Book Reviews, Part III

Concluding our survey of book review formats, I want to explore the “analysis” or “coverage” that publishers and editors sometimes provide to authors. In the film industry, script coverage is something many screenwriters pay a consultant to provide. Knowing what others think about your manuscript helps identify when you didn’t quite accomplish your goals.

Too many of the aspiring writers I meet confuse professional coverage with traditional reviews. One writer recently told me, “Friends and colleagues love the manuscript. The coverage I received couldn’t be right.” Yes, it could be right. You can submit the best written literary work of all time — and it could receive a thumbs-down from the reader.

Coverage Analysis versus a Review

Only one criteria matters to an editor or reader providing coverage: Will a work attract a large audience? No audience, no book, play, or movie. Publishing and producing are expensive endeavors. If your work isn’t going to appeal to a sufficient number of people willing to pay money for it, nothing else about the work matters.

No single factor decides what will or will not have a market. Some works with average plotting have a market thanks to appealing characters. Other works are simply well-timed to the marketplace. The tastes of publishers and producers also matter.

I’ve had writers ask what the point of a coverage and analysis report is, especially if the coverage isn’t meant to make you a better writer. The real question is how you define “better writer” and why being better matters. Better at what? Coverage defines better as “marketable” and interesting to the largest possible number of people.

A literary critic has different understanding of better writing, often reflecting his or her academic grounding. Some critics embrace experimental literature and film, while the audiences for such works is relatively limited. Magical realism might impress a literary critic, and obtuse references to literary traditions might warm another critic’s heart. But, will the work sell? A literary critic is supposed to focus on what the public should read and watch, not what they actually consume.

If you would rather be a literary great than a commercial success, don’t pay for coverage of a manuscript. Instead, take some courses at a good MFA program.

SUMMARY OF EVALUATION

Formal coverage begins with a few sentences stating if the work should be published/produced. If the evaluator has concerns, he or she might mention them in the summary. Some publishers and production companies use a simple “A through F” grading scale. A work with an A or B grade moves forward, while everything else is tabled.

I’ve seen one-sentence coverage summaries, both positive and negative. Some of these have been humorous, probably unintentionally. A science-fiction writer I know received the following summary: “Good story, interesting characters, no way it would sell.” Welcome to the business.

MARKETABILITY

When considering a market, there are various groups readers consider. Does the work appeal to everyone? There are works called “tent-poles” because they are expected to turn a huge profit, propping up a producer or publisher. These are summer blockbuster films and Oprah list books. They aren’t made or published to stand the test of time: they are meant to sell, and sell big.

Film studios also describe films in terms of male/female, youth/mature, YA, tween, family, and so on. The “four-quandrant” work promises to deliver men and women of all ages. The “key demo” (the ideal demographic) in film and TV remains the 18-to-25 block. In publishing, you want either the YA (young adult) or the “mommy” reader. Yes, “mommy fiction” is derogatory — the Fifty Shades of Gray trend is called “Mommy Porn” for a reason though. We know that the largest reading segments are girls and women. The YA group from 12-to-18 and the 25-to-45 group drive book sales. (Maybe the college years are too busy for mass market book reading?)

Think about your audience, even as you decide what to write. Romance books sell. Think about the two types, though. We have the Twilight series and the Fifty Shades books. Right now, paranormal is hot, with distinct segments in the YA and adult markets. It is difficult to market books to men. Movies for men? Much easier to sell, from raunchy comedies to action films, young men are a good market for screenplays.

If you don’t know your market, don’t expect the coverage reader to tell you what the market is for a manuscript.

GENERAL LITERARY ELEMENTS

Don’t expect a reader to offer much in the way of literary criticism; they focus on the potential market, not the potential for a lasting legacy. Still, readers offer minimal guidance for writers. You tend to receive more feedback the closer a manuscript is to being optioned. If you receive a lot of comments, that’s a good sign. Readers don’t waste time with hopeless causes.

PLOT

Expect to be told when the plot’s pacing is off, especially if events move too slowly or events don’t advance the plot in any clear way. What you might believe to be an essential event might not be so obvious to a reader.

STORY

Stories are wrapped around plots and characters. Readers focus on if the story appeals to the widest possible audience, or a well-defined (and profitable) audience. Read about loglines. If your story cannot be conveyed as a logline, readers will likely give a pass to the manuscript — and I don’t mean a passing grade, either.

http://www.scriptologist.com/Magazine/Tips/Logline/logline.html

POINT OF VIEW

Readers look for a “sympathetic” point-of-view when they provide coverage. The assumption is that audiences want to see a story told through a likable, trustworthy character to whom they can relate. The point-of-view does not need to be that of the hero; companions are often the guides through a film or book. The key is that the perspective should be consistent.

Film presents a bit of a problem, since your primary guide might not appear in every scene. In books, the common mistake is mixing point-of-views within a chapter or scene. Think of every scene as a self-contained narrative, from one character’s perspective. That character can only know what he or she experiences.

Try to emphasize the scenes with the primary guide. Viewers and readers try to imagine what the main characters do and don’t know. When the audience knows too much, because you’ve let the point-of-view slip to an antagonist, then some of the mystery and suspense is lost. Your audience wants to be on the edge of their seats. Controlling the point-of-view allows you to control the audience.

THEME

Popular books and movies tend to have simple, easy to appreciate themes. Good wins, usually, and the theme is obvious. Don’t confuse a theme for a thesis or moral, which is an argument supported by the work. A theme might be “Accepting people despite differences.” A thesis would be, “Accepting others leads to a better understanding of yourself.” Yes, popular stories teach a lesson, but the theme is what you can sell in a short logline.

STRUCTURE

To sell a work, start with a three-act structure. It should have a beginning, middle, and end. Furthermore, I suggest concentrating on the “Hero’s Journey” model for your structure. That’s not because there aren’t other formulas, but because coverage readers like the journey models taught in film schools.

I’ve argued this with emerging writers and literary writers: structure matters when you want to sell a story. That assertion does not imply every story must adhere to the formula coverage readers expect. You are free to break whatever rules you want — but don’t expect an easy time selling a work that doesn’t adhere to the simple three-act structure.

CHARACTERIZATION

Make your character distinct. You don’t want characters that are similar to each other. Also, the protagonist and antagonist in a story need motivations. They need backstories. You should know the details of a character’s life, even if those details are never in the story. Coverage is going to focus on whether or not an audience is going to enjoy a character.

Not every “enjoyable” character is good. Darth Vader is enjoyable. Freddy Krueger is enjoyable. Characters that are odd, a little quirky, and distinctive are enjoyable. An audience should want to follow your characters, good and bad, because they are larger than life.

DIALOGUE

Dialogue sells books and movies. Since film has drifted away from narration (voice over), books are starting to do the same. As a result, the dialogue between characters is how readers learn what a character is thinking. Write good, tight dialogue; every word matters.

SETTING

Coverage readers look at settings in two ways: 1) How expensive would it be to film? 2) How much will audiences care about the setting? Cheaper is better for film, while more elaborate and amazing is better for some types of book. Remember, books are an escape from reality for many readers — and it costs nothing to create a setting with words.

If the setting is essential to the story in a book or script, be sure to research the details. If the story could take place anytime, anywhere, then you’ll be focused on the characters.

DESCRIPTION

Script readers want minimal description and narration in a film or stage script. As they say, “Let the director do his (or her) job.” Scripts are sparse, only 4500 words or so for a full-length feature. That’s the length of a short story. You cannot afford to get lost in detailed descriptions.

For a book, paint with words. Be as descriptive as possible. You are the director, the cinematographer, the set designer, and more. The book author is all-powerful. Use that power, but use it wisely. A manuscript analysis will indicate if you need to add description. Rarely does an analysis suggest less description, but it does happen. Describe what matters.

Book Review – After Dark by Jayne Castle

One of my favorite features of GoodReads is the ability to get book recommendations based on books listed or ranked in your library. Using the GoodReads recommendations, I have already found dozens of new authors and books to try.

The most recent book, After Dark by Jayne Castle, was one of those books. I’ve read other books by Jayne Castle/Jayne Ann Krentz/Amanda Quick so trying this new series, Harmony, was an easy choice.

Although I do like the story, an antiquities theft-murder mystery, the paranormal part of the story is tossed in a little too casually. Terms like para-archaeology, rez-shrinks, para-rez, and a few others are sprinkled within the narrative before they were explained, and the explanations, when they did come, were not detailed enough to eliminate any confusion. Readers are a few dozen pages or a chapter or two into the novel before learning the series takes place on an off-world colony that has been cut off from all Earth contact.

It seems to me that the fantasy/sci-fi part of this story should have been introduced and explained earlier in the story, and with more detail, so that the setting is more thoroughly established. I’m guessing that Jayne Castle wanted the romance and mystery to be the predominating story, not the fantasy aspects, but you cannot sprinkle in references to your specific “world” without explaining them.

Unfortunately, After Dark reminds me of an old rule I established years ago: don’t bother reading fantasy written by non-fantasy writers. The “worlds” creating by non-fantasy writers do not have the same level of detail, thought, and organization as the “worlds” created by people who specialize in writing science fiction or fantasy.

I’ll keep an eye out for more in the Harmony series, and am I still looking for books in the Arcane Society series in used book stores, but they aren’t high in my “want” list. I hope with practice, Jayne improves her fantasy writing skills because I do like her contemporary and historical novels.

Book Review – A Midsummer Night’s Scream by Jill Churchill

A Midsummer Night’s Scream is book 15 in what is now, and hopefully remains, a 16-book series featuring Jane Jeffry, a crime-solving stay-at-home mother. The title of each book in the series is a play on a famous book title, cleverly tying the mysteries to Jane’s love of reading and what is probably the author’s love of books.

As this title implies, Jane and her best friend and neighbor, Shelley, are loosely involved with a local college-run theater. I say loosely because Jane and Shelley’s only involvement is catering snacks during the play’s rehearsals so that Shelley can test new catering companies for her husband. During this time, two people associated with the theater, one of the actors and a janitor, are murdered. Jane’s long-time boyfriend, Detective Mel VanDyne, is assigned the two cases.

Despite the series name, A Jane Jeffry Mystery, Jane had almost nothing to do with solving these murders. Most of this book revolved around tasting testing caterers and attending a needlepoint class.

Previous mysteries make use of Jane’s intimate knowledge of all things domestic. In fact, it was her thorough grounding in her domestic life and children that was usually the key to solving the mystery.

Testing the caterers during the theater rehearsals was a feeble way to involve Jane and Shelley in the theater. Having them attend a needlepoint class as a way of befriending two of the characters in the story was equally feeble. Although the catering companies and needlepoint class would fit the description of “domestic,” they were poorly used devices. Neither the caterers nor the needlepoint class had anything to do with the murders, except as a distraction, and served no purpose in advancing the story or the mystery. I was waiting for the tie-in and was baffled when nothing happened.

There was also a slip in characterization, with Shelley feeling “hurt” that she and Jane weren’t working on their needlepoint together. Shelley wouldn’t feel hurt by something so silly, however briefly it was mentioned. The author also slipped in Bell, Book, and Scandal with Shelley’s character. At one point, Jane was worried that her preoccupation with the mystery would annoy Shelley to the point of damaging their friendship. The first reaction after reading these two sections of the novels was, “huh?” Shelley would never overreact like that. She should also know by now, after years of friendship with Jane, that Jane usually does solve the mystery and her instincts for the solution are usually correct.

A Midsummer’s Night Scream is clearly a continuation of the slow downward slide in quality that began with Bell, Book, and Scandal, and ends with the horrible The Accidental Florist.

Bell, Book, and Scandal had, I believe, only one change in viewpoint: we jarringly switch from Jane’s viewpoint to that of one of the victims. A Midsummer’s Night Scream had several changes in viewpoint, mostly to Mel’s view, which is unusual in this series. In the previous books, Mel was never a well-developed character and we never saw the mystery from his point of view, only Jane’s.

Unlike previous mysteries in this series, Jane does very little thinking about this mystery and had almost no input into the solution.

The oddest part of this book: the epilogue. No previous book in this series has ever done a “where are they now” ending to the story. It was out of place, not remotely entertaining, and again, not from Jane’s point of view. None of the “where are they now” statements would be anything Jane could possibly know.

Jill Churchill, if you are tired of writing this series, just stop. Don’t try to wrap everything up neatly for Jane as you did in The Accidental Florist. Just stop writing.

On a scale of 1 to 5, most of the Jane Jeffry Mysteries would get a 3 or 4. The previous book to this one, Bell, Book, and Scandal, would receive a 2, as would A Midsummer Night’s Scream. The final book in the series, The Accidental Florist, would receive a negative number if possible.

Title: A Midsummer Night’s Scream
Author: Jill Churchill
Publisher: Avon Books
ISBN: 978-0-06-050100-6

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