Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Blechta on genre fiction

After re-reading Vicki’s blog entry of August 10th, I think I’m beginning to see what the conundrum might be here. I do believe one of the main things the literary crowd could be objecting to is the use of formulae that “naturally” seems to occur in genre fiction writing. Some forms have less reliance on a formula (sci-fi, horror/fantasy) and some have a lot more (romance, and of course, crime fiction).

In crime fiction, we are to blame for that situation. By “we”, I mean all of us: writers, agents, editors, publishers and reviewers. There are certain things that have become expected in our novels: the book should get off to a “fast start”, someone should die in the first 40 pages, etc. Actually, it seems to be a hard and fast rule that somebody must die, period.

Here’s a chilling case in point: An author I know, multiple award-winning and all that, very competent at his craft, submitted a novel to his publisher. The editor thought the book was excellent, as always. Problem was, the obligatory death didn’t happen until well after the one hundredth page. “We have to change that,” the editor pointed out.

The author pointed out why he had constructed his novel the way he had, explained the nuances at work and why the death couldn’t be moved. “Start the story with the murder and do the pages leading up to it now as a flashback.”

The author again pointed out why that wouldn’t be a good idea. The whole idea was to build tension in a very distinctive way. As a matter of fact, having the murder occur where it did was one of the main points of the story.

The upshot of all this was, the editor told him the novel would not be published if the murder wasn’t put in “the usual place for these kinds of books”. My friend withdrew the novel and has never again written a word of crime fiction. Believe me, we lost an excellent and unique voice.*

With the “rules” of the crime writing game seemingly set this much in cement, is it any wonder that the literary crowd looks down on us? Yes, the editor was having a very stiff neck, but I have heard crap like this over and over. So have you.

*I’ve put the “dialogue” here in quotes, but I am working from memory. I may not have remembered the exact words correctly, but I do have the intent.


Terry Odell said...

It's sad that publishing is a business, and they'll only invest in what they think will sell. My books tend to skirt the "formulae", although they do meet the basic reader expectation for their genres: mysteries are solved before the end of the book; hero and heroines have their HEA at the end of a romance.

I also 'broke out' when I wrote a sequel to a romance featuring the same hero and heroine. But I consider those books mysteries with a romantic relationship that builds throughout the book, and the publisher was willing to give it a go.

There are times when it's advantageous to be with a smaller press, because they're willing to look beyond the huge numbers a big NY publishing house has to sell to make money on a book.

It's too bad your friend abandoned that novel. FWIW, I abhor the 'flashback' format. Time is linear for me.

Vicki Delany said...

Excellent point, Rick. In fact Gold Digger as is stands now is in the flashback mode - murder happens in the first couple of pages, then the characters remember what the dead person did for about 100 pages. That's not the way I originally wrote it, but my agent (my previous agent) told me that the murder had to be moved up.

Vicki Delany said...

Actually, Child of Mine, which I wrote about yesterday, has a very slow build up to the crime. However, before the story begins there is a crime that is mistaken for an accident. I have been wondering if I have to put in a prologue, sort of - she stood with her back to the water and faced her killer.

Charles benoit said...

Great post, Rick. Maybe we're looked down on because we allow ourselves to get pushed around so much. But then, as Terry points out, we might not get published otherwise.

LABANAN said...

I think that the more I read and the more I write I have only rule I need to follow. To thine own self be true and thou canst not be false to anyone. Write your own damn book - find a publisher who wants THAT book and get it published. For every rule I read I know good writers who have broken it and been published ergo - it is possible. Maybe not likely but possible. Why do we write anyway if not to be true to our stories. The sad thing about the story Rick just told is that the author stopped writing. I have a friend who wrote about something very particular (literary fiction) and someone else published a book with the same topic. My friend put her book away - no she threw it away and doesn't write.
That is too bad.

Donis Casey said...

My last book had no murder for about 100 pages, and my editor didn't give me a moment's grief about it. It was the fourth book in a series, and all the previous installments started with the murder. Of course, my press (Poisoned Pen) and my editor, the redoubtable Barbara Peters, are both unconventional.

Rick Blechta said...


My friend did not stop writing. As a matter of fact he's a rather successful author of several ghost written biographies for famous people, and has had a few best sellers, all in the non-fiction category. And he goes on winning awards because he's a goddamn great writer.

As for whether we allow ourselves to get pushed around, when an editor says your book won't be published unless you make a specific change, that's pretty major, assuming that you want your novel to see the light of day. Of course we're always free to withdraw the book and find someone else. Take it from someone who's been around the block a few times, that's easier said than done.

And of course rules are always made to be broken, and I always cheer when it happens and the author wins a round or two.

Thanks for weighing in, all of you.

Next week I should deal with possibly the most verboten thing in many forms of fiction, especially crime fiction: killing fido or fluffy!

But then again, maybe not...