Archive for July, 2010

Long Time GoneWhen you write a series, you have one major problem that has to be dealt with—filling in the blanks for people who may not have read the earlier books. Authors who have long-running series are usually pretty straight-forward about this. Ed McBain always used to begin his 87th Precinct books with a quick run-down of any character traits you needed to know about in order to understand what was going on. After a while, I knew enough to skip over the descriptions of Meyer Meyer (who, we learned in every book, was bald as a cue ball) and the information about Teddy Carella being both gorgeous and deaf. Similarly, Linda Fairstein always includes a quick recap about Mike Chapman’s dead fiancée and the fact that Alex Cooper is a wealthy woman courtesy of her father’s surgical invention. That way if you pick up an Alexandra Cooper mystery for the first time, you’re oriented without having to read any of the other books to catch up.

I haven’t had quite as much to summarize in my Konigsburg books, but I’ve done a bit. Long Time Gone has perhaps a bit more than my other books because I needed to make sure readers understood Erik’s background and what he was trying to overcome. Some of that background had been mentioned in earlier books, but this was the first time I’d gone into it in depth.

The thing is, all of my books are self-contained: the story begins and ends within the book itself, although there may be passing references to occurrences in the other books. That’s why I can quite honestly say that I don’t think it matters which book you start off with, although there’s obviously an order in which the books take place. You don’t need to read Venus In Blue Jeans to understand Wedding Bell Blues, although you may want to go back later to find out exactly how Cal and Docia met and fell in love. I think of this as similar to the way Stephanie Laurens runs her Cynster books. No matter where you start in the series, you’ll be okay. But you may eventually want to go back to the beginning.

I was thinking about this the other day as I read Carla Neggers’s newest book, The Whisper. I love Neggers’s stuff, and I think I’ve actually read almost everything she’s written. But the task she has is a lot tougher than the task I have. Neggers has a continuing story that’s carried forward in The Whisper. It relates most immediately to the book that preceded it, The Mist, but there are also lots of references to the book that preceded The Mist, The Angel. And some of the characters date back to the first book in the series, The Widow. Now I’ve read all of these books, and I read them in order. But The Widow came out in 2006, and by now I don’t remember all the details or all the character names. In fact, truth be known, I don’t really remember the details from The Mist, and it came out last year. Thus Neggers needs to remind me of the necessary plot points along with setting up new readers who’ve never encountered these people before. She does it successfully, I think, but you have to hold on and keep going through a lot of characters doing a lot of somewhat mysterious things before the story begins to pull together. Neggers isn’t the only one who has to deal with this. Kay Hooper is up against the same problem in her paranormal thriller series, and Laurell Hamilton’s Merry Gentry books depend on some understanding of what’s gone before in order to understand what’s happening now.

Besides being tough to do, this kind of series also has a danger that I don’t have to deal with. According to one book buyer I talked to, some readers won’t buy a continuing series until all the books have been published. They don’t want to commit themselves until all the books are available. Then they’ll read the series straight through, assuming they remember that the series exists!

So even though the sort of “epic sweep” of a continuing series has its appeal, I think I’ll stick with what I’m doing now. After all, it’s hard enough to keep track of the characters and events in my limited Konigsburg world. I’d hate to think what it would be like if I had to figure out what was going to happen three books from now!

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Recently, I sent a chapter to my critique group from a new MS I’m working on, an urban fantasy. I knew it was rough, and I needed some outside opinions. I got a lot of good advice from a couple of critique partners, but I found myself automatically rejecting the advice I received from the third. Her first comment was that I had a lot of narrative at the beginning of the chapter (true) and that her editor had told her she should never have more than three pages of narrative in a romance.

Now there are a lot of responses to that. One is to say, “You mean three pages of Courier New double-spaced or three pages as they’d appear in the actual print edition, which would be more like five pages of Courier New double-spaced?” Another would be to look at a couple of romance writers to see if it was true (I checked the Nora Roberts I was reading at the time and immediately stumbled over five pages of narrative relatively early in the book). But realistically, I knew the thing that had set me off was the idea that there was some kind of absolute rule for the length of narrative. Had the critiquer said, “Boy you’ve got a lot of narrative here—I’m getting lost and/or bored,” I probably would have gone back to the MS and looked more critically at the passage. But something about the idea of a rule about how much narrative is enough based solely on number of pages rather than quality of narrative just rubs me the wrong way.

I feel the same way about a lot of “rules” that people cite with romances. For example, “The hero and heroine have to meet within the first ten pages.” Now the idea that the hero and heroine need to be introduced fairly soon, like within the first couple of chapters, makes sense. But the idea that they have to meet and meet quickly is just nonsense unless you’re writing a category romance with a very stiff set of rules provided by the publisher. If you don’t believe me, check the romances on your shelf. I’d be willing to bet that a significant number of them don’t have hero and heroine meeting within the first ten pages. The “No adultery” rule is another one that writers continually dance around. In Roberts’ Dancing On Air, for example, the heroine is an abused wife who’s faked her own death to escape her homicidal husband. Technically, she’s committing adultery with the hero, but I doubt any reader holds it against her.

The only romance rule that seems absolutely unquestionable is HEA. But even here, writers like Nicholas Sparks seem to slide by occasionally. Of course, he’s also dismissed by a lot of romance readers as not really writing romance. I tend to agree with that assessment.

The bottom line is this: if you, as a critiquer, don’t like something in my MS, fine. Tell me so, and tell me why. I may wince (and I may call you names, but since most of my critiquing is on-line, you won’t hear them). But don’t claim that my stuff is bad because I’m violating some kind of cockamamie rule. Rule or not, the problem is that you don’t like what I’m doing. I need to know that and I need to know why you don’t like it. Then I can either fix it or not, depending on whether I think it’s a legitimate complaint. But trust me, if you try to hide behind an artificial rule, I can guarantee I’ll ignore you.

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My fourth Konigsburg book, Long Time Gone, releases next Tuesday (contests and prizes will be forthcoming). It’s Erik Toleffson’s story, but it’s also Morgan Barrett’s story. Morgan is manager of a winery outside Konigsburg. As I’ve explained elsewhere, Texas is a big wine-producing state, and the Hill Country is one of the major wine regions. Long Time Gone closes with a wine festival, which is actually pretty typical. Texas is full of wine festivals year-round, but the festival in Long Time Gone may remind Texas wine drinkers of one in particular: the Fredericksburg Food and Wine Fest. Fredericksburg, for those who aren’t familiar with the area, is pretty much Hill Country Central. It’s an old town, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century and founded by German immigrants. Although wine production has spread throughout Texas at this point, there are still a bumper crop of vineyards and wineries in the Fredericksburg area, as well as some famous peach orchards.

Every fall Fredericksburg holds its wine festival, usually in October. Those in northern climes (like me) might consider that a bit risky—I mean we had a couple of feet of snow here on the Front Range last October. But in South Texas, October is the month when things finally begin to cool down a little. Which means that the Fredericksburg festival is a lot more comfortable than the Austin festival in May or the famous Grapevine festival in September, both of which tend to be blistering.

The Food and Wine Fest is held in the Fredericksburg city park, which also is well set up for festivals and arts and crafts shows. Here’s how I described the wine pavilion in Long Time Gone:

Around noon, Erik took a quick tour around the perimeter of the city park. All three pavilions were in use. The largest had the winery booths. The varicolored silk banners dangled over each one, with the winery’s name and logo. Across the front of the building was a table with the silent auction baskets full of wine bottles and gift-wrapped boxes with floppy ribbons. Hostesses from the Konigsburg Merchants Association milled around, dressed in cowboy hats and vests that made them look like waitresses in a kiddy restaurant.

joel guzmanThat is, I assure you, what the winery pavilion looks like in Fredericksburg, too. The other thing I stole from the Food and Wine Fest is the music. Bands play in their own small pavilion with an eclectic variety of musicians. The DH and I even caught the amazing Joel Guzman, accordionist extraordinaire, playing electric organ for one group.

However, for the several years we attended, the headliner was always the same: the legendary Ponty Bone and his band. Ponty played with the Texas Tornadoes among others, and his brand of music combines Tejano and Cajun in a kind of seamless blend.

dance leaderI also borrowed the idea of the “dance leader” from reality. I have no idea who this guy was, but he always led the line dances whenever Ponty got going, and he could be pretty nasty to anyone who didn’t get up and follow him, particularly non-dancing people like me who wanted to take his picture. Never mind. I revenged myself by making him an eighty-year-old banker in a Hawaiian shirt in Long Time Gone. So there.

So anyway, thank you Fredericksburg for providing me with so much material. And thank you all for reading my Konigsburg books. Long Time Gone will be available from Samhain Publishing starting July 6.

And now, a bonus. All who comment here will be entered in a drawing for a free copy of Long Time Gone when it releases on Tuesday. Let the comments begin!

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