Sting expresses dismay at the fact that his song “Every Breath You Take” is interpreted as a love song – he wrote it as a creepy song about a stalker. Green Day expresses amusement at how their tune “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” has become a popular staple at weddings. As one of their friends says, “They wrote it as a ‘(bleep)-You’ song.” And a contributor to Maria Schneider’s excellent Pathetic Geek Stories confesses to tearfully requesting Duran Duran’s “Save A Prayer” be played after the Challenger disaster without realizing that it was a song about a one night stand.
There’s a funny thing that happens out there in the world of human interaction. The message you want to get across might not be the one that your readers receive. And yes, this means that it happens not just to pop songs, but to novels as well.
Once upon a time, I finished a novel that would become my first published book, A Death of Honor. I had one other book under my belt, Desperate Measures, but ADOH was such a quantum leap in my writing that I went for outside help.
My wife has always been my first and best editor. But I was concerned about the fact that, for the first time, two of the three lead characters were female. The only female character of any stature that I’d dealt with up to that point was Dawn, the prostitute in Desperate Measures, and she was the type who beat up one of the main characters during the course of the book (it was Duke – and if you don’t remember this happening, it’s because it was my favorite scene in the manuscript and I ended up cutting it.
So I asked a woman I worked with who was a mystery reader if she’d take a look at it. She was thrilled and, after reading it, convinced me that I’d done a good job of “writing women.”
And that would be the end of the story except for another comment she made. She said, “You must’ve had fun killing off Myra… you did it with such relish.”
That surprised me. I didn’t think killing off Myra was a gleeful sort of thing. In fact, I didn’t tell her that after I wrote that scene, I didn’t write for three days after that. I’d known Myra was going to die for a couple of weeks – in my original outline, she was going to live – but it wasn’t like I’d gotten some kind of sadistic glee in describing her dying in Payne’s arms, her torso dotted with cigarette burns from her torturers.
Any professional writer will tell you that “regular folks” misunderstand a lot about writers and the way they work. After I sold Ferman’s Devils, my immediate boss at a marketing company told me, “Well, you won’t want to work here anymore when all of that money from your book comes rolling in.” Actually, I didn’t want to work there anymore, but it had nothing to do waiting on royalty checks. I tried to explain that for every Tom Clancy or Stephen King, there were a hundred, nay, a thousand Joe Clifford Fausts who still had their day jobs. It didn’t do any good, but that’s a post for another day.
What doesn’t get said is that not only will readers have odd notions about your life as a writer, but they will also misunderstand or interpret your works in ways that you had not intended. Most of the time when you talk with one of their readers, they’ll put an insight or spin on your book that makes your head reel, at which time you can either blush and grin and take credit for your genius, or else say, “Wow, that’s neat. I wish I’d thought of that when I wrote the book!” I’ve done both, depending on who the reader was.
But then you get readers who completely and utterly miss the point of what was going on. I once had a prissy, naive, colleague who got it into her head that she wanted to read one of my books. Considering her background, I deemed ADOH to be the only book to be safe for her – The Company Man was brutal and bleak, the Angel’s Luck books were too “Sci-Fi.” Honor had a track record of doing well with non-SF readers, so I gave her a copy and didn’t look back.
A couple of weeks later – let me say that again – a couple of weeks later she came to me, embarrassed, with a burning question about the book. I figured she had finished it, so I was ready for anything. Anything but what she ended up asking me.
She said, “Well, um, what I need to know is if Payne and Bailey are gay. Because if they are, I’m just not going to be able to finish the book.”
Never mind that in the weeks that had passed she hadn’t made it past the first chapter. I’d had questions from readers before who weren’t clear on this plot point or that concept, but nobody – nobody else had missed the fact that Payne and Bailey were nothing more than bachelors on the prowl.
I told her that no, Payne and Bailey were all-American red-blooded heterosexuals, and put the question behind me. She never got back to me with any more questions. I haven’t seen her in nearly a decade now – for all I know she’s still struggling through the book, probably stymied by the fact that Payne and Trinina had a child but they weren’t married! (which, if I recall, becomes evident in chapter two or three).
There’s nothing you can do about this sort of thing, not if you’ve written your story to the best of your ability. You’re not going to cover everything that could possibly come up in the fertile minds of your readers as they travel through your little world of fiction. You may not even cover everything you thought you covered to build proper suspension of disbelief – if there’s a hole in your plot, someone will find it, and you can only hope that it is someone who can say, “But why didn’t she just call the police on page 13?” in a spirit of gentleness and fun. It helps to be ready for the unexpected, if indeed anyone can.
When it happens to you, just remember: you’re in good company.
Listening: Tom Lehrer, “It Makes A Fellow Proud to be a Soldier (Live)” (via iPod Shuffle)