When is a mystery not a mystery?

Yesterday I finished a book and was astounded.  Not by the quality of the writing, which was excellent.  Nor by the detail in the characters and the background, which was extremely enjoyable because I grew up in that setting and recognized the people and the places they inhabited.  No, what astounded me was that the author did such a magnificent job and then committed what is still considered one of the top no-nos for any mystery writer.

He didn’t introduce the killers until around ten pages from the end of the book.  Not a hint, no clue as to their very existence before that.

I can hear mystery readers crying “No fair!” all over the world.  Mysteries are meant to challenge the reader.  Half the fun is the head-smack at the end when we cry, “Oh, that’s what that meant!”  How can we enjoy the challenge if there’s no possible way we can even know of the killers’ existence until the very end of the book?  Much less try to ferret out the clues that give them away?  For all it’s virtues, the ending of this book was about as engaging as having the cavalry come riding to the rescue at the last moment, when we were never told there was a fort just over the hill.

Now, if a book is really good, even of literary quality, readers will forgive you for breaking a “rule”.  Or maybe not.  Anyone remember “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”?  The outrage has died down, but the embers smolder and will flare up whenever the book is mentioned in a group of two or more mystery diehards.  Because the author was the great Agatha Christie, people went on to read her succeeding books, of which, after 1927, there were a heck of a lot.  Most were written strictly by the unspoken contract between mystery writers and their readers:  i.e., to give them a fair chance to see if they can spot the clues and prove themselves at least as smart as the sleuth.  Dame Agatha was, if not wholly forgiven, at least not kicked out of the “Detection Club”.  Although from what I’ve read, Dorothy L. Sayers held onto her grudge.

For all my pleasure in the people and places of the book I just finished, I have to ask myself:  do I want to bother reading the next in the series?  What if they’re the same?  What if they, too, treat the reader as a passive unthinking consumer and not as a partner in the creation of new worlds in our minds?  I read mysteries for escape, yes, like everyone.  But I also read to stimulate my mind, to see if I can beat the author by spotting the clues and a-ha-ing the red herrings.  It’s a pact, it’s a partnership, it’s a puzzle challenge.  And it’s a promise that every mystery writer is still expected to make, that we will “play fair” with our readers.

It’s why I don’t write suspense or thrillers.  They’re a different kind of promise, a different kind of escape.  I love to read them, and they are an escape I indulge in frequently for the pleasure of it.  I love following the characters through their dangers, holding my breath and waiting to see how they escape, accepting my passivity as I munch my popcorn.  I’m just along for the ride.  It doesn’t matter whether I identify the source of the danger on the first page or the last, as long as the trip itself is a good one.  I know what I’m getting when the blurb says ‘suspense’ or ‘thriller’.

Mysteries are a different animal.  Time was when they were all blended together and called ‘crime fiction’.  But readers have branched off, created their own clubs and divisions.  They’ve forced bookstores to have separate shelving for each branch.  Readers know what they want and when.  And when the cover says ‘mystery’, I want it to be just that.  A mystery.

Starting over again, again

They say change is good.  It wakes up the brain, stimulates the imagination.  Forces you to see what your eyes tended to slide over because you’d seen it so many times before.

So here I am, seeing green mountains instead of desert, rivers instead of dry washes, myriad birdsong instead of a single far-up cry of a hawk searching for breakfast down among the cactus.  It’s very relaxing after a year of conflict and disruption.  Maybe too relaxing.

I don’t know enough about the area to start plotting a murder mystery, although I’ve been told they do happen around here, no matter the seeming tranquility.  I’m tempted to write at least one more book about the desert and those wonderful cops who patrol it.  But can I remember enough to make it come alive, as I experienced it?  I could write of an amateur or even professional detective who has been transplanted, but that seems to have become almost cliché.  On the other hand, can I learn enough of the deep-down life here to really understand it?  I have no confidence of that, not yet, despite having personal “ins” to the police, fire departments and emergency services, not to mention the families.  A little more time, perhaps.

Meanwhile, I will try my hand at creating a plot in an area I am familiar with, enough to bring “real” people into it.  Maybe not the desert, but I have lived many other places – the Midwest, the Southwest, Mexico.  We shall see!

Kid in a candy shop (i.e. bookstore)

0420171417Good writers are always good readers.  But even in today’s world of cheap digital books it can be too easy to run up one hellacious bill.

Both of my parents grew up in the depression, and the maxim “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without” was a strong part of their psyche. My father was proud that he could support his family by himself and could give my sister and me an allowance, which was to cover most of our small desires and FOR WHICH we were expected to perform certain chores, such as making our beds and keeping our rooms clean.  If we sloughed off, we were docked our allowance.  I spent a lot of time at the library.

I was in junior high school when I offered my mother a deal: If they would double my allowance (from fifty cents a week to a dollar!) I would wash and dry the dishes every single night, no matter what. I was a bit miffed when I came home from my first out-of-town job and discovered that my younger sister was getting five bucks a week. For the same work. The aggravation of inflation and the cost of living.

But whatever, the thing I quickly learned in childhood was the value of putting in the work to earn the pay, and then budgeting that pay — I could blow the dollar on Cokes and comic books, or I could save up and buy myself a pair of nylons that didn’t have dried nail polish all over them to stop the runs.

These days I may have progressed from comic books to novels, but it’s still tough reining myself in at the bookstore.

Choices

0104170931    When I moved here, I looked around to see what kind of support systems there were for writers in the area.  I found one with some sort of “Writers League” name.  It had been around for a long time and seemed to have a lot of prestige, so when I saw they were giving a panel talk, I went down to listen and perhaps join up.

All of the panelists were “traditionally published”, which is great if you can get it.  I’m old enough to remember dreams of being some day published (back then ‘traditional’ was the only game in town).  I dreamed of being edited, coddled, feted and sent around the country on my publisher’s dime to meet people and sign my Great American Novel.

It’s a little different now, even if you do score a contract with one of the Big Whatever-number-they-are-now-it-keeps-getting-smaller.  No big travel budgets, no coddling.  You had better do a professional editing job (or hire it done) before you even send it in to the slush pile.  And if you aren’t a Gaiman, a Kellerman or a Patterson, good luck with that.  You probably won’t make the first assistant reader.  But that’s okay, because now, frankly, we have choices.

Which is how one of the panelists answered when someone in the audience said her daughter had written a novel and was thinking of self-publishing, and how did they feel about that?  The first panelist was a decent man, and although you could tell he didn’t think much of it, he tried to answer honestly.

“It’s one way to go,”  he admitted.  “Just tell her to be ready to do all the work herself.  Not just the editing, and not just all the marketing at her own expense, but the formatting, creating a cover design and discovering how to submit cover and manuscript to the right commercial platform, depending on whether you want ebook, paperback or both.  She will have to do it all.”

It was a fine, sensible answer.  Wannabe bestsellers need to realize how much work it is when you try to self-publish.  And if you hire someone else to do the work, odds are you won’t make your investment back.  But you will be published.  Do it right, and you’ll be up on Amazon within a month of sending it in to Createspace or one of the other publishing platforms.  Right up there with your name in lights.  Or at least on a search engine.

Then the next panelist leaned forward and said,  “Actually, people who self-publish are just lazy.”

Really?  Did you not just hear the warnings about doing all the work yourself?

He went on,  “They just don’t want to bother going through the rejection process.”

The rest of the panel bobbled their heads in agreement.

So writers only self-publish because they are too lazy to spend two years or more trying to get an agent or a publisher to pay enough attention to their manuscript to tell them how to rewrite it so they can send it in again.  And again.  And maybe again.  They’d rather go the lazy way and learn how to edit, program, and format their entire manuscript, along with learning how to design a cover and price their product.  And then how to set up at least five different marketing media platforms.  That’s so much easier.

He went on in this vein for some time, not letting anyone else have much of a say.  I don’t think he ever realized the point at which he had pretty much lost his audience.  No one was rude enough to get up and walk out right then.  But from the comments I overheard afterwards, a lot of people had decided that if this group was too elitist to stick their heads up out of the twentieth century and see what was really happening in the publishing world, then they had nothing to teach the rest of us.  That’s a shame, because I’m sure there is a lot they could share.  They just have to work on their presentation.

Working on the new book

0104170931I just spent the morning sitting at the local Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, making notes for the new book in the Del Sueño series. I wish I had a dollar for every business type who walks in carrying his laptop in a shoulder bag. There are more polo shirts than button-downs and more jeans than khakis. Texas casual?
My plot is becoming clearer, but last night I decided to kill off my main character’s little daughter. Crime writers are nasty creatures. But in this case, the little girl died long before the start of our story. If she died in the car crash that killed her father, it would better explain the main character’s compulsion to find out what really happened to her friend’s child. Her friend is not as sympathetic a character as she first appears, so I needed something besides just good will and old time’s sake. But now I have a few questions for the main character that had been answered by her daughter’s chatty [nosy?] nature. Sigh.
Chop down one plot problem, three more grow in it’s place.

Lake Travis Novel Writers Book Signing

Robert HauerMonday, December 5, 2016
2:00 PM to 4:00 PM
Lake Travis Community Library

1938 Lohmans Crossing Rd., Lakeway, TX

Meeting room to the left as you enter

Join us on Monday, December 5, when members of the Lake Travis Novel Writers will discuss and sign their latest novels at the Lake Travis Community Library, 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Authors on site will be Christy Esmahan, award-winning author of The Laptev Virus, winner of the 2015 National Indie Excellence Award, and her latest in the series, The Cobra Effect; Lara Reznik, Amazon best-selling author of The Girl from Long Guyland, The M&M Boys and Bagels and Salsa; Joe Giordano, author of Birds of Passage, a coming-of-age story about an Italian immigrant; Marcia Feldt Bates, author of Oys and Joys, a story of four boomer friends who laugh, cry and support one another; Nancy Smith, author of The Slow Kill, a near-future sci-fi father and son tale, and Tainted Harvest, a historical novel set in 1692 Salem; Eugenia Parrish, author of the Del Sueno mystery series: Murder at the End of the Line, The Tattoo Murders and A Cold Blue Killing; and group organizer Pat Dunlap Evans, author of To Leave a Memory, a tender and funny story of forgiveness, and Out and In: a women’s mystery-thriller set in Dallas. Novels will be available for purchase. Light refreshments will be served. No charge to attend, so come on out and support your local novelists.

Lake Travis Novel Writers is a support group for published novelists (Indie/traditional), and we share ideas and encouragement. If you have not already met us, bring a copy of your novel(s) for show and tell. Discussions range from our most recently published novel to the process of writing and marketing.

The Texas Book Festival

The weekend of November 5 & 6, 2016, Austin’s streets will be lined with booths and pavilions full of authors and books for your browsing pleasure.  Come visit us at the “Sisters in Crime” table and see what murder and mayhem Austin has to offer!  And listen to some great music, too.

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