Writers’ Ten Commandments #7: Adultery

This series is about breaking the ten commandments in your writing—doing to your characters, or having them do, things you’d never want anyone to do to you.

Commandment #7: You shall not commit adultery.

You knew it was coming to this. The biggie. For some reason, speculation on which is beyond the scope of this blog post, Western culture before the sixties, and Christian culture even now, seems to regard the seventh commandment as the be-all and end-all of all commandments. (Never mind that Christ said “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself” holds that distinction.) Adultery is seen as the sin of sins.

For this reason, presumably, those writing and publishing for a Christian market tend to shy away from it in fiction. Gina Holmes has taken a lot of flak for her excellent novel, Dry as Rain, because she deals with adultery head-on. I myself was told my first novel would never work for CBA because the main character has sex with someone she isn’t married to. The book doesn’t condone this activity at all—but it’s still taboo in CBA.

Frankly, folks, if you declare upfront that you’re not going to allow any adultery or fornication in your fiction—even off stage—you’re losing a terrific opportunity. Some of the greatest novels of Western literature focus on adultery. Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, The Scarlet Letter, Doctor Zhivago, The End of the Affair—the list could go on and on.

The thing about adultery is that it touches on some of the deepest emotions we know: love, lust, guilt, betrayal. Adultery can shake the very foundations of not just one life, but many. It ripples out to all the lives around it. Like death, adultery, if properly handled, can give your novel tremendous emotional power.

Am I suggesting you should write about adultery as if it were okay? Not remotely. Not only would this be untrue, it would eviscerate the subject and turn it into just one more plot point. Write about adultery in all its shattering wickedness. Make sure—as Tolstoy did so powerfully in Anna Karenina—your readers understand that adultery will destroy not only their lives, but their souls.

And who knows? It’s possible that in the writing, you’ll exorcise from your own soul a quiet little demon who’s been whispering temptations in your ear.

Artistic Adultery

Now to flip the coin. There is another kind of adultery I see far too often, and it grieves me. All around me I see writers who have betrayed their first love and are flirting with, or have completely given themselves to, a false lover called The Market.

I’m going to step on some toes now, so I ask your forgiveness ahead of time. I’m not targeting anyone personally. I know every writer has reasons for what he or she chooses to write. But just let me rant for a minute.

If you are a true writer, if you were born with that in you which can find expression through fiction and no other way, then you will have certain stories within you that need to be told. These stories may or may not fit into the rather narrow confines of “what the market is looking for right now.”

Let’s trace the career of a hypothetical writer—call her Griselda. She begins by writing the stories that are clamoring to be told, only to be informed by seemingly callous agents and editors, “That kind of thing doesn’t sell.” She is writing in the first place because she wants to communicate, and communication has to be two-way—it requires a reader. So she puts her dreams on the shelf to be called for later and tries to fit her inner stories into the Genre of the Moment—whether it’s Amish zombie romance or coming-of-age dragon stories or paranormal pickle people.

Let’s say Griselda succeeds, at least well enough for the demands of the genre. Her books sell, so the publisher pressures her to write more of the same. Until the Genre of the Moment changes, and then she is expected to change with it.

Griselda hoped when she first sold herself to The Market that one day she would be able to return to her first love. But if she’s successful selling the Genre of the Moment, her publisher will be reluctant to allow her to branch out into something untried. And if she isn’t that successful, she’ll have even less chance of selling her publisher on a book that has no built-in sales guarantee.

At some point, the dead feeling in the center of Griselda’s chest—which she felt but forced down when she first sold herself—will become unbearable. She’ll start scribbling her true stories on napkins in restaurants, carving them into the bark of trees, having them tattooed on her upper thighs. She’ll beg her muse to forgive her and take her back.

But muses are touchy—sometimes even touchier than spouses. Once you’ve betrayed them, you run the risk of never being able to get them back.

Once you start writing for The Market, you may never be able to write, let alone publish, the book of your dreams.

Can I promise you the book of your dreams will sell? No. My own haven’t yet. But I can promise you this:

Even if it never sells, the book of your dreams is the only one worth writing.

Nothing else is worth all the sacrifices a writer has to make—time, money, recreation, sleep, friendships, even family. Yes, that’s what I said—nothing else.

Now shoot me.


2 comments on “Writers’ Ten Commandments #7: Adultery

  1. janbear says:

    I agree with the essence of what you’re saying about “The Market.”

    But there’s another side to the coin that an author equally ignores at her peril, and that’s to give no thought to the market (another name for “readers”) at all.

    Go too far one way, and an author sells out her vision, the essence of what she’s writing. Too far the other, and she’s writing for a desk drawer.

    Writing, even novel writing, is communication, and communication implies both a sender and a receiver — ideally in conversation.

    Where’s the bright line, the simple rule that will make the issue clear for everybody? There isn’t one, but here are a few thoughts.

    1. Be true to your theme.
    2. Structure the story to entertain.
    3. If faithfulness to the muse is a problem, try writing for the muse and editing for the reader.

    Ironically, now that every author is a marketer, it’s more possible to write that book that comes straight from the heart and find the audience who will love it. And with social media, it’s more possible to listen to those people we’re speaking to than ever before.

    • Katherine Hyde says:

      You’re absolutely right, Jan. I would hate anyone to think I was speaking against polishing one’s craft in order to make one’s vision accessible to the reader. That’s essential.

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