Monday, August 25, 2014

The Chosen and the Wannabes

I’ve recently read three books by bestselling mystery authors. If I had written any one of them, they would not have been published by a big five publisher. Sour grapes? I don’t think so; I think it reflects the reality of the hoops a wannabe author has to go through today to be published by the Big Five.

One of the bestsellers started with a bang and then proceeded to give not one, not two, not three, but four solid pages of backstory. In order for me to win a Big Five publishing contract, I first need to have an agent agree to represent me. I can (almost) guarantee that no agent would ask for the full manuscript if I presented them with a terrific page and a half followed by four pages of backstory.

Anyone disagree?

Oh, by the way, it was a decent story once we finally got to it. However, the only reason I could see for forcing the backstory down my throat in one huge chunk was laziness. It would have taken more time and effort to break it into smaller chunks and provide it as/when needed. I kept reading because I was committed to reading the book and taking notes on what this author did well (and there were a number of things).

The second bestseller drove me crazy with mid-scene POV shifts. No white space between character A’s POV and character B’s POV. One paragraph it was A, the next it was B. Most were clearly intentional, illustrating a style I find often in literary works, but less frequently in the mystery genre.

Okay, I thought, when you’re rich and famous, you can push the envelope. I’m good with that—until I came to several POV hops: a quick intraparagraph POV shift from A to B to A. If intentional, I wondered why. If not, I wondered where the editors were.

And yet, those POV switches didn’t faze Jan a bit when she read the book, which she liked. When I pointed out the “errors,” she acknowledged she had read through them because she was into the story. Fair enough, I thought. I’m too critical because I write to avoid those types of POV shifts, and so they jar me when I do read them.

However, I do think agents would pitch my submission into the reject pile as illustrative of poor writing technique.

Number three had me going from page one. It continued strong through the middle and kept me reading one night much later than I had intended. Really good stuff. The ending was a total disappointment. It felt as though the author hit his word count target, added one final chapter so there was some conclusion, and wrote THE END.

The beginning sure sold the story. The ending convinced me not to read the next one, which I doubt was either the author’s or publisher’s intention. I am of the “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” camp. There are too many good stories to waste time if I can afford it, so this author is off my preferred list.

Which is what agents say as they go through their submission piles. I’ve come to the conclusion that wannabes must write well. Bestselling authors must write quickly. The best of the best can do both.

I was at the Mystery One bookstore in Milwaukee earlier this year speaking with the owner, who said something to the effect that, “The best writing today is being done by midlist authors.” To which I might add, and some of the wannabes.

~ Jim

[First published 8/24/14 on Writers Who Kill]

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