Archive for June, 2013

bad bloodDana Stabenow’s newest Kate Shugak mystery, Bad Blood, has been getting some mixed reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Some readers comment that there’s not enough Kate in the book, that much of the story is told from others’ points of view. As a matter of fact, the crime in the book isn’t really connected to Kate directly—it’s her lover, Trooper Jim, who has to deal with a series of murders that take place in two feuding rural settlements. Kate does help, but it’s Jim’s show.

But the more serious objections concern the book’s climax. I’m not going to do any plot spoilers here. All I can say is that the book ends with an epic cliffhanger, one that has several readers very upset.

In a way, I can sympathize with this reader reaction, although I don’t agree that Stabenow is being “unfair.” Writers can basically do what they want with their characters, although readers obviously don’t have to like it. But there’s a legitimate question about whether authors should leave readers hanging at the end of books, particularly when you know there won’t be any relief for a year (the amount of time it usually takes Stabenow to publish another Kate book).

The problem, as I see it, is that writers make a kind of pact with readers. They ask readers to become involved in characters’ lives, to become interested in their adventures, ultimately to care about them. In exchange, authors offer closure. Readers may not like what happens to characters, but at least they know what happened. Stories have endings, they don’t resolve into the kind of chaos that frequently characterizes reality.

Fiction, particularly pop fiction, offers a patterning of events. That’s one of the many reasons people come to novels. Unlike real life with its messy clusters of incidents that may lead nowhere, pop fiction proceeds in a more or less linear fashion to its conclusion. And you want to know what that conclusion will be. While you may give a nod to possible future events (as in the kickers that frequently come at the end of blockbuster movies like The Avengers), you bring closure to the series of events you’re currently dealing with.

But the cliffhanger doesn’t do this. Some plotlines may be concluded (and this happens in Bad Blood), but some are deliberately left open. And in the case of Bad Blood, the plotlines left open are crucial to the future of the entire series. Television series do this regularly, of course, but it’s less common in fiction. And readers may be justified in feeling both shocked and furious when they find themselves dropped into this situation without warning.

I said before that I didn’t consider this an issue of fairness, but I do think there’s a question about how smart this kind of plot is. When you work hard to build readers’ investment in a character, to make them care, does it make sense to then exploit that caring by leaving readers hanging about a character’s fate? George Martin argues that he didn’t want his readers to find heroes in Game of Thrones, so he apparently feels no compunction about inflicting murder and misery upon his main characters. But those of us who write mysteries and romances don’t have quite as much latitude, nor do we want it.

So do I think the ending of Bad Blood is a bad idea? Yeah, pretty much.

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woman writingI just finished the latest Amanda Quick novel, The Mystery Woman (and before I go any farther, yes, I know Amanda Quick is actually Jayne Anne Krentz, but let me go on referring to her as Amanda Quick for simplicity’s sake). Like most Amanda Quicks of the last few years, it follows a formula: woman with paranormal abilities finds herself in perilous situation with unknown assailant. She’s rescued by a mysterious man with his own paranormal abilities. They join forces to solve a mystery. They fall in love. Woman is put in hazardous position with unknown assailant. Mysterious man rescues her. They solve mystery. Curtain.

As far as I’m concerned, the fact that several of Quick’s recent novels follow this formula isn’t particularly troubling. Most romance novelists follow formulas, including me. Sometimes they’re the formulas set up by the genre (e.g., the Impoverished Bluestocking Attracts Bored Aristocrat formula), and sometimes, as with Quick, they’re formulas that the author herself has established in previous books and that readers have come to accept as the formula for an Amanda Quick book.

Now the fact that romance novels frequently follow formulas is sometimes cited by critics as another reason why romance novels suck, but as usual that’s nonsense. All popular fiction follows formulas—it’s just that some critics prefer the formulas used in mysteries and sci fi to those used in romance. When I read a Carl Hiaasen novel or a James Lee Burke novel I’m also seeing their formulas, and although I like them, I’m not ready to agree that they’re automatically superior to the formulas used by, say, Elizabeth Lowell.

There is, in fact, something comforting about a book that follows a formula, particularly if it’s an author you like. When I pick up a Nora Roberts thriller, I have a fair idea of what I’m in for and I settle down with a lot of enthusiasm to see how she’s elaborated the formula this time. You reach certain landmarks in the book and you feel satisfied: Oh yeah, you think, this is where the hero will realize how sharp the heroine really is.

The only problem with the whole formula idea comes when the author lets herself get lazy about using it. Formulas can have a certain fill-in-the-blanks quality. If an author has a long-established plot routine, she needs to be very careful to keep the other elements of the story fresh. The characters need to have something special going on so that they’ll hold your interest when the plot doesn’t. If the author falls into a routine, the results can be monotonous, and you find yourself thinking same old same old. I’ve been known not to finish books when they’re a little too by-the-numbers.

The Mystery Woman doesn’t quite fall into that category, but it’s not among Quick’s best either. I have a feeling she’s gotten a little too comfortable with this particular routine—the story and characters are both a little too predictable. And that’s a shame.

But there’s a relatively easy solution to this problem. You create a new formula. Or you rework an old one. Or you tinker with the one you’ve been using just enough to make it sort of new. Not so much that you change it drastically mind you (ask Charlaine Harris how readers react to that), but enough to make readers occasionally sit up and blink.

I’m guessing Quick will do that at some point. She’s done it before and it worked out. And when she does, I’ll be reading her new one, thinking Oh well played! I didn’t see that coming.

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BonesIt’s always interesting to see your favorite books turned into television series, but it can also be troubling. The troubling part is what I’m thinking about at the moment, particularly as it applies to the television versions of two favorite book series: Bones and Rizzoli and Isles.

Both shows are based on long-running book series, by Kathy Reichs and Tess Gerritsen respectively. Both Reichs and Gerritsen have science backgrounds—Reichs is a forensic anthropologist and Gerritsen is an MD. And both series feature female scientists as lead characters. Unfortunately, both series seem to feel very nervous about seeing those female scientists as anything but freaks.

Let’s take Bones, for example. The lead character of the television series is Temperance Brennan, a forensic anthropologist at the “Jeffersonian Institution.” Temperance is brilliant, but she’s totally without people skills. Her friends and colleagues must continually correct her when she runs roughshod over people’s feelings or misunderstands simple human interactions. In fact, there have been times when Dr. Brennan has seemed so out of tune with reality that I’ve suspected she suffers from Asperger syndrome.

Now look at the Kathy Reichs books on which Bones is based. Again the central character is named Temperance Brennan, and again she’s a brilliant forensic anthropologist, but there the similarities end. This Temperance works as a consultant to police departments in Montreal and North Carolina. She’s divorced and has an adult daughter. More importantly, she had no particular problems interacting with the public. She works effectively with both her fellow scientists and her police contacts; in fact, she’s occasionally more skillful in talking to witnesses than they are. She’s as well acquainted with social mores as any other person she meets and she can toss off pop culture references with the best of them. In other words, she’s a normal woman who happens to be a very intelligent scientist.

Why am I making a point about this? Possibly because the difference between the television and book versions of Temperance underlines something that’s both troubling and annoying: the tendency of television to portray female scientists as non-functioning human beings. If Bones was the only example of this tendency, it might count as an anomaly—but it isn’t. Maura Isles in Tess Gerritsen’s books has several problems, but being unable to function in normal society isn’t one of them. Yet the Maura Isles in Rizzoli and Isles is another example of someone who doesn’t quite understand how the “common folk” operate—her partner, the more “down to earth” Jane Rizzoli, is constantly correcting Maura’s confused idea of how the man on the street thinks and talks. To be fair, male scientists in television series sometimes suffer from the same treatment, as witness the nerdish physicists on Big Bang Theory. But male scientists can also come across as “normal”—thus Hodgins on Bones may have a few hang-ups regarding conspiracy theories, but he can communicate with others and seems to have a solid grip on the way the world functions. And back in the days when CSI was an interesting series rather than a train wreck, Gil Grissom was clearly in command of his facts.

The problem here is that television lags behind books when it comes to the portrayal of strong, intelligent, functioning heroines. And if anyone wants to argue that Temperance needs some flaws to make her interesting, I’d point out that Reichs’ original Temperance is a recovering alcoholic who slips off the wagon at least once in the series. That’s a realistic flaw. Being too smart for your own good isn’t.

So I’m glad to see television production companies looking at book series for inspiration, but I’d like to see them go farther beyond the mere outlines of character than they’re using at the moment. Given the popularity of the books by both Reichs and Gerritsen, the reading public seems ready for intelligent heroines who can manage to hold a normal conversation. I look forward to the day when television is too.

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woman writingHere’s a little-known truth of writing: you’re always in love with next year’s book. Next year’s book is the new guy at work, the strap-hanger on the bus who looks a lot like Ryan Gosling, the new barrista with the cute smile. Next year’s book makes your heart race a bit, and the more you work on it, the more in love you fall.

This is it, the One, the relationship to end all relationships. Nothing can stop us, baby—you and me now and forever.

And then, into this little bower of bliss, an editor drops the ultimate bring-down: last year’s book. You know, that past relationship, the guy you thought was so cool, the one who was going to be the One. That one.

It is, of course, fruitless to complain, to claim that you’ve moved on, that you don’t want to look backward toward that old relationship. You have to go back to him, at least for a little while, because there’s no way your editor will let you off the hook about this. The two of you will be a couple again for the length of time it takes to fix all the weak spots you didn’t see when you were in love.

At first it’s a painful process. You find yourself shaking your head in disbelief. Why didn’t I notice how weak he was in secondary characters? Why did I think his plot structure was so great when it’s clearly a mess? And oh, how could I have missed how shaky he was in the subjunctives? That alone should have been a tipoff.

But as you spend some quality time with last year’s book, it’s possible you may fall in love again, at least a little (although it will never be as good as what you have now with this year’s book—or so you tell yourself). You remember how he made your smile with that little bit of dialogue. You find yourself growing nostalgic over that elegant Big Black Moment. Ah, good times, good times.

Still, it has to end. Yes, the relationship was good while it lasted, but it’s over now. Time to move on. You bid last year’s book an affectionate good-bye, sending him on his way to find other lovers (you hope), who’ll appreciate him for all the sterling qualities that made you fall in love with him in the first place.

And now it’s back to your new love. Next year’s book is so fantastic, so beautiful, so clever. He’s everything you’re looking for in a book. Perfect, just perfect. And he will never be last year’s book. Until, of course, he is.

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