Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Mystery (and everything else that goes into one)

Debbie’s excellent post last Wednesday, “Romance in Mystery,” drew many comments and got me thinking about what I like in a mystery and about some of my own writing flaws.

“Readers love a little romance in their mysteries,” Debbie wrote, “or do they prefer mystery in their romance?” As a reader, I enjoy a complex plot and like trying to unravel the mystery before the sleuth, but I also want more from a book than a thrill ride. I like a solid back-story or a parallel plot, details aside from the central story that cast the characters in brighter or softer light. For instance, when THE DA VINCI CODE came out, my wife bought it, read it, loved it, and passed it on to me. I read it and enjoyed it but told my wife I didn’t know any more about the protagonist when I finished the book than I did when I began it; not my cup of tea. (Obviously, given Mr. Brown’s success, I may well be in the minority.)

I like a wide canvass when I write as well. Aside from the central plot, I enjoy delving into one or more parallel plots, which made Debbie’s post so intriguing. On that note, last week, my agent finished reading my current project and offered his usual excellent critique. He asked me to reel the story in a little, to eliminate one entire subplot. At first, I was hesitant. We sent e-mail volleys back and forth. In the end, though, I trust his opinion for several reasons: he edited the likes of Robert B. Parker, Sara Paretski, and Patricia Cornwell for 25 years before becoming an agent—and he’s not the first one over the years to make a similar suggestion. My editor for the Jack Austin series made analogous recommendations on a couple of those books. It’s taken three weeks, but the revised version is much better. (Thanks, Bob Mecoy!)

Like any writer, I continually strive to get better, to raise the stakes with each new project. I’m also coachable. Yet, in the heat of composition, the former unconsciously trumps the latter. As I raise the stakes and the books get more complex, so do the characters’ lives and the ensuing parallel plots. I strive only to add details or subplots that make the novels richer, but the trick is learning how much is too much. And it doesn’t get easier if you’re continually pushing yourself.

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On a side note, my iPad arrived Saturday. As promised, I will keep readers updated. First impression: it is outstanding. I purchased THE PROFESSIONAL, Robert B. Parker’s last Spenser novel, and am having no problem reading the text on the LCD screen. And, if you like classics, there are many free books. I downloaded Poe and Twain, for starters.

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