customs and faced no problems, had time to buy a coffee and still boarded first and got off first, with no warnings about electronic devices once. This is sily stuff for me to get wrong, so I fixed all these.

A couple of others. I always appreciate getting feedback. I wish I’d had all this feedback before I made the audiobooks, but whatever, I wasn’t to know. Now I have audio which is darker, and ebooks which are lighter. It’s fine.

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