Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Crime Fiction Paradigms

Blechta here.

Charles brings up a very interesting point in his most recent post, and I'd like to play with it a bit further. Some of the points below have been touched on in this blog before, but it might be an idea to bring it all together here.

He's right: if you want to get published, you have to follow "The Rules". What are those? Here's my list. Please feel free to add any I've missed!

1) You must have a "clean" ending. No loose ends, nothing left hanging, avoid ambiguity.

2) It must have a "happy" ending -- especially if you're publishing in the U.S.

3) Whatever you do, NEVER kill a pet -- especially a dog or cat.

4) You stand a much better chance if you're proposing to write a series.

5) Somewhere, somehow, publishers decided that books have to be "a certain length". I'm sure it's dictated purely by expense. Whatever you do, don't go over 100,000 words in a first novel.

6) If you're a "big gun", you can break every one of these rules with impunity.

Now, let's discuss these.

I think Charles has pretty well covered #1. Readers of crime fiction are looking for moral order to be restored at the end. I think it was Donis who said that this was one reason they read CF (I think I may have just coined something useful here!) is that our times are so uncertain. If you're reading fiction, you're generally reading to be taken somewhere else. In general, people don't like ambiguity. Even if your novel is fabulous, if you have an untidy ending, you risk rejection.

"It's very difficult to sell a first time author with an ending like this. Can you change it to something more upbeat?" This one really sticks in my throat. (You'll find out why in March.) One terrific movie favourite of mine is L.A. Confidential -- as long as I stop it at the point where the movie's makers wanted to end it, that is before the last two scenes. When it was being test screened, the movie got poor audience response because of its bleak ending, so two more scenes were apparently shot to allow our hero and the girl to drive off in a cab, presumably to live happily ever after. Bollocks! We just spent the previous 2 hours or so having that bleak, but ultimately truthful ending set up, and they go and blow it so that crowds will leave the theatre in an upbeat mood. (And bring in more revenue to the studio.) What a cop out! As mentioned, Americans seem especially prone to this. Come on, we're all big boys and girls. You would think that a movie that's truly good would trump yet another "and they lived happily ever after because good once again triumphed over evil as it should". Wake up and smell the kitty litter. The world doesn't work like that. Maybe if we faced up to that more often, we might be able to do something about it.

Why can a dozen people get brutally murdered in the course of a novel, but if you harm one hair on Fluffy's pretty little head, dog lovers will howl for an author's head on a pike? Is a pet's life worth more than a humans? You can even in some situations kill a child with more impunity than a pet. This is just plain nuts.

Readers want to slip into an author's new novel the same way they like to slip into a favourite pair of shoes when they return home after a hard day. There's nothing wrong with this. However (and of course I've got a "however" ready), some authors and all publishers will gladly crank out book after book in a series that's gone dead long ago, as long as it's making money. I could name names, but I won't. You know who you are out there! You should be ashamed about writing basically the same book over and over. Only thing they've got going for them is that they're probably making buckets more money than I am. What price art, hmmm? Why is a series considered better than stand-alones? Because they're familiar. People fight change. They want stability and if they can't get it in their escapist fiction, that's a "bad thing". (Someone in the book industry actually told me that.)

Hands up; how many of you have been told to trim your novel's length because it's "too long" or "we don't publish books of that length"? To my mind, that's a cop out. I don't want to be told that by my editor (or whoever is evaluating my ms). That's like answering "because" when someone asks you a question. An editor is supposed to tell you what they feel needs fixing. I want to know what it is that they want removed. They have every right to tell you your novel is too long, but not because it's X amount of words, but because it's got subplots or scenes that slow it down or don't have any purpose. Those things have to go. Cutting out words for the sake of reducing the page count is silly.

Actually, speaking as a typographer, words counts are silly. Some people use a lot of long words (E.M. Forrester comes to mind) and some use short. By the end of a book, that sort of thing really matters. Why don't publisher's think in terms of character count? Our word processors can tell us that, too. Then at least we'd have something meaningful to work with if they want us to shorten a book for whatever reason it is they want us to shorten it.

All you have to do is look in bookstores to see that point #6 is true. There's a reason: readers go into stores to pick up the next (insert favourite author's name here). These writers are the true lucky devils in the publishing game. Nobody is going to tell Ian Rankin to shorten his damn novel. In fact, if it's longer, they'll just charge more for it.

Hmmm... Maybe I've stumbled across at least a plausible reason to limit a book's length as far as a publisher is concerned. "We want to sell it for $XX.XX, even if it damages the novel."

Comments? Rebuttals? Thinking of getting out the old flame thrower?

Update on the "Vancouver Airport Mess":

Read this (http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2007/11/30/taser-rcmp.html) then tell me who you think the public is going to believe? Is this RCMP Cpl. Dale Carr for real? Who does he think he's kidding? Sad thing is it's the cop's word against the fireman's. Unless someone breaks rank and does the right thing, they'll get away with it. See point #2 above...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You must set your book in the U.S. If you're British you may set it in the U.K. If you're Canadian, you have to be very, very lucky, to get a good sized book contract.