Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The expectations of publishers, agents, editors and readers

Aline’s post yesterday got the “little grey cells” in my noggin a bit agitated yesterday, and as I worked on a graphic design project, I kept spacing out, mentally going back to her post, rather than paying attention to what I was supposed to be doing.

Ronald Arbuthnott Knox
If you look at Ronald Knox’s “rules for crime fiction”, admittedly dated, you will be immediately struck by how stultified (how’s that for a 50¢ word?) crime fiction was and remains to this day. Throwing away the comment about “Chinamen”, nine of the ten rules are still very much in effect. As a matter of fact, where new writers are concerned, the rules have been carved in stone. If there were a Crime Writing Hall of Fame (now there’s an idea…), the stone tablets would be on display, a warning to budding scribblers that they breach the “rules” at their peril: it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to sell the manuscript.

[I propose that in place of the original Rule 5, we substitute: “No novel shall be written without featuring a series character or characters. If it’s a law enforcement official, they must be flawed or unhappy. If an amateur sleuth is used, they must be (at least somewhat) likable, resourceful, but above all plucky.]

Back in the Dark Ages when I attended university, I had a superb English professor who was stuck teaching required English for second year Ed students. Sadly, I don’t remember his name (other than his given name was Ted), but I do remember his sage advice: “In every novel, something must change. Whether it’s a physical state or a mental one, something must be different by the last page of the book. The narrative is carried by what happens to cause that change. Period.”

The comment came about because in class we were discussing a novel on which one of the students did a presentation. Several other students had read it, and reaction to the storyline and characters was all over the place. The argument (it couldn’t be called a “discussion” for more than the first three minutes) raged for a good hour with our prof sitting there nodding, a curious smile on his face. At the end of the class, he summed up the discussion with the words quoted above, and sent us off to write an addendum to our reports on the books we’d chosen to present, based on the comment.

I have carried that thought with me ever since. I know why the crime writing “rules” exist. They make sense in a way. They’re all about playing fair with the reader. However, “corporate interests” have also crept in, making rule breaking all but an indictable offense. Try writing a crime novel where there is no murder or at least a death. Or, unless you’re writing a thriller, you really are walking a precipice if you write novels that are not part of a series. I know. I’ve broken both those rules. One novel had no death in it. That story died of natural causes and was never completed. My publisher at the time made it clear they wouldn’t publish it. As for the other rule breaking I do with every full-length novel so far, anytime I talk to a publisher, editor, agent or reader, the first words out of their mouths are generally, “Is this part of a series?” On that score, so far, I’ve succeeded, but it’s hard sometimes not to succumb to their entreating expressions.

Except in the case of readers, this expectation to write a series is driven by marketing concerns: readers want series. On the readers’ side, if they’re given characters they find interesting, they will return to future novels because there is a comfort/voyeuristic element in finding out about people’s lives. A successful series will generally sell better than a bunch of standalone novels. So that’s why there would be a reason to include my new Rule 5.

As for the other rules, a new writer breaking those will almost always run up against resistance, even if they’ve worked out a brilliant solution to their rule breaking.

That’s just the way it is.

8 comments:

Toe Hallock said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Toe Hallock said...

Rick: I don't blame you one bit. I swear all this nonsense began with Frank Herbert's "Dune" trilogy. I also believe the future of fiction writing lies in the short story or flash fiction format. Like the sound bites we now get on most of our TV news broadcasts. Same with reading. "1984" is catching up with us. Yours truly, Toe.

Vicki Delany said...

My book Gold Mountain has no death. I admit it's a rarity. But it is a crime novel - someone is kidnapped and the focus is on rescuing that person. Thus returning the town's inhabitants to it's normal state of affairs. So it can be done.

Rick Blechta said...

Yes, Vicki, it can. But my point was that if you're just starting out, you'd better "toe the line" (no pun intended, Toe!) or you'd better write the most amazing book to cross someone's desk in a long time. You are an established author, Vicki, so they're more accepting of your rule breaking than would be the case with an aspiring writer.

Donis Casey said...

I'm thinking of Gillian Flynn. If you write stand-alones only, do they have to be about psychotics? I'm also thinking of Earlene Fowler, who does fit the mold in that she is an established writer with a popular series. She made a bargain with her publisher that if they wanted her to continue the series, she could write at least one installment with no murder in it.

Donis Casey said...

I'm thinking of Gillian Flynn. If you write stand-alones only, do they have to be about psychotics? I'm also thinking of Earlene Fowler, who does fit the mold in that she is an established writer with a popular series. She made a bargain with her publisher that if they wanted her to continue the series, she could write at least one installment with no murder in it.

Rick Blechta said...

Yes, but again, you're talking about an established author. They have more clout -- as demonstrated by the fact that Gillian Flynn's publisher gave in to what was essentially (nice) blackmail.

That's not what my post was about.

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