Tag Archives: genre fiction

Mysteries that are not Mysteries

I’ve been complaining lately that I don’t have enough to read. That isn’t true. It is more that I can’t find any GOOD books to read.

What has happened to the publishing industry? Are they no longer hiring editors to reject the books that do not have a plot?

Take the last Jill Churchill book I read: The Accidental Florist, book 16 in Churchill’s Jane Jeffry series. First, the fact that it is book 16 in a series should have told me not to expect much, except that I already own the first eight or nine books in this series and I did enjoy reading them. The Accidental Florist, however, was little more than a recitation of Jane’s daily routine as she gets ready to marry her long-time boyfriend. The author describes what Jane was doing for much of the book instead of letting us “see” the events. The dead body in this story had nothing to do with a florist and Jane had nothing to do with solving the murder. In fact, I’m not entirely sure the author even remembered to tell us why the victim died!

Previous Jane Jeffry mysteries had Jane integrally involved in solving the murder, even if the reason she was involved was as transparent as how Murder She Wrote‘s Jessica Fletcher gets involved in each murder. Churchill’s previous books revolved around the murder, with Jane’s life occurring around the murder. This particular story was the opposite.

My first thought was that the original author had died and the publishing company had someone else trying to continue the series. If Jill Churchill/Janice Brooks is still alive, she must have just written a quick outline of a possible plot and passed it along to some flunky to turn the outline into complete sentences, because that’s all this book was: a bare outline of a possible story idea.

Luckily, this was a library book, not something I had purchased. After reading book 16, I went to Amazon.com and read reviews for this book and the three previous books in the series. Everyone agrees: these books are no longer worth purchasing. Unfortunately, I had come to the same conclusion. As curious as I am about how her children turned out, I’m not willing to pay much more than half the cover price to find out, and I would probably never re-read these last few books.

I’ve also been disappointed in the Aurora Teagarden series by Charlaine Harris. I’ve read books 1, 2, 4, 5, and 8 (not necessarily in that order) and they are all equally boring. There is at least a mystery in these books, and they are not badly written, but it is hard to really like the main character. She not a bad person, but she’s boring, invisible, and almost impossible to care about. I’ve also tried to Harris’ Harper Connelly series, but haven’t really been able to relate to that main character either.

One similarity between the two characters, Aurora Teagarden and Harper Connelly, is that they spend much of their time alone, not interacting with anyone else. I think that makes for a boring story. It is much more interesting to see the story and the characters interacting with the mystery than it is to read about them thinking about the mystery. It is more interesting to learn about characters from the way they react to events than to read their thoughts about the events.

The disappointment in these some of books cannot be related to the continuation of the series for more than three or four books. The Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb Eve Dallas series of books is well into the 30s now and book 34 is just as engaging as book one. Why? Is this the difference between a good writer (Harris) and a great writer (Roberts)? Is it is something more?

I can definitely say that Eve Dallas has changed and grown as a character. Her life has followed a progression, her relationships with her life, husband, and friends are more complicated, and she’s changed over the time of the series. But there is always a mystery that dominates the story. The mystery IS the book, not tossed in as an afterthought for an excuse to pick up a royalty check.

And don’t get me started on what has become of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake books. I don’t even consider purchasing them anymore. They used to have a plot and mystery and now they are little more than erotica loosely tied with a bit of a story.

PSWA 2011 Conference

I attended the Public Safety Writers Association 2011 Conference in Las Vegas this weekend. The attendees are not only authors of mystery, suspense, and thriller, many of them are also current and former law enforcement officers. Sitting among defense lawyers, prosecutors, retired military officers, firefighters, and others who really have lived to protect and serve this nation, I feel more than a little inadequate. These men and women are real heroes practicing the “Write what you know!” theory.

Listening to their stories, I don’t have much to offer. Secret Service. OSI. Undercover narcotics. Defense security contracts. These authors have material.

Writing requires a mix of life experiences and serious research. Readers of genres such as police procedurals and military fiction know the facts because so many have personal connections to law enforcement, the legal system, the military, et cetera. If you want to write in a particular genre, you need to immerse yourself in the culture, history, and technical details associated with the genre.

Because I’m on the road, I don’t have enough time to write reviews of the panel presentations. However, when I have a moment of peace and quiet, ideally sometime next week, I’ll write about what I learned (or was reminded of) during the discussions.

If you are interested in mystery, suspense, procedurals, military, or other public safety topics — fiction or non-fiction — consider learning more about PSWA. The website is:

http://www.policewriter.com

Disappointing Books

I’ve been disappointed in most of the books I’ve read lately and I can’t figure out why. I’m hoping I’ve just run into a bad batch of books because the alternative is that I’ve lost interest in reading. And that isn’t possible.

In the last few months I’ve read Ghouls Just Haunt to Have Fun and Ghouls Gone Wild, both by Victoria Laurie. And by that, I mean to say I finished Ghouls Just Haunt to Have Fun, but haven’t managed to finish Ghouls Gone Wild. I liked this series when the first book was published, but had a hard time finishing these last two. For some reason, the main character has become annoying, shallow, and stuck in place. I cannot see any character development. To be fair, I’ll probably try to re-read the first two books in the series, and I’m hoping I won’t suddenly hate them, also. Either way, I probably will not purchase any more books in this series.

I’ve had the same problem with Victoria Laurie’s other series, Psychic Eye Mysteries. The main character, Abby, is no longer interesting and Abby’s FBI agent boyfriend is downright irritating. I especially hate his nicknames for Abby. (What kind of nickname is “Sweet Hot?”) I have no interest in reading any additional books in this series.

I’ve also had a problem with the last Mary Janice Davidson book I read in the Undead series. I’ve grown to dislike the main character. Again, she’s shallow, which was originally part of her charm, but now it has just gone on too long. After reading the first six books in this series, I have no interest in purchasing any more books with these characters. I think this may be an excellent example of milking a series that should have stopped when it was a trilogy.

Reading the GeekMom blogs led me to try the Arcane Society series by Amanda Quick/Jayne Ann Krentz/Jayne Castle. I liked the first book, Second Sight, enough to try additional books in the series, but I was also a little disappointed in the book. Maybe Nora Roberts and Linda Howard are spoiling me for great stories, but I expected better from Quick/Krentz/Castle. I did like Second Sight enough that I’m going to try more books in this series, but I’m going to purchase them from a used bookstore.

I’ve actually started reading non-fiction books after this series of disappointments. I purchased a couple of basic physics books to refresh my memory and I recently purchased some nature books that I am looking forward to reading.

I know it cannot be all me because I still love J.D. Robb’s Eve Dallas series and there are more than 30 books in the series. The mysteries are still interesting and the character development is consistent and believable. I also have read the Shirley Damsgaard “Witch” series and am still enjoying the stories.

The Value of the Unexpected

I have decided I want to purchase a copy of A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose by B. R. Myers (0971865906).

A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose

I am not a “literary” reader, at least not of those vapid works prized by the literati and the supercilious MFA-laden aspiring scribblers seeking the approval of mundane critics. I can think of few tortures superior to literary novels, though listening to a parade of preeminent poets read their works in public might approach my tolerance for pain and agony.

What I dislike about literary works is that they tend to lack the one quality genre fiction embraces: the unexpected. This is not to claim that all literary fiction is predictable and dull, but the focus on style and language often comes at the expense of storytelling.

Yes, genre fiction is formulaic. The first suspects are usually innocent in the procedural. True love does not come easily in the romance. The Western hero will have to make a costly sacrifice in the name of honor. Technology often turns nightmarish in science fiction. But, these roadmaps for writers leave plenty of choices. Just as it is statistically possible to plot millions of routes across the United States, the number of stories that work within a structure defy calculation.

A good mystery is not predictable. We know there will be a solution, but there will be twists and turns along the way. What makes horror interesting is the sense that the unknown will happen. A political thriller will include the “man of the people” who is a power-hungry tyrant in waiting. Yet, we take the trip because we don’t know every road.

When an MFA professor told a class that structures destroy creativity, I asked her about Shakespeare. Didn’t William follow the rules of rhyming poetry? Didn’t his plays follow the standard structures of his time? He borrowed plots from existing plays and popular legends. The professor responded that it was different for Shakespeare; the Globe Theatre was not a multiplex with 24 screens.

This does not answer the primary question. Didn’t Shakespeare cater to audience expectations? And his audience was the commoner. Shakespeare wasn’t trying to impress the audience with his greatness. Bill wanted to sell tickets! He’d be competing against Cameron and Bruckheimer for opening day records. As Lucas and Spielberg were inspired by past filmmakers, Shakespeare found inspiration in popular plays.

I would compare the Globe to a multiplex. It was the affordable, popular entertainment of the time. Maybe that’s not a good comparison. Susan and I don’t go to movies because they are so expensive, now.

Avoiding traditional structures and audience expectations ironically becomes its own form of orthodoxy. The result is literary works that resemble each other, written by MFA graduates for MFA graduates. Impenetrable works are celebrated, even though only a handful of people finish the books. The insulated community wonders why people don’t appreciate them, while they snicker at the insults to suburbia and middle-class normalcy within literary fiction.

I want a story. I want to read books that are difficult to set aside at the end of each chapter. I want the writer to tease me with “what ifs” and “why nots” along the way. If I’m not trying to anticipate and solve puzzles, I don’t want to keep reading. I get bored if I don’t believe the story is in some way interactive.

For some, literary fiction is a celebration of form and style. The idea is to admire the technique more than the subject, as one might look at a still life painting. I’m simply not an aesthete.

Drag me into your story. Make me care what happens to the characters. I don’t want to sit with a dictionary, thesaurus, and encyclopedia on hand to appreciate a work. Yes, I love language. I like a beautiful paragraph as much as the next reader. But I want more from a book than a self-congratulatory homage to university educations.

This explains why I like genre fiction. A mediocre work of “chick lit” beats most “magical realism” or “surrealist fiction.” I’d rather read most young adult series books than endure Auster, Barth, Proulx, or Weinzweig. The incestuous literary establishment honors authors few people actually read. Why don’t we read these “great” authors? Because they don’t write great stories.

Give readers the unexpected and they will buy your books. Give them condescending, pretentious texts and you will only sell books to other snobs.