From the Dark Side

I’ve written before (here and elsewhere) about the writing workshop I participated in, fifteen-some years ago.

An odd cast of characters, maybe: three writers of poetry and literary fiction then seeking their graduate degrees in English, with an emphasis on creative writing; one writer of comic action stories (think Carl Hiaasen, maybe with a touch of Elmore Leonard); one writer of horror and science fiction…

…and I.

I was the only one who’d published a book to that point, my mystery Crossed Wires. But I didn’t think of myself as a “mystery writer.” (Crossed Wires‘s prose and structure, I think, suggests the crooked posture of a writer in a genre he knows he’s not suited for.)

I didn’t know how to classify myself. My reading tastes were all over the map. I’d read a great deal of science fiction while growing up; liked reading mysteries and thrillers; had been bowled over by the caliber of the romances published by friends*; was moved and challenged by fiction I read in The New Yorker and similar magazines.

Horror? Well, I’d read a lot of horror comics when I was a kid. I didn’t mind “scary movies,” but didn’t get many chances to see them (other than classics from the ’30s). When I got older, I read some King and Koontz, and — on the strength of the paperbacks’ striking covers — I read some of Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series. But for the most part, horror fiction didn’t interest me. Beyond what seemed a core of authors with wider aspirations and deeper, more complex psychologies, y’know, It Was All Just Blood.

But the SF/horror writer in our workshop kept bringing to us his inventive little fantasias of things gone frighteningly wrong. And this got me thinking: I wonder what it’s like to write horror? So I tried it. Once.

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The “Greener” Other Side of the Fence

Agent Jessica Faust of the BookEnds, LLC blog, on “Offering Representation to Published Authors,” seeks to reassure new authors that things could be worse for them: they might have a track record.

If a previously published author comes to me seeking representation, I need to, of course, look at the new work to see if it’s something I would even want to represent, and then if it passes that test I must consider the sales figures for the author’s previous work or works, and this is where things can get sticky. In case anyone has forgotten, this is a business, and when considering a new author a publisher’s, and therefore an agent’s, primary consideration needs to be how money can be made and how much. An author who only two years ago had incredibly poor sales numbers is going to have a hard time crawling out from under that. Bookstores are going to look at those numbers when placing orders and editors are going to look at those numbers when making an offer. So, unless the book is absolutely phenomenal, or a completely new direction for this author, it’s going to be a difficult sale for me.

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Getting It Out of My System (2)

(Part 1 of this N-part series was here.)

'Skydiving' by amab7 of sxc.hu (click for original)Let’s see, where were we… Oh. Right. I’d just posted excerpts from the Prologue to Crossed Wires, my 1992 mystery, and Chapter 1 from its never-published sequel, Trapdoor. And I said that the differences between those two excerpts sprang from “something” that happened in the roughly one year that elapsed between their two writings — something whose principal result was to relax me.

This isn’t the story of how I came to write Crossed Wires. (A lot of that crosses over into autobiography — not relevant right now.) No, it’s the story of what happened after I wrote it.

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Getting It Out of My System (1)

[In a post a few days ago, I started to nose around my “issues” with writing mysteries, thrillers, and the like. This is the perfect time do something I really don’t like to do, much — to lay out the story behind one of my formative experiences as a writer: the publication, in 1992, of my first book. In a couple days, in part 2, I’ll cover how it got to print. In this part, I’ll try to purge myself of some second thoughts about the book itself. And maybe, in the process, I’ll get the damned monkey off my back.]

Crossed Wires didn’t get many really good reviews, a fact which stunned and wounded its author. On the other hand, I learned that even when reviewers found some honest-to-God fatal flaw, they were nearly always generous enough to close their reviews on an “up” note.

I’ve got a folder of Crossed Wires reviews sitting on the desk here, right by my hand. But I’m not (for now) going to quote specifics. Instead, I’m going to talk in generalities — categories of things which bothered reviewers. The complaints were of three kinds (not all equally easy to dismiss):

  1. Complaints about the heroine, Finley’s, depiction as a hearing-impaired person. Surprisingly, these complaints came primarily from individual readers and online communities who were themselves hearing-impaired. The problem was never, He shouldn’t be writing about this stuff. Instead, it was Oh, this isn’t what it’s really like to have a problem hearing… That would never happen with a hearing aid. And so on. While it sort of bugged me, this criticism was the easiest of the three types to ignore — because, of course, Finley’s experiences with deafness and hearing aids had been my own.
  2. Complaints about the lack of mystery to this “mystery”: how easily the reader knew in advance who the killer was, how slow on the uptake were the “good guys” (especially Finley). I’ve got no excuses in this department. (On the other hand, as you’ll see in part 2, I had some professional help in mucking up the storytelling.) Unfortunately, the mystery at the heart of any mystery novel, the suspense in any thriller, is its reason for being; even if I’d eliminated complaints of type 1 (above) and type 2 (below), this one alone would have killed the book’s chances for success. And rightly so.
  3. Complaints about the writing style. While these didn’t come from the majority of reviewers, they probably stung the most. Somewhere here on RAMH recently, or maybe it was a comment on a blog somewhere, I mentioned that I think of myself more as a writer than as a storyteller. Every family member (of course), every friend, every teacher and school newspaper/magazine advisor I’d had through college, every editor with whom I’d ever corresponded on story proposals and so on… they all agreed: “John can write.” That someone — professionals at that, who by definition must appreciate good writing — that they didn’t join the chorus, well, it just flabbergasted me.

It’s this third sort of critique which I want to talk about here. And I’m not going to argue the point, either. I’m going to agree with it.

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