Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Compelling Reads: What makes a book grab hold and not let go!

(I couldn’t resist!)

My friend Lise McClendon and I will be doing a 45 minute mystery workshop at the upcoming Jackson Hole Writers Conference, June 25-28. If you haven’t heard about this con, check out the website at It’s a great conference, limited to about 150 attendees, where the everyone has lots of easygoing face time with authors, editors, and agents. Barbeques, dinners, drinks, and conversations. And how can you beat Jackson Hole as a venue? Can you tell I feel blessed to be part of this? But I digress.

Since Lise and I only have 45 minutes, we want to get right to the important stuff. Plus, in past years, we’ve noticed that many of the attendees are well on their way to at least finishing their first book. As at most conferences, there’s a range of experience, but we don’t want to be too remedial in our approach. We decided that we’d like to get a discussion going about two main topics: First, what grabs you (the reader) in a novel? What features of that book make the reader unable to put it down? And second, how do you (readers and writers) view genre labels and how much do you find them to be marketing tools as opposed to descriptions of books?

I’ll try to briefly answer my own questions, but would love to hear from other readers and writers. The characters in a novel are the first to grab me. I just finished Paul Levine’s excellent thriller Illegal, and Jimmie “Royal” Paine got my attention right off the bat. He’s got the heart of an altruistic fighter, but is on a self-destructive path. I cared, and I wondered about his actions. I cared even more when I found out why he behaved like this. No, he wasn’t an alcoholic with a shameful past or a product of an abusive home, etc and so forth, (I’m growing tired of these). He’s a normal guy, but something happened to him.

Then Levine added more characters I cared about, plus a handful of vicious, despicable ones, but some of these had surprising, if not redeeming, qualities. (Wanda the Whale, what a vision) He put them all in a vivid backdrop, a sense of place with dust I could just about taste and aromas that drifted right off the page. And after that, he added danger. Peril into which the nothing-to-lose protagonist threw himself with intelligence and purpose.

Look at what keeps people going back to the “classics.” I loved the characters and the fight for justice in To Kill a Mockingbird. Romeo and Juliet, timeless in its tale of forbidden love, evoked tears and showed the ruin wrought by hatred. The Merchant of Venice covered a few details like bigotry, preconception, unjust punishment, an intelligent heiress, and usury. Oedipus Rex not only showed the destruction brought about by hubris, it was also a mystery story. I could go on and on, and many of you could add even better examples.

I have to admit that I am influenced by genre categories. I seek out mystery bookstores and drift to the mystery sections in chain stores. I like mystery, thrillers, suspense, some literary fiction (what is that, anyway?), some Young Adult, some Sci Fi, heck, I like a well-written book. Back to the question about what grabs you.

My problem with genre classification is a great deal of it (now more than ever, I believe) is based on marketing, and has little to do with the book content. Check out this article in Publishers Weekly, by PW reviewer Peter Cannon: It’s dated April 21, 2008, and is aptly titled, “The Mystery of the Thriller: Navigating the Divide Between Marketing and Content.” I’ve excerpted a quote which illustrates what bothers me about genre definitions.

“Not so long ago, Janet Evanovich's publicist politely suggested it was time Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels were reviewed in Fiction rather than Mystery. I had to agree it was now that the series was hitting bestseller lists and made the switch. Typically, a series will start out as mystery and later get upgraded to thriller, with either increased sales or the hope of same. At some point, Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins mysteries became Easy Rawlins thrillers.”

Just about curled my hair, which takes a lot of effort, believe me. So what do you think? Is this a good start for a mystery workshop, where writers aspire to have their books published and appreciated by readers everywhere? We may need more than 45 minutes.


Vicki Delany said...

Certainly discussing what works in the 'classics' is a great point of beginning. Although the actual classics might be going back a mite far. What works in today's popular fiction? I, for example, really love the Cork O'Connor books by William Kent Kreuger. Why do I continue to find Cork worth spending time with after several books, but others I give up on? away

Debby (Deborah Turrell) Atkinson said...

I like the Cork O'Connor books, too. Good writing, characters I care about, usually a compelling social or personal issue and a good mystery. What else draws us in? I forgot to mention passion yesterday.

Vicki Delany said...

Supporting characters are really important. Cork's family for example, or his friend Henry. Think Doctor Watson who is the lens through which we view S. Holmes.

I know I'm not really answering your question, but heading off on my own direction!

Kerrie said...

I think crime fiction is a better label - that is the one book shops here generally use on their shelves. There some thrillers that don't fit that genre label either and really are out and out thrillers. Matthew Reilly is a bit like that. I think the problem with the term mystery is that the majority of fiction books do have some mystery in them, some puzzle to work out. You might be better talking about the varaints in the crime fiction genre. I think sometimes publishers and book sellers are just lookingfor easy catalogue labels.

On the character front, they really are very important. I used to think the characters in Agatha Christie novels for example were a bit 2D and that it was the mystery that was most important. Now I am re-reading them with older eyes, I can see the work she did in character portrayal.

In a series, character development keeps us going back for more. We see a little more of the main character each time we mett him/her.