Our Book Club Friday guest today is Shelly Frome, a professor of dramatic arts emeritus at the University of Connecticut, a former professional actor, a writer of mysteries, books on theater and film, and articles on the performing arts. His latest mystery, Twilight of the Drifter, is a southern gothic crime-and-blues odyssey. Visit Shelly on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @shellyFrome. -- AP
What is the Story Here?
To keep up with the times, I thought I’d take out a subscription to a few writers’ magazines and add some more websites and twitter accounts. I was curious to know how far things had gone in terms of our new era in publishing.
And lo and behold, within the pages of the magazines, I found this statement to be typical: “Readers of fiction are faced with saturated genres and a limited amount of time and money. Any title has to immediately grab their attention. The market doesn’t lie.”
In one issue, someone calling herself a literary change agent claimed that reaching readers is a matter of blanketing social media, blogging anywhere and everywhere, and “passing out fliers on street corners” if need be.
To meet these demands, contributors billing themselves as successful pros offered sure-fire tips like these:
“Use plotting strategies that make the book a winner. Give readers a hook at the get-go. And be sure to leave them with a take-home thought.”
“Make them laugh and cry. When readers laugh and cry they’ll get that emotional high they’re looking for along with that walloping payoff.”
“Before you start, come up with a logline that make buyers sit up and say ‘gotta read it’.”
“Try this for a ploy. Redesign an old hit TV show for the texting, tweeting, Lady Gaga generation. It’s a great reminder how important it is to always have your readers in mind.”
Ah, yes. Oh, well.
The added blogs and tweets echoed the same mindset. In fact, the dozens of new daily e-mails snowballed into a promotional frenzy. Urging everyone to check out a free book, the fourth winner in a row; or take in a crime series and get really hooked; latch onto a P.I. story everyone loves because it’s an ultra rare extraordinary read; and/or get set for a page-turning thrill ride. One lady outdid herself shopping her hair-raising gypsy escapade by tossing in a war-horse. And she continued to push this angle with every post.
One of these networks was caught up in an ongoing harangue over eliminating all middle men. Agents weighed in claiming they alone can wade through the slush given their knowledge of what’s really trending.
As if this wasn’t enough, Linked-in offered me four more networks I could join.
Seeking a quieter approach to the topic, I began watching conversations with writers on Charlie Rose’s show. Arguably, there’s no more easygoing host than Charlie Rose and no more casual writer willing to share his secrets than John Grisham. Soon, however, it was back to more of the same. Grisham claimed that readers have an insatiable appetite for crime stories about lawyers and scandals. Once they pick up a book, the trick is to make sure they don’t put it down. Novels that don’t work use too many words. You have to keep it moving, said Grisham. And the generator is your big idea. To locate it, you steal something. “Everything is fair game when you’re writing fiction. We all steal, that’s what we do.”
He went on to say, you simply narrow it down to a half-dozen one-sentence pitches and run them by someone. He chooses his wife who never fails to pick the one with the best instant hook.
Not that there’s anything wrong with any of this if you want to write externally. It’s just that it smacks of this same vendor-on-the-street-corner mentality.
Next, I came across the interview with Lee Child. He suggested that a key to his Jack Reacher series was the fact that his main character never changes. Readers always know who Reacher is and are reassured that he’ll always be taciturn, smart and ruthless, guaranteeing page-turning action.
Again, whatever works for someone is fine. I personally hate to think that readers nowadays are flipping through their touch screens while on the go looking for some way to pass a few extra minutes before boarding their plane or what-have-you. Along these same lines, I recalled yet another reference to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code in The New York Time’s book review section—e.g., utilizing “a badly garbled version” of historian Elaine Pagels’ analysis of the early church, eliminating characterization as Robert Langdon and other stock figures keep running. The outcome of the mayhem formatted to quickly “blow the minds of many readers.”
To reassure myself, I went back to the book review and took solace in author Sylvia Brownrigg’s guidelines: “Will I believe in these characters? How distracted will I be by implausible dialogue or forced plotlines? Hopefully after only a page or two there will be a sigh of relief. I don’t have to worry. She knows what she’s doing. She won’t let you down.”
From there it was only a few pages more to Marilyn Stasio’s Crime Reviews. There, as usual, I found myself drawn to stories designed for readers who were in no particular hurry. Who preferred events to unfold organically.
I also found myself remembering something Raymond Chandler once wrote:
“A good story cannot be devised: it has to be distilled. You can never know till
you’ve written the first draft. What seems to be alive in it is what belongs.”
Perhaps Mr. Chandler also found himself contending with the hustle and bustle of his day and opted for something more genuine.
At any rate, I’ve cancelled the subscriptions and limited the e-mails. For now, at least, I’ve decided to just follow my own course.
Thanks for joining us today, Shelly! -- AP