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Monday, November 4, 2013

"Don't Kill the Dog"

At a writing conference two years ago, I attended the editors' panel in hopes of finding out what they were (and weren't) looking for. I had a women's fiction project out on submission at the time, and I suppose I was hoping to hear one of them say, "You know what I'd really like? A contemporary update of The Taming of the Shrew set at the Jersey shore." Alas, no such words were uttered. In fact, what I did hear from them dashed any hopes I might have had of selling that book. (Full disclosure--the manuscript remains unsold.)

About halfway through the panel, an audience member asked a pretty standard question: What causes you to immediately reject a book? One editor said she refuses to read any story that involves child abuse, another mentioned that she was tired of the spurned-woman-starts-over trope. Each one of them had specific pet peeves. Finally, the last editor said that she can't bear to read a story in which a pet dies. "Don't kill the dog!" she warned. Other editors on the panel agreed, and heads in the audience nodded approvingly.

Except mine, which was hung in shame. Because in my book, I did exactly what that editor had warned against--I killed the dog. My main character, Kate, is a modern day shrew who has affection for only two beings in her life, her elderly grandpa and her dog, Buddy. I believed that in order for Kate to grow and change, she had to come to terms with some kind of loss in her life. I wrote what I believed was a moving scene in which Kate grieves for her lost pet, a moment that emerges as a turning point for her. Despite the fact that more than one of my beta readers questioned whether the dog had to die, as did my agent. But I held firm, because I believed that the dog's death served the story.

The late, great Baci--the "ill-behaved fox terrier" in my author bio (which I don't have the heart to edit).

Until a couple of weeks ago, when I had to put down my own beloved canine, the charmer you see pictured above. And suddenly I was seeing my story in a whole new way. I was unprepared for the grief I felt at her loss; it cut deep and hard, and I began to wonder whether I had done those feelings justice in my story. Had I reduced such a painful experience to a mere plot contrivance? Was the death of Kate's dog gratuitous? And on a more pragmatic note, might such a contrivance be a deal-breaker with an editor down the line?

I still don't have answers to these questions. The loss of our Baci is still too new for me to be able to go back to my manuscript and look at those scenes again. But when I am ready, I know I'll be reading it with a different set of eyes.

And now I'd like to ask you: how do you feel about the death of pets in the books you read? Are there animals in your own stories, and if so, what role to they play in your plots?

A Jersey girl born and bred, Rosie Genova left her heart at the shore, which serves as the setting for much of her work. Her new series, the Italian Kitchen Mysteries, is informed by her deep appreciation for good food, her pride in her heritage, and her love of classic mysteries, from Nancy Drew to Miss Marple. Her debut novel, Murder and Marinara, will be released October 1. An English teacher by day and novelist by night, Rosie also writes women’s fiction as Rosemary DiBattista. She lives fifty miles from the nearest ocean  in central New Jersey, with her husband, two of her three sons, and an ill-behaved fox terrier.


Unknown said...

The fact that the loss of your pet cut so deeply is all the more reason to include the death of Kate's pet in your story. Maybe you should go back and read that portion of it; maybe now you are better equipped to discern if the scene is genuine or contrived.

Personally, if I thought it developed Kate as a character and/or added an important element to the story, I'd have Buddy chase that ball into the street on Kate's birthday, just as she learns that poor old grandpa keeled over from a heart attack. Are we afraid to write about death now?

It's scary and a little sad to contemplate an editor walking away from a book because a character dies, regardless of how many legs it has. What about Old Yeller? Or Where the Red Fern Grows?

Similarly, look at Suzanne Collin's Mocking Jay (which if you haven't read, now would be the time to stop reading this post). By the end of the trilogy, I got it already: war is horrible and leaves no-one unscathed. So did Primrose Everdeen have to die? No, she didn't. But it wouldn't hurt a little to write about it right now if she hadn't, and that is what makes it great.

Rosie said...

Thanks so much for the thoughtful response. I did read Collins' trilogy and in fact had a real problem with that final book's ending. But I'm a wuss.

I agree that certain plot events truly serve a story. I think because my genre is humorous women's fiction, there's pressure to have things tie up very neatly and happily.

But you've given me lots to think about!

Sarah Ahiers said...

So sorry to hear about Bacci.

I definitely think there's a time and place for pet death in novels, but, like everything, it has to work.

Where the Red Fern grows is such an amazing novel. And i bawl every time i read it, but it would be a lesser world, i think, if that story wasn't published just based on a blanket "i won't read" list from an editor

Rosie said...

So true, Sarah! Think of the stories we'd lose based upon that "I won't read response." (Funnily enough, my boys would flatly refuse to read or watch anything with a dog in it, for fear the worst would happen!)

And thanks for the kind words.

Jane Lebak said...

Is the implication that it's fine to kill the *grandfather* but not fine to kill the dog?

Look, death happens. I think it's the author's treatment of a death that makes all the difference. In some cases, it feels inevitable and has a wrenching impact on the protagonist (and on the reader) and if handled skillfully, it's an important piece of the story. I don't know why any editor would say it's an auto-reject except that the editor has closed her eyes to something that could be a powerful story.

My daughter died 13 years ago, and at the time, I was very sensitive to watching how other writers handled an infant's death in their stories. Too many of them were really casual about it. It didn't ring true, and the baby's parents were back up and on their feet in about ten pages. But I've seen a baby's death handled well in fiction too. At the time, I might personally have said "I cannot handle this story because my reality has enough babies dying," but I wouldn't say that forever. In fact, because of the support groups I was on, I was reading other women's real-life stories of their own infants dying, and in fact went to the hospital when a friend gave birth to her stillborn baby and photographed the baby for her. Because for the right reason, even though something is tragic and sad, we'll deal with it.

It depends on the story, is my final thought. Do it well and let the readers decide.

Melissa Alexander said...

There are great stories where the dog dies -- like WTRFG. I've read many, but at this point in my life, I just plain don't want to read anymore. My dogs are my life, and the pain cuts too deep. Before I read (or watch), I ask if the animal dies. If so, I skip it. There are lots and lots of other options out there.

Incidentally, I'm writing a dog story. When I mention that to people, MANY of them get a guarded look and ask if the dog dies. When I say no, they show immense relief.

Debby Hanoka said...


I am very sorry to hear about the loss of your beloved dog. May his memory be a blessing.

As for killing the dog (or in my case, cat) in the context of the story or novel, I think it depends how it's done, and why. If the dog (or cat) dies from old age or an unavoidable illness or something like that, it's more likely to be tolerated than if the dog (or cat) dies from a cruel act -- at least in my opinion.

Good luck,

Connie Keller said...

I'm sorry to hear about the loss of your dog. We lost ours a few years ago, and I was so surprised at how hard it was.

I don't know about dog deaths in stories per se. But I think it was very well done in the novel The Art of Racing in the Rain, which has the death of an important character and, at the climax, the death of a beloved dog (also the narrator of the book).

Rosie said...

So many thoughtful replies here! It's hard to know where to start.

Jane, thanks for your bravery in sharing the story of the loss of your daughter. I love what you said about parents "recovering" in ten pages, when ten years is probably not enough.

Melissa, as I mentioned in a previous comment, my sons would avoid any story that included a dog; they didn't want the dog to get lost, let alone die.

Debby, thanks for the kind words. In my book's current incarnation, the dog dies of a heart condition typical in boxers.

Connie, it's surprising, isn't it--how much we miss them?

Natalie Murphy said...

I'm very sorry for your loss. My childhood dog died 2 years ago at the age of 16 and it still catches me off guard from time to time.

But as to your question... It is a huge turn off for me. I refuse to read a book if it's mentioned on the cover or in reviews. I simply can't do it. I get too emotional, and although I love to have my heartstrings tugged while reading, I don't want to get depressed or TOO upset. It's a fine line. I read to escape, not to remember the harsh realities of life. Just my two cents =)

Karen Duvall said...

I agree with Debby that it all depends on how the pet dies; naturally or by a cruel act. A natural death is sad, but sometimes it's necessary to the story and to the character's growth. A natural death of a pet would never put me off a book. But I've read some books that feature pets getting killed by someone and that I won't tolerate. I'll remember the author and vow never to read any of that author's future books because I don't trust they won't pull the same stunt again.

I had read the first third of a thriller once and got to a point where a serial killer's background is described. We all know how serial killers acquire a taste for senseless murder, and I really didn't need the gory details. I'll never read another book by that author.

Rebecca Forster said...

I so enjoyed this post so much. My heroine, Josie, has a dog in my Witness Series. I was so surprised the first time I received a note asking me not to 'kill Max'. It never occurred to me to kill him but it also never occurred to me that readers would be so invested in him. I'm a dog lover myself and know what it feels alike to lose a beloved pet. Now, I am treating Max with great care. He is aging but if he has to go the transition will be written with as much care any any other character in the book.

Pat Kahn's Childsplay said...

My comment is not so much about whether the dog dies in the story, but rather dealing with the loss. Something that has comforted me (a few months away from the loss of my beloved Border Collie) is a poem by Robinson Jeffers called A Housedog's Grave.