Thursday, October 26, 2006

Same Old, Same Old

There are a lot of things I occasionally read but don’t comment on. Certainly not for lack of interest, and this particular topic is one of them. Do you ever find yourself getting bored with crime fiction?

In most typical annoying fashion, it was a question that lingered with me long after I read it. The reality for me is, I’m an exceptionally slow reader. I don’t know why that is, exactly. I love to read and always have but I certainly don’t move through books at the speed of some other people I know, and I envy them that.

Being a slow reader and the need to write reviews compounds my problem. I don’t have that much free time anymore to just read whatever I want to read. As a result, there isn’t even room for the question in my mind of what to do if I get bored with crime fiction.

Do I get bored with it? Yes, sometimes I do. I get bored when the stories feel one-dimensional. Now, I’m in a bit of a different boat, in a way. I had been working on children’s fiction, and had initial positive feedback on my project. I’d queried it to HarperCollins, and received a personal letter from an editor there, expressing enthusiasm despite the fact that the age didn’t quite fit what they were looking for, and recommending three other publishers who might be interested.

But I’m one of those people who always has to be doing something fresh, and I’d had the foolish idea to try writing crime fiction, because it was what I liked to read. The thing is, I hadn’t read widely in the genre.

At the point at which I finished my first two books (in first draft form) I’d never read Val McDermid, Laura Lippman, Mark Billingham, Simon Kernick… I still haven’t read Ruth Rendell. I know, I know. And you call yourself a crime fiction author? It’s weird to say that in my own writing I like the luxury of variety so that I never get bored, but in reading I tend to be monogamous. One author, all the way through, then depression as I look for another one.

I’m much better at moving around from author to author now, and trying new authors. In a way, that’s the good side of reviewing. It brings a lot of authors to my attention I otherwise might not have heard about, and some of them I really like.

But all of this means I don’t ever feel the luxury of stepping away and reading something different. I don’t feel that widely read within the genre to begin with. Oh, my bookshelves are overflowing, and the last names that you can see on spines include Rickards, Swierczynski, Guthrie, Burke, Harvey, Wilson, Taylor, Bruen, Reah, Sharp, McFetridge (John has a new website!), Torres, Cooper, Mofina, Connelly, Frasier, Mina and many, many more.

I just still feel like there’s so much ground I haven’t covered.

Now, despite the fact that I don’t feel the luxury of reading much outside crime, it doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally find books to be lacking. There are definitely ones that just seem to go through the motions.

Sometimes, it might be on me as a reader. It may well be that I am bored with reading the same old, same old, so everything feels stale. It may also be that I’m so anxious to write something fresh myself that I’m distracted. Let’s face it – there are times in our lives when a book has to be better to hold our interest because we’ve got a lot going on. Well, for me, anyway. When I have a lot on my mind I find it hard to read because I’m always thinking about what’s weighing on me.

Which circles right back around to the other thing I was thinking about yesterday. The fact that I was happier than I had felt in a long time.

Oh, that doesn’t mean life is perfect. Not by a long shot. But I restructured some things in my life. I actually could write for prolonged chunks of time. And I couldn’t remember the last time that had really happened, not like that. I hadn’t realized how much some things were stressing me out until I put them in a box. I had actually expected to feel more stressed. Instead, I felt relieved.

I’m one of those people who doesn’t like group work. I never have, because even as a kid others wanted to partner with me because they knew I’d pick up their slack. I always felt a bit like why bother even giving them part of the job when they won’t do it? I may as well do it myself and save myself the time.

That mentality hasn’t served me well. In fact, it’s contributed to me being a bit of a control freak. And it’s contributed to a lot of burn out, as I continued to try to carry more and more on my plate than I could manage.

In a way, working with kids was the best lesson, because you can’t do their craft for them. That’s the whole point. You guide, you demonstrate and then you let go.

I still have a really hard time learning to let go.

Which leads me back to the initial question. Am I doing more harm than good to always read in the genre, despite my time constraints? Would it rejuvenate my level of anticipation for books by occasionally varying what I read?

I was going to say that I couldn’t remember the last time I read something that wasn’t crime fiction, but I can. Ian Rankin’s The Flood. Given the subject matter I’m not sure it’s appropriate to say I really enjoyed it, but it was a great read for me.

I guess the trouble is, as always, down to my own prejudices. I deliberately went to the mystery section five years ago to find something to read (and ended up picking up my first Rankin) because I hadn’t been satisfied with what I had been reading. A few misses in the mystery genre had put me over in the fiction section, and I tried a number of books I didn’t like or finish. I created my own system for selecting new authors within mystery, one that really worked for me, and was walking away with a high level of satisfaction.

Hence my not feeling the need to look elsewhere when I went back to the 'mystery' section. A philosophy which must change somewhat anyway, because Cornelia is over in general fiction as well.

I just wish that had occurred to me five months ago when I was scouring stores for a Rick Mofina book and couldn’t find it. Fuck, that was annoying. I literally went to two cities and I think in the end something like seven stores and didn’t find the book.

Because he isn’t shelved in mystery.

Yep. A wee bit slow on the uptake there, Sandra. And that’s what you get when you go to stores where the staff don’t read.

So I’ve made a decision. I’m going to pick up Anita Shreve’s Light on Snow, just for something completely different.

I believe in giving credit where credit is due, so I must thank Norby for THIS. It is, as Norby said, “sort of wrong, but funny.”

Too true, Norby. Too true.


Christa M. Miller said...

This is why I read blogs, actually - to get book recommendations on what's fresh. I'm a speed reader, but what I have in ability I lack in time - so I'm always looking for books I can escape into, not ones I've "read" before.

One thing you might also try is ask people to surprise you. I never would've picked up House of Sand and Fog on my own, but it was a Christmas present and I loved it. Same with Girl With a Pearl Earring.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

I read a lot of things outside the crime genre: poetry, history, natural history, science fiction and fantasy, mainstream lit, classics. It all depends on my mood. I usually read 2-3 books a week, sometimes more if I'm lucky, and only 1 or 2 are crime novels. As much as I love crime fiction, I'd get bored if it were all I ever read.

S. W. Vaughn said...

I think this is why writers are driven so damned hard to get to the point in their careers where they are paid to just write. With that trophy comes the freedom to finally take the time to read all those books we couldn't pick up over the years and years we struggled to juggle writing, career, family, and free time...

Oh, wait. We don't have any free time. Make that writing, career, family, and more writing. :-)

JamesO said...

It's always a gamble picking doing something out of your comfort zone, and that includes picking up books from previously unvisited sections in the store. I'm a slow reader too, and the thought of investing so much time, let alone money, in something that might not be what I really want to read has me scurrying back to the familiar shelves and the same old names time after time.

Fortunately for me, my father is a voracious reader - when he was resting after a hip replacement operation he devoured three paperbacks a day - and his recommendations to me are usually good. I discovered Ian Rankin that way, and I didn't have to buy any of the books either.

The blogs have helped open up new avenues too, but it still comes down to the hours I can spare and the sheer number of books out there. And I find I have to finish what I've started, no matter how bad it is. There's only one book I've abandoned halfway through, and that was non-fiction.

angie said...

If I just read crime fiction, I start getting bored & irritated. And that sucks, because I love crime fic. It's kind of like eating nothing but mac and cheese - I love mac and cheese, but damn I'd get sick if that's all I ate!

It's hard to find other books that are outside of my fav. genre, though. So I'm picky. I spend a lot of time listening to what other readers suggest & reading excerpts on Amazon before I plunk down my cash. But when I get a book that I really enjoy, it's totally worth it and helps me to see writing and story-telling in a different way.

Trace said...

I had to do a double take when I saw my name on your list, Sandra. I wondered who the other 'Sharp' was. LOL! And now that I'm working at a book store to keep myself sane and get my reclusive self out of the house, I'll be pushing the hell out of YOUR book.

Anonymous said...

This has been a crime fiction year for me, but generally I read with greater variety. In fact, when I finish my draft this weekend, one of my rewards is going to be a political biography of Napoleon I picked up last year and never got to.

Trace said...

I've gotten into the paranormal stuff more as of late. I crave new things but always go back to the things I love.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Christa, that's a good point about blogs for referrals, but damn woman! I dislike you speed readers. Well, just for your abilities.

Patrick, read what I said to Christa. Goodness! How do you people do that?

SW, LOL! That's too true.

James, it was fortunate for you, because it was definitely cheaper to discover Rankin through your dad than through me! I don't give up my copies.

Angie, I seldom read excerpts on Amazon, but I did for Light on Snow. Of course, I've read Shreve before and liked her stuff, so this isn't reaching all that far out of my comfort zone...

Trace, soon there will be two Sharps on my shelves. Just as there are two Burkes. And thank you - you're too kind!!! If you haven't read Pale Immortal yet, I think you'll like it a lot.

Bill, it's been a while since I read a bio. That really would be a change of pace!

John McFetridge said...

One of the things I like about crime fiction is that as a genre it can encompass a pretty wide variety of stuff. I never knew much about it as a genre, but I've spent twenty-five years going to different sections of bookstores to find the Elmore Leonard novels, so I'm used to that.

When my first novel was published earlier this year (thanks for the website plug, Sandra) the publisher put the words "a mystery" on the cover. My editor didn't want that. We went back and forth. The publisher won (there's a surprise).

But I now think he was right.

I was worried that because my novel isn't about a detective solving a crime that "mystery readers" would feel misled. Well, so far, no one's complained about that.

But if it hadn't said, "a mystery" then maybe people who read crime fiction wouldn't have found it. Maybe no one would have found it. So far it's been reviewed mostly by 'mystery' reviewers. They may not have reviewed it.

And the 'crime fiction genre' seems like a great place to hang out. So far, my feeling is that the 'genre' writers and readers aren't nearly as specific about their stuff as the publishers think they are.

I mean, I've heard a few people say (in that snobby, superior voice) that they don't read mysteries (or sci fi, or chick lit, or whatever you want to fill in the blank with), but I've never heard someone who does read mysteries say that's all they read.

I think, 'literature' is just another genre, with maybe even stricter conventions and formulas and less variety than many of the other 'genres.'

Christa M. Miller said...

Sorry. I was hoping you would feel better knowing that I cannot read (or, for that matter, write) for more than 5 minutes at a time owing to "Mama, I need..." "Mama, come play with me..." "MAMA!" LOL

I don't know why I'm a speed reader. Quite possibly it's because I grew up reading crime fiction and was so eager to see what happened that I just learned to absorb faster. I do go back later and reread for language, missed details, etc. at a much slower pace.

That probably still doesn't help. Again: Sorry!

Daniel Hatadi said...

I started reading crime fiction because I wanted to learn how it was done, now I love it, but I can't say I feel a particular loyalty to any genre as such, just good stories in general.

Still, I only have two years of crime reading behind me, and I want more! If only I could compress reading time so I could hurry up and get a few more years behind me.

Sandra Ruttan said...

John, in the midst of email yesterday, I never got back to this. Oops!

It's funny, because I do think of your book as more of a thriller. So, that's intriguing to me. I don't feel misled at all, because I think mystery was initially supposed to encompass thrillers. Somewhere along the way there's been a shift with that, as best as I can tell without researching the history of labeling.

It's funny that this goes back to almost a year ago, looking for books by John Rickards, but then I went through this a few months ago looking for Rick Mofina. It wasn't until Kevin and I went to the bookstore with an actual list in hand of authors we wanted to look up that he started locating a bunch of them in fictions & literature.

Curiously, Erica Spindler is shelved in both sections. And things like that leave me hopelessly confused. Same publisher, in some cases same book. In her case, I suppose it isn't hurting to be in two places instead of one, but what about all the other authors that can't be said for? I never could figure out why I wasn't finding Tess Gerritsen books. But it still goes to what I said - I found them because I deliberately went looking. So, what if you haven't heard of the author? In my case anyway, much much less likely that I'm going to get the book on a random impulse.

Christa, in your case being able to speed read is likely more than fair compensation for the interruptions! You must be counting the days...

Daniel, it'll happen. I foolishly thought when I started writing that I should stop reading, in case my ideas were similar to someone else's and I felt I should give up. Sort of an inverse fear of plagiarism that, although I knew my idea was original and my own, you look at all those books and wonder what hasn't been done.

What I'm curious about with you is, why PI novels? What is it that pulls you there? Strictly life background - I'm trying to remember whether the writing was the chicken or the egg in the scenario. It isn't even 6 am so I'll probably kick myself later...

Daniel Hatadi said...

I had that same fear of reading spoiling my writing, but I've since trained myself to simply read all the time. Now I can separate the two tasks easily. Kind of like playing guitar and harmonica at the same time, but without the neck harness.

My interest in the PI sprung from the character I came up with. Remember I was doing music under the name 'Danny Hawaii?' Well, that was a corruption of my own name. Then I decided that this 'musician' was a Paranormal Private Investigator. The steps after that all stemmed from research.

And now it's all on the backburner as I pursue my latest challenge: a supernatural crime thriller with a touch of the historical about it.

All that effort for a bottle of whiskey. Sheesh.