Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Killer Stays in the Picture

On Saturday I got my fourth rejection for the crazy robot story. It was returned even before two weeks had passed. In the case of this magazine, which ought to have a frustratingly slow reading process as befits its venerable reputation, and which is on the opposite coast, this speedy postal no is pretty embarrassing. A slush reader at a prominent genre magazine and a reader I like and trust a great deal both told me I should have no trouble placing this story, but I am having trouble. And I have this theory about why.

I wish I could remember the source of this insight, but at some point in the couple of years after college, I heard that most fledgling filmmakers make their first movie about a killer. Hollywood, scouting for new directors, does not want to see film-school shorts about serial killers, because they see too many of them. (I think it's kind of like "it was all a dream" to end a story - oh, honey, no.) I was startled, because indeed, the final short film I made in my senior-year production class was about a killer. Had I so little imagination?

Making mediocre movies about killers is easy, I guess. Not only can you truck in cliches and superlatives, but the stakes are automatically high. How many will die? Will s/he get caught, or escape? Creating tension in such a situation is hardly difficult.

The crazy robot story - spoilers - ends up with the crazy robot becoming a killer of humans, because he, uh, goes crazy. His madness is about exclusion from being human, and since the character thinks in terms of inferiority and superiority, he decides that (certain) humans are inferior and don't deserve to live. I'm proud of the killin' climax of the story, I truly am, but the thing I'm beginning to wonder is if I need to take the murder out of it. Because isn't it just another killer story? A situation where I've inflated the stakes to make things easy on me, rather than taking the hard way in and evoking the robot's struggle without such all-or-nothing tension?

Killing and other grievous harm happens pretty often in my stories, but until now I haven't considered in detail whether this is a matter of laziness rather than affinity. Perhaps I should be assembling plots with purposely lower stakes, stories that create interesting conflicts without the glitz of murder. But murder interests me. Serial killers interest me. Not because they're easy to write about (the good ones aren't), but because I find them alien and fascinating. A lot more fascinating than writer-main characters who can't seem to bed the girl or frustrated Flaubert-reading housewives dreamed up by male MFA grads.

Like anything else in writing, you can probably do whatever you want as long as you do it really goddamn well. But I imagine a lot of slush readers would pick up my crazy robot story and say, no matter its quality, oh jeez, another dang killer story, haven't we had enough of these? And that makes me wonder if I should just steer away from what actually interests me, challenge myself by writing about small quiet conflicts instead. Hopefully I wouldn't be doing this to write to the market, but instead to push myself in new directions. Those subjects just sound so stale, so inert, compared to what I most enjoy.

What do you think? Can "it was all a dream" stories work if they're that good? Are serial killers too commonplace, too easy, for a medium-good writer like me to try and pass them off?


Anonymous said...

Of course, there is always Occum's Razor. Based on examples from previous blogs, it's most likely the quality of writing that earns the myriad rejections, not the convoluted rationalizations you present here to protect your ego.

Bret Hays said...

As Don Draper once said, “the most important idea in advertising is ‘new.’ ” Stories about killers, robots, and killer robots have been done to death (pardon the expression). In part this is because they are what readers are willing to pay for, but as a writer seeking establishment, that doesn't get you very far.

Unless you find a way to make that kind of story truly new. For example, Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter Morgan: very few readers had heard of, or thought of, a serial killer of serial killers. Toss in some dark humor and the additional dramatic tension of the main character working a day job in the police department and the stories practically write themselves, and the readers line up for something both innovative and familiar.

“Just a dream” doesn’t count as a story.

So what innovation can you offer readers/the market that improves upon the way theses tired stories are told? Maybe explore the notion of “a fate worse than death.” Or a kind of killer, or a motivation for killing, that no one has considered before. What about someone who kills by framing people for murder in a death-penalty state? What about a robot who “gets religion” and believes it’s doing people a favor by sending them to heaven?

Katharine Coldiron said...

@Bret, yeah, something old in a new way does seem to be the key to the kingdom. That was what I tried to do with the crazy robot story: he doesn't just go crazy and kill, he also implants human organs into his robot self. He's grandiose and paranoid and obsessed with human weakness. I figured that was a more interesting angle than just a robot whose chips go down, as it were, and he goes on a rampage.

It's possible that what seemed new to me is in fact old, or that I didn't differentiate as much as I think I did. But it's also possible that I should just stay away from stories about killers in any form for the foreseeable future.