Monday, March 05, 2007

Growth & Expectations

I think two of the biggest threats to a writer’s career are stagnation and growth. I know this sounds like a bit of a contradiction, but I just finished Mark Billingham’s latest Thorne novel, BURIED, and it really got me thinking:

Sucks to be Mark.

The reason I say that is that I have seen, again and again, the differing opinions over some of Mark’s books. I’m specifically thinking of an old fight, about 18 months ago, on Val McDermid’s forum… I’ve seen people get hostile over the books in the series that didn’t work for them as well as other books in the series did. Mark’s series has provoked strong reactions from some readers, and this is something authors should be mindful of.

I’ve thought about it at length. Why is it that the book I love the most, THE BURNING GIRL, always seems to elicit extreme reactions from readers? In general, there’s little middle ground with TBG. People either love it or loathe it.

Now, I’ve thought about this for ages, and I even talked to Mark about it when I interviewed him. But reading BURIED made me think about it all again.
I know that some of the critics lashed out against TBG because it was a book that broke the ‘formula’. They didn’t like it because it wasn’t like the first three in the Thorne series.

To which I say, Thank God. Not because the first three books weren’t great books in their own right. But it goes to one of those two threats writers face: Stagnation.

Tuesday the new issue of Mouth Full of Bullets will go live, and my apologies for the fact that my face will be plastered on the home page of the site for the next three months. BJ Bourg has interviewed me, and he asked me which of the short stories I’ve written is my favourite, and why.

The why is easy. Because I gave myself a challenge, to do something new and (for me) difficult, and felt like I’d achieved my goal. For me, that’s what short fiction is about. You’ll find me writing about butchers who may or may not be cutting people up, serial killers, hitmen and (in the case of the story I name as my favourite, which you’ll have to wait a few months to read) unsafe sex.

And those of you who have read my book will know that the subject matter of those short stories is pretty far from the tone of my debut novel.

The thing is, I never want to feel like I’m writing the same book twice, or that I’m just covering the same old ground again and again. And eventually fans will tire of that as well – I gave up reading one series I’d enjoyed when, a dozen books along, I had the sense I’d been reading the same book over and over again for a while. For me, every time I work on a story or manuscript I’m giving myself new challenges. It might be as simple as saying, “Do better on your descriptions” or as complicated as saying, “Write a book from the perspective of the criminal,” which is something I haven’t done yet. I’ve written plenty of short fiction from the criminal POV, but not a manuscript.

Not yet.

This is where the second threat writers face comes in. Growth. How can growth be a threat? Well, readers begin to develop expectations. They are, after all, fans for a reason. They like what you’re doing. So, if you push yourself to grow, and move in different directions, sometimes you’ll lose some of those readers because they simply don’t like what you’re doing anymore.

See? The two threats - stagnation and growth.

This is one of the reasons I have such a high level of respect for Mark. He pushes himself. He doesn’t stay in his comfort zone and stick with what’s expected. He takes risks, and they always come from his desire to continue to grow as an author.
I got a wonderful message recently, from someone who had great things to say about SC. And then, what has become the inevitable, a comment about hoping to see more of Farraday…

I absolutely love getting the feedback from people who’ve enjoyed the book. It’s fantastic – there really is no greater feeling than knowing that people have read your stuff and enjoyed it. Each person who’s written has given me a buzz, no question.
But as I was thinking about BURIED, and about the fact that Mark is presently working on a standalone novel that won’t be part of the Thorne series, I got thinking about the fact that WHAT BURNS WITHIN has a lot of differences from SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES. It’s a different series. Different location. Different characters.

The tone isn’t the same.

And that’s one of the things that will work for it and against it, same as the other manuscript that’s presently in limbo-land (ECHOES AND DUST). The tone of E&D is very different from SC. Some of the people who read and loved SC will have no problem making the transition to something darker, something truly noir, but there are others who won’t be able to handle it. I had one person abandon E&D after the first murder, all of a few pages in.

But I wouldn’t change the tone of the book just to make it more suited to the people who liked the tone of SC. The book would never work. It’s about people who are fundamentally different from the people in SC, and they don’t see the world the same way. With a different perspective comes a different tone. That is not necessarily good or bad… Just different.

I think it will be easier for people who liked SC to make the journey over to WBW, and I do hope WBW can launch a new series, one I can really sink my teeth into. The second book is already in the early stages.

But after that, I’m going to write a standalone. I’m lucky. I can do a draft fast – on average, 6 weeks. Which means that even if I’m under contract to do one thing I can squeeze in luxury writing on the side. Until now I’ve focused on short stories as a way to push myself, but I want to write a standalone.

And then I’ll write a PI novel, just because.

Just don’t bank on me coming out with a cat mystery any time soon.

Oh, and another reason I love THE BURNING GIRL? Precisely because of how close to the edge Thorne gets, how the lines blur. It was a darker, edgier Thorne, one I could really respect. That might sound like a contradiction to some, but I don’t like guys who are weak, manipulated by women or who let themselves be pushed around at work all the time. When you’re willing to cross lines to get to the truth it shows just how determined you are to get a result, no matter the cost to your soul.
And people are very interesting when they come face to face with the darkness within themselves.

I haven’t said much about BURIED here, because that wasn’t the point of the post. I do recommend it and I think Porter is a keeper. For me, the Thorne series has become one of my mainstays, along with Rebus, and Billingham an author I turn to when I’m in need of a great read because I know he’ll deliver.

Next up, an indulgence. Ken Bruen, another author who has proven that – Brant, Taylor or standalone – there isn’t a damn thing he can’t do. And whatever he does, he does it all soooo incredibly well.

And if you haven't joined Crimespace yet, what are you waiting for? I've got a place for you at the bar.


Anonymous said...

I have a different take on stagnation and growth, but it comes from a strange place: I'm the guy who tried 10 different things, couldn't get published, and finally found a voice. I am so happy writing from this guy's POV, I can't imagine wanting to try anything else. For now anyway, I am thrilled to stick with him and see where he takes me.
Jersey Jack

Trace said...

I try something different with every book as well. I need the challenge, otherwise I get bored. This time it has to do with dealing with an issue that hits a raw nerve with me.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Jack, it happened for Mark writing the same character. The reason, as simple as the nature of the crime. The first three books are more serial killer books, the fourth clearly isn't.

Trace, yeah, some of those issues can be a real challenge. Sometimes writing is quite painful.

Gabriele C. said...

I have a distinct voice, too, and while it may get different shades, it won't change completely. But I wonder how that Mediaeval Historical Fantasy will stand out among the Roman Empire Historical Fiction books.

Anonymous said...

I read a max of three in any series then move on. I prefer the Robert Ludlum "new every time" approach, oh sure he had been pressured into multiple Borne's but most of his are stand alone. I even got into a spat with a publisher (I'm still unpublished that's dedication for you) because I said my next book would be different and they wanted a series, works for some and I may do it at some point when I'm ready or have more for the characters to do. Nothing against those who write a series but it doesn't suit all of us of course it suits the publishers just fine.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Gabriele, that's exactly the kind of distinction I'm talking about. In Mark's case it was just a different type of crime.

Sand Storm, I think there are some series where you might be selling yourself short. Basically, I give up on a series when it starts to get repetitive and I feel like I'm reading the same basic story with new villains inserted. But there are some series that move from strength to strength. My favourite three Billingham books are the last three published. My favourite Rankin is probably still A Question of Blood, which is #14 of the 16 in the Rebus series.

I think authors like Laura Lippman have been able to breathe life into their series by alternating standalones.

That said, one of the things I deliberately did with WBW was give it three focal characters. I'd like to be able to follow all of them to differing degrees, depending on the book. There could be a book where it's all Tain, but it would still tie to the series, or a book where it's all Ashlyn. Or a book where it's just two of them instead of three. It gives a lot of range.

I don't mind starting with a series at all. I just don't want to do one thing for 20 years.

Anonymous said...

Sandra I think you've made a good choice and it will allow you to branch off with these characters. With regards to Rankin and Lippman we will have to agree to disagree, I never made it that far with either and haven't read 10 of any series since the Hardy Boys 30 years ago. But I know how popular a series can be it's just not for me to read or to write at least right now.

Daniel Hatadi said...

The very best artists are those that constantly strive to reinvent themselves or to push their limits. Some people like more of the same but I think that can lead to an artistic 'death'.

And now I must read more Billingham. As soon as I finish this and this and this ...

Sandra Ruttan said...

Sand Storm, we'll see... It may also blow up in my face.

Daniel, if people walk away from this deciding to read more of Mark's work, I won't complain!

Peter said...

I have my first Billingham in the good old to-read pile, but I have been thinking along some of the same lines as the folks posting here. I recently posted a comment about authors who spring a surprise or make a change in mid-series.

I cited Michael Dibdin's basing a novel on a Mozart opera, Karin Fossum easing her "protagonist" in to the background and making the perps, victims and suspects the protagonists in one book, and Peter Lovesey killing off a wife who had been a source of domestic bliss for Inspector Peter Diamond.

I asked readers to suggest other examples, and I'll ask you all as well.

And I must have more series patience than sand storm. I've read twenty-two of Westlake/Stark's Parker novels, thirteen of his Dortmunders, twenty-two of Bill James' Harpus and Iles novels and Janwillem van de Wetering's thirteen Amsterdam Cops novels.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Peter said...

And talking of finding a voice and trying out ideas, all crime writers (and other writers, for that matter) must admire and envy Donald Westlake because he is so full of ideas.

Not all of them work, but I am impressed by how often he turns a "what if ... " into a novel.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"