Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Breaking All The Right Rules

They’re the mainstays of formulaic writing. You know the stories, like Pretty Woman, where poor misunderstood or unfortunate character is going to be faced with a moment of self discovery, when they realize what they were meant to be, and of course they’ll have a chance to change everything and become fulfill their destiny.

And I don’t mean to mock fantasy in saying this, because I love that stuff. This is strictly mocking tired, predictable plotlines that have been done to death.

(And this post should have a warning – it’s one of the ones that proves how strangely my mind moves from one thing to another and dammit, it all makes sense to me so just try to follow along.)

I got thinking about this, in part because I’m going cross-eyed transcribing my interview with Mark Billingham for the next Spinetingler. I can’t reference the offending comment that’s prompted this chain of thought, because until my victims sign off (Ken’s going to back out now that he knows I call them victims) I won’t quote them. They get full chance to retract. Some think that’s being unnecessarily cautious, but most people I interview these days know me. And I’m not sure if anyone wants to go on record for each and every time they said, “Fucking MacBride.”*

But I can tell you that one of the great things about Mark is that he makes me think. I spend part of the time laughing so hard I miss half of what he said, and the other part with my mind ten steps sideways, thinking about something interesting he said. People always think of Mark as funny – and he is – but he’s also one of the smartest people in this business that you might ever have the good fortune to meet and talk to.

Anyway, the interview got me thinking about formulas. Formulaic plots, formulaic characters, the same stories retold, just change the genders or the scenery or the age of the protagonists.

Which leads to my thoughts on comparisons, and how we have this human tendency to box things in terms of likeness. I’ve had a few comparisons made after people read my book. One person said I reminded them of Julia Spencer-Fleming. Another said Michael Connelly. I even have permission from another (someone who blurbed my book) to quote them saying I’m the next Laura Lippman. (From your lips to God’s ears, my unnamed source. I’m total fangirl where Laura’s concerned.)

Much as I find those comments incredibly flattering, I’ve avoided referencing them in any lasting capacity (eg: in blurbs). I’m convinced it could only do me harm, because it automatically sets the bar for measurement. Laura’s had something like 14 books to hone her craft. If I’m comparable to her when I reach book 14, I’ll be happy.

But this is a bit of a side note to the point, because in thinking about comparisons, I got thinking of the tendency to compare an author against themselves. There’s a point where some readers start asking, if only subconsciously, Can this book be as good as their last one?

That’s an unfortunate place to be in, as an author. It means you’ve hit a threshold that readers may find it hard for even you to match. For some authors, it’s the plateau before the plummet. Some are sensible enough to avoid that, but many, mostly those who fall prey to formulaic writing and just producing what people want instead of continuing to grow as an author and take risks, falter.

Just the other day I was mentioning about the fact that I want to try whatever is interesting to me in my writing. That I’m not at the point where I have anyone putting expectations on me, and I’m enjoying that. It might sound like a bit of a contradiction, coming from me, because I’m such a fan of series characters.

I mean, I’m a huge fan of the Rebus series, with book 17 just being released last month. Well, some authors can do 17+ books in a series and never lose the touch, but not many.

Reading The Naming of the Dead was something I’d looked forward to for a long time. It was my first Rebus book since visiting Scotland. The Naming of the Dead takes place in July 2005, which was when I went to Scotland for the first time. In both 2005 and 2006 I drank in The Ox. I’ve seen Gayfield Square, and the station where Rebus works. Been to Mary King’s Close, and I could bore you to tears listing off the other Rebus-related sites.

Now, all Rebus fans know that the end is near. I’m on Inspector Rebus, so I’ve seen all the talk and speculation about raising the age of mandatory retirement for cops in Scotland and whether Rebus could continue as a PI… blah blah blah.

A couple years ago, it bothered me. Now, it doesn’t. If Rebus ends up six feet under I just want a headstone so I can pay my respects, and I can’t imagine a greater compliment to an author, that their creation would be so real to people that they’d actually care if they lived or died or carried on.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t skeptics, those who think the series has gone beyond where it should have ended.

So… what’s my verdict on The Naming of the Dead?

I think it’s in my top three Rankin reads ever. Top five for sure.

That’s all I’m going to say about that book. I don’t see any reason for me to review it. End of the day, there are some books you just want to have the opportunity to enjoy and I was completely absorbed by the book.

Now, for those who know a fair bit about Scottish crime fiction, John McFetridge raised in interesting question on his blog and perhaps someone knows the answer. I don’t. If Christopher Brookmyre, Ian Rankin or Denise Mina could just hop on over to John’s blog, maybe he’d get the answer.

And damn, now I’m curious enough to want to know. I think I’d suppressed that Rankin scene. Nasty.

Now, this is where I wish I could cite something Mark said in the course of our interview, but I can’t. What I will say is this. Thank God for the authors that don't write to formulas. There are certain authors that have become for me my comfort reads, authors that never fail to push themselves to raise the bar higher, and never cease to amaze me with what they do.

Rankin’s one. Mark Billingham’s another. Edits, travel and a myriad of things have conspired to keep me from reading some books the minute they came out this year, but I have to buy them right away, so that as soon as I have the time to read them I can. There is nothing like going back to a trusted author, one who’s impressed you time and again, and settling in for a great read, and that’s what I’ll be doing a lot of next month, once all this stuff is cleared off my plate. Oh, I know I still have a pile of work to do, but I’ll have a clear head, and I’ll be able to lose myself in more great books. Until then, I’m holding on so that when I crack them open, I can savour them.

Who are the authors that never disappoint you guys?

* This may or may not be an actual quote. It might also have been something I thought when Stuart was editing my book. It could also be what Val McDermid thought when Stuart called her Valerie…


Bonnie Calhoun said...

Authors that never disappoint me...Ted Dekker, Frank Peretti, and Robert Liparulo!

Vincent said...

Given my genre's not crime, I'll throw in some names probably not mentioned elsewhere: Robert Rankin and Diana Wynne-Jones. I would say Terry Pratchett, but he has disappointed me once or twice. The reasons for that I suspect are those you mention - setting an incredibly high standard and the dangers of maintaining a long-running series (37 Discworld novels at last count).

Anonymous said...

The one author who never disappointed me is John Straley. Some efforts were stronger than others, but all his novels are superb.

Lawrence Block never disappointed with the Matthew Scudder series, but Bernie Rhodenbarr could be very hit and miss. Keller is interesting, but never quite captured me. But then there are his standalones, like Random Walk and Small Town. Ouch. Painfully ouch.

SAND STORM said...

I am going to turn this around to when I was disappointed. After reading about a dozen of Robert Ludlum's books I anticipated each as a good read and a form of comfort with a familiarity of his plotting and story telling.
Then came "The Road from Gandolfo" a complete departure. It turned me off Ludlum for years. This is why some authors (wisely) use pen names. A reader expects a certain book or style and a drastic change can alienate that reader. My two bits.

angie said...

"* This may or may not be an actual quote. It might also have been something I thought when Stuart was editing my book. It could also be what Val McDermid thought when Stuart called her Valerie…"

LOL!! What a lovely bit of smoke-and-mirrors ass covering!

Most authors disappoint at one time or another. Two that have yet to stumble (for me, anyway) are Neil Gaiman and Ken Bruen. These two writers, working in very different genres, never cease to delight me.

Another guilty pleasure is Rex Stout. Yeah, yeah, dangerously close to cozy, but they're just so much fun that I don't care. I can pick up a Nero Wolfe and know I'll find something there - humor, interesting characterization, occasionally a really unexpected plot twist.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Interesting to see how diverse the range of tastes here are! Am I going to be beaten up for saying I've never read Ted Dekker, Robert Liparulo, Robert Rankin, Diana Wynne-Jones, Terry Pratchett, John Straley, Lawrence Block, Keller, Robert Ludlum or Neil Gaiman?

Interesting point about pen names Sand Storm - I find myself wondering if I'm going to need one.

You know what I think, more than anything for me? When it comes to certain authors I have implicit trust. I think part of what's wrecking books for some is that they've spent too much time obsessing over where they'd like to see the author go, and of course they can never be satisfied. The author has to follow their own vision for the characters, imho.

Anonymous said...

I consider myself an avid reader, and if I manage 50 books a year these days, I'm really cooking. I wouldn't beat anyone up for not reading something. We can never read it all.

angie said...

Yes, you are going to get beaten up for never having read Neil Gaiman - heretic! And you call yourself a writer!!!

Okay, he's not a crime fic writer, but jeezly weezly the man can write. Not that you have any free time whatsoever, but of his newish stuff, American Gods was...well, god-like.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I'm such a painfully slow reader, really, it kills me. I mean, certain things, I can zoom through. Articles, news stories... but books? I think it took me about 14 hours to read the new Rankin book. And that's when I'm absolutely glued to the book and want to read for prolonged chunks of time.

I hate it.

John McFetridge said...

My favourite is Elmore Leonard. Forty-some novels and they keep getting better. But Ian Rankin never disappoints, either. (I'm also a big fan of Alice Munro)

In all his Rebus books he's been circling this idea of belonging - how do you know where you belong. Rebus has never 'fit in' anywhere and it's a theme he keeps coming back to again and again.

Sandra, maybe next time you talk to Ian Rankin you can ask if this was conscious from the very beginning, or if it took shape as Rebus developed.

JamesO said...

American Gods is a good intro to Neil Gaiman, but if you're strapped for time, pick up the first Sandman graphic novel, or something he did with Dave McKean, like Violent Cases. He's so good I want to punch him on the nose.

Robert Rankin's last but one - The Brightonomicon, didn't do it for me, and there was one who's title I forget with a character in it called McGuffin (for Hitchcock fans), that was a deep disappointment. Pratchett stumbled a bit when he was writing three books a year - but a step down from his usual high standard is a step up for most.

I'm very easy to disappoint, though - I can't think of any author who has never written a below-par book in a series. Well, maybe not Stuart, but he's only written three so far, so there's still time;}#

JamesO said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sandra Ruttan said...

James, I won't tell Stuart you said that, LOL!

And John, that's very funny. To be honest, I would initially speculate that it goes back to Ian's own childhood. I first read it in interviews, but it may also be touched on in Rebus' Scotland (huh, now I'll want to check) that he felt like a bit of an outsider as a kid, not really fitting in.

And that goes to what it is for all writers. We are standing on the edges looking in. In a way, you could say we see more than we experience. That might not quite be fair, but I think from a certain point of view it holds up.

But if you read The Flood, the issue of belonging and being an outsider is central. I could be wrong, but I'd place my wager on it being more to do with Ian than evolving with Rebus.

Check out the second last answer here:

Daniel Hatadi said...

I can't think of a single author who hasn't disappointed me at some point. But that doesn't mean I haven't been blown away by people like Frank Herbert, Orson Scott Card, Ken Bruen, Jonathan Lethem, Peter Temple.

Actually, scratch that. Peter Temple hasn't failed me yet. The bastard.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Are you calling authors names Daniel?

Don't you have 30,000 words to write or something? ;)

Sela Carsen said...

One of the only authors who has never disappointed me is Robin McKinley. I could read her stuff over and over. Oh wait. I do!

And Julie Cohen in category romance. She's new enough she "only" has 4 books out, but the ones I've read are winners.

Daniel Hatadi said...

Sandra, I'm trying not to think about it, okay? ;)

Sela Carsen said...

And I only just read my first Terry Pratchett recently -- Carpe Jugulum -- and plan to read lots more!