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Incompetent, Irrelevant and Immaterial

with 3 comments

I’ve been thinking about my last post, and I’m going to try to be clearer.

Part of the reason for that is that I have finished the book I have been asked to blurb–NOT a St. Martin’s book, by the way–and I am completely flummoxed.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many good ideas for a series progression go completely to waste, and there isn’t anything like a mystery, either.  A body shows up, then everybody thinks of other things for a while, then the police do some detecting that is not related in the story, then the perpetrators are caught and they’re nobody we’ve ever heard of before in the book, then a bunch of personal stuff happens, and then it’s over.

Anybody who’s ever read this blog for any period of times knows that I’m hardly a stickler for adhering to the convetions of the genre, but this was ridiculous.  A mystery should have a mystery in it, and although it doesn’t always have to be fair play, SOME gesture in the direction of putting the reader in the picture is definitely required. 

For the perpetrator to show up three quarters of the way through the book, having not only never been mentioned before but not even suggested before, is not pushing the genre’s envelope, it’s just annoying.

Which brings me back, of course, to the topic of yesterday.

I like well rounded characters, of course I do, but if I’m honest with myself, I also like many who are not all that well rounded.

I can read Agatha Christie (Poirot and Marple) endlessly, and I truly love all things Perry Mason. 

But after reading  thing I just did, all I can conclude is that what I may actually need in a book is shape.

Genre is a standardized shape for a novel–a sort of prearranged skeleton to hang the particulars on.

In this case, the writer didn’t even bother to take advantage of the prearranged skeleton.  She just sort of drifted around, throwing in plot elements here and there without rhyme or reason.

The elements themselves might have been interesting if they’d felt as if they were part of a larger hole, but the more the book went on, the more I felt as if I was lost in space.

And the mystery coming to an abrupt end without anything at all to indicate what the clues were or how they were being worked out was just–astonishing.

But not in a good way.

It’s important to remember, though, that this book is being published.  It will go out and try to find readers.  Some editor at this publishing house must have thought that this was a good idea, and a better idea than dozens of other mystery submission that she (editors are often she) turned down.

That is, I think, not an entirely minor issue. 

There are thousands of people out there, working very hard to become writers.  There are thousands working very hard just to break into the field of genre mystery. 

Every once in a while I go to writer’s conferences or speak at schools and libraries and give advice on how to do that–but looking at this thing, I’m not sure my advice has ever made any sense. 

If this is what is chosen for publication, what exactly are the standards that would be writers should be trying to meet?  Were the other books this editor was offered really so awful that this was the best of the bunch?  And if it was, why publish at all? 

Maybe we’ve reached the point where the genre has become deader than a doornail.

I wax wroth on and off about the state of cutesy cozies, but even the cutesy cozies I’ve read have had shape, and a mystery that actually gets solved on the page. 

I keep hoping to find out that the writer is this editor’s sister or college roommate or…something. 

And I keep thinking of a good friend of mine from college who couldn’t get her mystery accepted by a NY house and settled for a small regional publisher instead–and whose books are a million times better than this thing.

There has to be something going on here that I just don’t get.

Written by janeh

February 22nd, 2012 at 11:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Incompetent, Irrelevant and Immaterial'

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  1. Many different topics here. I’d say no question books are sometimes published, music released and movies produced for reasons having nothing to do with the quality of the product. (Of course, I’m the person who will ALWAYS make the time to read a book about some expensive and spectacular failure of a movie.) Maybe that’s what’s happening here. But if it is, we have nothing to discuss. Let me try something else.

    From the description given, this could be quite realistic, but a very poor story. People talk about “realistic” crime novels, but give them murders they never heard of before forensics turns up DNA, and the Great Detective giving up and going on to another case about two times in five, and they’ll change their tune fast enough. What they mean by “realistic” is plausible, but in, if you will, the shape of a story. And the range of a satisfactory story, though wide, is not infinite.

    Shape. I was deeply impressed with Propp’s MORPHOLOGY OF THE FOLKTALE. I think his method of analysis is applicable to any large group of stories starting at the same point. Those are genres. and I’m inclined to see all successful stories as genres. It’s just that some of them are very small genres.

    Propp wrote that the starting point for a folk tale–or fairy tale, if you will–was “a child is deprived of its natural protector.” And starting from this, you had a limited range of types of characters and incidents, some of which had to occur at certain points or not at all, and some of which came only in groups, if at all.

    If you think of the starting point of the mystery as “a crime occurs under mysterious circumstances”–which lets out caper novels, by the way–you get the same thing: there are types of people and events appropriate to a mystery and a logical ending at which the clues are correctly interpreted and the criminal identified. You can fill bookcases with the variations, but they’re variations on the same theme, or they aren’t mysteries. And only certain choices work.

    Ignore the little magnifying glass on the spine. From the story as described, this COULD be a romance. If you have a detective story with a romantic element, the structure of the thing is dictated by the crime, the clues, the detectives and the suspects, and the story is effectively over when the clues are correctly interpreted. The romance may take up some pages, but it can be wedged in wherever. If you have a romance with detective elements, the finding of the body, the investigation and the resolution are only important because of the effect they have on the relationship between some of the characters, and it’s that relationship which dictates the structure and pacing of the story.

    Hope this makes sense. It would be even more fun if it made sense of the story.


    22 Feb 12 at 5:54 pm

  2. Today on Joe Konrath’s blog, he posted about how traditional publishers treat authors, (badly). In the comments, someone trotted out the old, “but if you’ve been published by the Big Six, it’s a guarantee that someone found your work to be high quality!” meme.

    Not so much. We’ve all thrown books against the wall that didn’t pass the 50 page test, and (Jane excepted, apparently) we’ve all not finished a book when we just couldn’t bring ourselves to care about the characters, the story, or we cared more about salvaging as much of our remaining time as we could.

    Knowing a book has been published by a major publishing house has become absolutely incidental to me in judging whether to buy or read a book. Quality is known authors, good reviews, recommendations from people who know my taste, whether it’s legacy-pubbed or self-pubbed.

    And for those who don’t know, JA Konrath’s blog is his little dig at all those publishers who gave him a pittance (17.5% if he was a lucky), buried his backlist, and tossed him out with yesterdays’ trash. Apparently he’s banked somewhere north of half a million dollars self-publishing ebooks on Amazon. In the last year or so. Read back, he’s got sales figures in some posts, he’s been absolutely transparent about what he’s doing and what he’s selling.



    22 Feb 12 at 11:38 pm

  3. This isn’t really relevent but its an amusing view of what to read while travelling.



    23 Feb 12 at 2:21 pm

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