Monday, April 30, 2007

The Library Link

The site for the library study--and many other interesting tidbits--is www.

What Kinds of Books Would You Not Read?

An East Midlands library recently asked their patrons to complete a survey on reading choices. Of those who responded, 26% were male, 55% were female, and 19% chose to remain incognito. Their responses are very interesting.

When asked what type of books they usually borrowed from the library, the responses were: 43.2% crime fiction, 29.6% family sagas, 26.4% literary fiction, 25.3% romances, 24.1% war/spy/adventure, 19% science fiction/fantasy, 8.6% chick lit, and 4.2% lad lit, with negligible responses for gay/lesbian fiction, black British fiction, and Asian fiction. These results were not broken down by gender in the report I read.

Now this part is particularly interesting. When asked if there were any types of book they would NOT read, 47% of the women and 32.9% of the men said they would not read science fiction or fantasy, while 31.1% of the women as opposed to only 9.9% of the men said they would never read war/spy/adventure stories.

62% of the men vs. 25.2% of the women said they would not read romances (does this mean that 38% of the men would read romances?) while 34.6% of the men vs. 9.8% of the women said they wouldn’t read family sagas.

Both men and women were likely to read crime fiction and literary fiction. Nearly equal numbers—only 13% of the men and 13.6% of the women—said they would not read literary fiction. And only 13.9% of the men and 15.6% of the women said they wouldn’t read crime fiction.

But women were slightly more likely than men to read gay/lesbian fiction, black British fiction, and Asian fiction: 53.8% of the men vs. 43.5% of the women said they would not consider reading Asian fiction; 73.6% of the men vs. 61.8% of the women said they wouldn’t read gay/lesbian fiction; and 37.8% of the men and 30.3% of the women said they wouldn’t read black British fiction.

Here’s a rather unexpected result: 54.5% of the men and 27.3% of the women said they would not read chick lit (in other words, 45.5% of the men would read chick lit). And nearly equal numbers—31.9% of the men and 30.1% of the women—said they wouldn’t read lad lit. In other words, women would be slightly more likely to read lad lit than the lads. So why is it called lad lit?

It would be interesting to know the ages of these library borrowers: are we talking little old ladies and tottering male pensioners? Teenagers? A mixture? Are the tastes of book borrowers different from the tastes of book buyers? And why aren’t more people asking these kinds of questions?

And if you’re interested in what types of books I would not consider reading: if I heard a book was outstanding, I’d read it no matter what its category. But for the most part I’d be highly unlikely to read gay/lesbian fiction, black British fiction, family sagas, or lad lit. I also don’t read much science fiction/fantasy, romance, or chick lit. Which makes me realize my reading choices are fairly narrow—literary fiction, crime fiction, and war/spy/adventure stories. That said, I’ve just started rereading Georgette Heyer’s FARO’S DAUGHTER and I’m having a great time…

These results are from the Library and Information Update, November 2003.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

When Life Gets in the Way of Writing

Last week I wrote a grand total of 6 pages. Eeek. Part of the problem was that I always have a hard time getting back into a book after a prolonged absence. But my main problem was just…life. A power outage and dentist visit; bounceback from a slime ball diet pill spam spree that took me all day to clear up (one is tempted to learn Urdu simply so one can better communicate with today’s technical assistants); a prolonged mother-daughter visit to the eye clinic; a graduation dress to be picked up; a senior prom to be primped for; the daughter at Yale who called and said, “What would you say if I told you I was thinking about going to medical school after I finished law school?”

And no, that’s not a picture of my car. That’s my daughter’s car. (She didn’t get hurt.)

Some writers seem to be better at turning all this off than I am. I’ve heard of many romance writers who shut their office door and tell their kids, “Unless it’s arterial blood or the house is burning down, interrupt me and you die.” I’ve heard of literary writers who leave their dinner guests at nine o’clock and go upstairs to write, and of prolific superstars who sit with their backs to the sea while on holiday and pound away on their laptops. Maybe if I could do that I’d be on the NYT bestseller list by now. Maybe.

But I can’t rearrange my priorities like that. My life—and the lives of my loved ones—are what’s really important to me. Somehow, the book will get written. But a life without the sun on my face and the sight of the sea and the fragrance of an antique rose would be immeasurably poorer. There’ll never be another senior prom. And sometimes children need to hear (over and over and over again), “I’ll support you whatever you decide to do. I just want you to be happy.”

Then again, the crumpled car, the power outage, and the non-native English speaking support personnel I could have done without…

Friday, April 27, 2007

Books that Change Lives

More interesting survey results from across the pond:

The organizers of the Orange Prize for women’s fiction asked groups of men and women to name the novels that had changed their lives. Perhaps not surprisingly, women typically chose books about relationships and families—think Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice. Almost every woman had a favorite “milestone book,” although the titles that emerged were varied, ranging from Lord of the Rings and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to Anna Karenina and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Men, on the other hand, seemed to have a hard time admitting to having either watershed moments in their lives or watershed books, and the books they chose tended to be angst-ridden tales about “intellectual struggle, violence, personal vulnerability, catastrophe, and the struggle to rise above circumstances.” Think Camus’ The Outsider, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, or Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.

Interestingly, most men named books they had read as children, particularly around the age of 15. In fact, many men between the ages of 20 and 40 expressed little to no interest in reading books that drew them into “personal introspection.” Those who continued reading fiction as they aged, however, became more and more interested in books by women.

The survey authors discovered that, in general, men use fiction “topographically,” as a guide through the rites of passage into adulthood, often seeing their favorite authors as mentors. Women, on the other hand, tend to use fiction “metaphorically,” as support through an emotional crises such as a difficult divorce or for relief from the boredom of unfulfilling stretches of their lives.

Four books appeared in the top 20 of both sexes: One Hundred Years of Solitude, Catch 22, Heart of Darkness, and To Kill a Mockingbird. To Kill a Mockingbird, by the androgynous-sounding Harper Lee, was the only book by a woman in the men’s top 20. There were six books by unambiguously named male authors in the women’s top 20.

After I read this article, I found myself thinking, Okay, what book above all others would I say “sustained me through key moments of transition or crises in my life?” That’s a very different question from, say, “What’s your favorite book?” Maybe I’m being guy-like here, but I’m having a hard time coming up with something. I’ll get back to you…

For the article, click here.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

How to Seduce a Woman (or at least an Englishwoman)

In knocking around the Internet looking for studies on men’s and women’s reading habits, I came across some interesting statistics. For instance:

According to the results of a survey published in a 2006 edition of the Telegraph, a majority of working women aged 35 to 59 would rather read a good book than have sex, shop, or sleep.

According to the Times, 85% of women questioned in a 2004 NOP survey said they are more likely to be seduced by a well-read man. (Why isn’t this finding better publicized?)

66% of people choose books on the basis of their covers, while 75% say they are influenced by book reviews, according to a 1999 National Survey of Reading Habits in the UK.

Nine out of ten British mothers say they read to their children at least once a week, with 70% saying they do so daily.

Also according to the Telegraph, the number of women reading romances in Britain has fallen off dramatically in the last ten years. 47% of women now say their favorite type of fiction is thrillers. Science fiction and romance were listed as their least favorite…which may or may not have something to do with their preferred leisure time activity as listed above.

And if you’re wondering why all these statistics are British, it’s because they seem to be the only ones asking.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Not Going My Way

Ever have one of those weeks?

Mine started with a Monday visit to the dentist. I was so nervous beforehand (local anesthetics don’t work on me) and so rattled afterwards that Monday was a kissoff.

I spent Tuesday morning tidying my office and getting ready to tear back into my fourth Sebastian series. At about 11:30, I started thawing the fruit I would use for my lunchtime smoothie and sat down to open my book’s file and start writing. Zap. The power went out. I could have written by hand, but I needed to run off my notes for reference. No computer. No smoothie. No yoga tape. No anything for more than four hours, at which point the day was essentially gone.

Determined to make up for lost time, I sat down at my computer this morning promising myself a disciplined quick run through my morning time wasting ritual of email, blogs, and news. I click on my email and discover an inbox overflowing with undeliverable messages bouncing back from some #@$& diet pill called Anatrim that is sending out spam using my website domain name. All morning. I have spent all morning on the phone getting this stopped and cleaning up my inbox. ARGH! I have always hated spam, but now I really, really hate spam. These are the people we ought to be sending to Guantanamo Bay.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

He Reads, She Reads, Part Two

When it comes to the genders’ reading habits, I’ve been operating on antidotal evidence so far. But Steve ran down an interesting article from the May 29, 2005, issue of the GUARDIAN we vaguely remembered reading: “Women are still a closed book to men: Research shows men mainly read works by other men.” It seems that when a couple of academics from Queen Mary College in London researched the topic, they found that four out of five men said the last novel they’d read was by a man. Interestingly, none of the men would actually admit that the gender of the author had any influence on their choice of a book. Yet many of the men couldn’t even name an important book written by a woman.

In a more recent article, “Men Dominate Waterstone’s Favorite 100,” Hon Howells, spokesman for Britain’s largest book chain, Waterstone’s, says, “Women read more than men—the core customer is a woman aged between 35 and 55—but what they read is right across the board: chick lit, crime fiction, biographies, heavyweight novels, and they don’t care about the gender of the author. Subconsciously, I think men stick to male writers. They think that what women write doesn’t appeal to them.”

In a subsequent study, when the academics from Queen Mary College asked men and women to list the books they found most influential, six male authors made it into the women’s top 20. Only one woman made it onto the men’s list: Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. It turns out that Ms. Lee’s androgynous first name led many men to mistake her for man.

Tess Gerritsen tells a story about a booksigning at a Sam’s Club where her media escort approached a male customer picking up a stack of thrillers and suggested he try one of Tess’s thrillers. The customer’s response? “Naw. I don’t read books by women. I don’t like the way they write.” The kicker in this tale is that when Tess looked at the books he was buying, she realized that two of them were actually ghostwritten by women. All of which suggests that it isn’t so much that men don’t like reading women’s stories. Many men simply don’t like reading books with women’s names on the cover.

Yes, I know this isn’t true of all men. Steve reads books by women authors. And just as I find macho strut male adventure stories unreadable, I can understand that men wouldn’t find chick lit or romances enjoyable. I can’t read most of them either. But women write many other kinds of books, and these studies suggest a level of knee-jerk prejudice that I find troubling.

From a practical standpoint, it’s also made me very glad I’ve chosen two male pseudonyms.

Monday, April 23, 2007

He Reads, She Reads

What makes a book appeal to a female audience? A male audience? All other things being equal (i.e., characterization, prose, etc), what elements in a book will turn off most women? Most men? I’ve been meaning to get back to this train of thought for the past week. I’ve probably been avoiding it because my thinking on the topic is still fuzzy.

Maybe the best way to tackle the question is to look at the two extremes—the kinds of books whose readers are almost exclusively of one gender or the other. For women that means romance and chick lit, while for men that means “men’s adventure” or whatever they’re calling it these days. So what characterizes these two extremes?

Romances and chick lit have female protagonists. While romances obviously require a male character, too, these books typically focus strongly on the female character. And as Charles pointed out in his response to my previous blog on this question, these books typically have a lot of lingering eye contact and florid descriptions of svelte young bodies, sexy hair, and great clothes (with an emphasis on clothes in chick lit). The conflict revolves around romance and/or shopping.

In contrast, male adventure stories have male protagonists. The lingering descriptions are of guns, cars, airplanes, ships, bombs—basically technology, especially lethal technology. Instead of love scenes there are fight scenes. The conflict revolves around power and money and control.

Yet women will read books about conflict over power and money, and men will read books that contain a love story. So what is the secret to appealing to both genders? I suspect it’s more a factor of what you leave out than it is a matter of what you put in. There is the obvious need to have protagonists of both genders, or at least a significant character of the other gender that readers can admire, respect, or identify with. After that, anyone interested in appealing to both genders needs to leave out the elements that typically turn off one gender or the other. That means no purple prose about abs and lips and hair, no boring descriptions of engines and rockets and guns. And while many women do read serial killer books, graphic descriptions of fighting and gore will probably lose a fair portion of female readers.

There is one other element at work here that I’m having a hard time defining without straying into politically incorrect territory. Basically, books read exclusively by women tend to deal with interpersonal relationships while books aimed at a predominantly male audience typically deal with saving the world or at least one small corner of it —think Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy. Then again, women have always been big mystery readers and that’s a genre that certainly deals with saving a small corner of the world.

But while there is some crossover, there’s a difference, isn’t there, between the mysteries women typically read and write, and the mysteries men most often choose? Maybe it would be most illustrative to look at the difference between the mysteries of, say, Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie and P.D. James, vs. the mysteries of Donald Hamilton, Raymond Chandler, and John D. McDonald. Or, to choose modern examples, Laura Lippman and Nevada Barr compared to Michael Connelly and Tony Hillerman.

The truth is, women will read a “man’s” book far more often than a man will read a “woman’s” book. I suspect most little girls of my age grew up reading Treasure Island and Huck Finn. But how many boys read Little Women? As a teenager I read Alexander Dumas. I doubt my male contemporaries read Charlotte Bronte or Jane Austin. (Does anyone except my daughter read these books today? Actually, come to think of it, she’s read Kipling and Twain and Dumas, but not Bronte or Austin or Alcott.) So maybe the secret of appealing to both sexes is simply to be male and avoid overloading your book with technology and gore. Then again, since women read much more than men, you could just forget the guys all together and go after the female readers. I suspect 99% of Janet Evanovich’s audience is female and it hasn’t hurt her one bit, now has it?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Spring, N’walins Style

The Destrehan Spring Festival was this weekend. It’s always a wonderful excuse to laze away a few hours on a balmy Sunday afternoon, stroll beneath the ancient live oaks, admire the old Destrehan plantation house, listen to good music and even do some Mother’s Day shopping.

But the absolutely best part was that for an entire afternoon I didn’t give one single thought to plots, character development, or movie deals!

Friday, April 20, 2007

One Down, One to Go

Finally, it’s finished! The revised manuscript of THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT, along with its CD, is as I write winging its way to New York. An emailed version is already in Hollywood. I’m not sure why this revision has made me so cranky. Perhaps it’s because I know I should be writing the fourth Sebastian St. Cyr mystery by now. Perhaps it’s because the revisions involved adding considerable new material-somewhere between 10-15,000 words (I don’t remember exactly what it was before). Perhaps it’s because over a dozen Hollywood production companies are waiting to see the revised version and that awareness has put enormous pressure on me. Or maybe I’m just in a cranky mood. Whatever, I’m glad it’s finished.

Charles over at Razored Zen blogged a week or two ago about the difficulties of proofing one’s own work. I ran off what I hoped was the finally copy of ARCHANGEL, looked it over, then gave it to Danielle to read since she was coming at it with fresh eyes. Eeek. There were missing words. Sentences where I’d meant to insert a word but put it in the wrong place. Missing quotation marks. After so many rereads, my ability to see anything but what I expect to see is gone. I shudder at the thought I’m going to need to read this damn thing again at the copyedited stage and AGAIN in the proofs. Enough already!

I also have the proposal for THE BERMUDA EFFECT ready, but I’ll be nice and wait until next week to send that to my editor. Now I can hear the clock ticking toward my historical mystery’s deadline. I’m hauling out its proposal today, trying to pick up the threads of a story I haven’t given a thought to for four or five months.

I want a holiday.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

New Orleans Botanic Gardens

Everyone who knows me knows that I love gardens. Before Katrina, Steve and I were members of the Friends of City Park and regularly visited the Botanic Gardens and patronized their greenhouse sales. They were a wonderful source for old roses (I’m crazy about antique roses) and other old fashioned plants it’s hard to find in today’s commercial garden centers. In fact, we were at City Park’s greenhouse sale the Saturday before Katrina. It was when we were driving home up Metairie Road that we saw a handlettered sign in a shop window, “Closed for hurricane.” We looked at each other and said, “What hurricane?” (Duh…)

Like so much of New Orleans, City Park went under water. The Botanic Gardens was devastated. A couple of weeks after the storm we went to look at the greenhouse. We couldn’t get too close because the street was still under water, but we were close enough to see all the dead plants. It was heartbreaking.

But this past weekend, City Park held their annual Spring Garden Show and of course we went. You need to understand that City Park receives no funding from the City of New Orleans; it is completely self-supporting. That makes their come back all the more incredible. Many, many people have poured their time and money into this park and its gardens, and the results are inspiring. And of course since I lost so many of my own plants to the flood, it’s wonderful to have my plant source back!

(That's an orchid tree, the only one of our purchases from the Saturday before Katrina to survive the storm. It came through flood, drought, and neglect to bloom beautifully this spring.)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Targeting Your Readers

At one of our recent Monday night discussions about “mistakes” writers make, Laura Joh Rowland suggested that one mistake writers could make would be to fail to define their audience.

I find that an intriguing idea. For example, we already touched on the possibility that the kind of devout Christians who would want to read about a priest as a mystery protagonist might be put off by that priest committing adultery. But Laura suggested that it might also be important to decide if one’s audience were mainly male or female.

It’s true that there is some overlap between the two genders’ reading choices. Both men and women read the Da Vinci Code and buy Harry Potter. But many, many books appeal almost exclusively to one sex or the other. Guys tend to buy Clancy and Coontz and Grisham, while the audience for romances, paraporn, chick lit, and romantic suspense is almost exclusively female.

Ever since we had this discussion, I’ve been trying to decide which gender my books are aimed at. My Sebastian series is not a cozy, and it has a lot of action and a certain amount of violence in it. That would appeal to men. The protagonist is male. There is a love story in the series, but it’s not a romance and the love story is not a happy one. Male writers put love stories in their series, too. But the Regency period traditionally appeals to women. Did I err in not defining my audience? Would a Regency mystery with a female protagonist and a lighter tone have succeeded better? It simply didn’t occur to me that the series wouldn’t appeal to both men and women. Do I need to worry?

Now I find myself wondering about THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT. It has both a male and a female protagonist. There is no love story. The book is not as dark as my Sebastian series, but there is certainly a lot of action and violence and suspense. Does that make it a guy book? Men are the traditional market for espionage and action thrillers. But does the presence of that female protagonist mean that men won’t pick up the book?

I’ve always known I’m not a very typical female, so it’s hard for me to judge this kind of thing. I don't like chick lit or paraporn, I don't like Oprah books. I like [well done] espionage thrillers. But I am still not the audience for, say, Rambo.

What do you think men like? Women like? What elements in a new book's blurb will make a male book buyer put it back down? What kind of elements make a book appeal to both genders? I’d be interested in hearing other people’s thoughts on this.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

A Nappy By Any Other Name

I’ve been back in the States for so long now you’d think I’d have learned to speak the language of my birth. But no. I have been utterly confused by What’s-his-name’s “Nappy-headed hos” comment. Thanks largely to my daughters I learned what a “ho” is years ago, and I can certainly understand why that’s offensive. What confused me was the “nappy-headed” part.

You have to understand that I raised two children in England, Australia, and the Middle East, which means that when I bought Pampers and Huggies, the box said “nappies” on the side. So every time I read about this controversy, my mental image was of a person wearing, well, a Pampers on her head. It wasn’t until Steve said something the other day that I went, “Oh, oh! I get it! Nappy as in NAP. I was thinking diapers! No wonder it didn’t make any sense.”

Steve, of course, howled. The silliest part about this mistake is that “nappy” is one Britishism I never adopted. Yet I heard it so much for so many years that I automatically associated it with diapers.

The hardest part of all this is that if I had an accent I could get away with ordering chips and talking about car parks and punch ups. Since I sound like an American, people just think I’m weird. Okay, maybe I am weird.

And thick.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Writers as Critics

Writers often find themselves walking a fine line. I love to analyze books, to figure out what works and what doesn’t and why. That makes sense, since I love to analyze and I love books. But there are times it can get me into trouble.

At the urging of those who think I ought to do more self-promotion, I’ve joined several mystery lists. The idea, I suppose, is that when I post comments, readers repeatedly see my signature line and are subliminally prompted to buy my books next time they see them. Nice in theory, except that I seldom comment. Why? Because these lists are all about commenting on books and unless I’m going to rave about a book, I don’t think I should post.

As a nonwriting reader, I could say (gracefully) that I think a book sucks and I’d be entitled to my opinion. But as a writer, I can’t. Why? I guess because I come off sounding condescending or vicious or, in the case of a successful author, just plain jealous. I also worry about alienating X author’s fans—not a good idea.

It’s hard on me to keep my mouth shut sometimes. That’s one of the things I love about my Monday night writers group—we’re all good friends and we speak freely about books in a way I’d never dare in any other venue. When I talk about books here, I am very careful not to name them. I’ll only make an exception if an author really, really pisses me off, such as by blatantly plagiarizing material (whether he wins in court or not) or by pandering to bigotry and ignorance and hatred. With me, that’s like waving a red flag in front of a bull.

The downside of being a writer is that unless I’m really caught up in a book, I can’t turn off my critical faculty. I’m always trying to improve my own writing, and one of the best ways to do that is to look at what works and what doesn’t in other people’s books. Formulating my ideas into these blog entries helps me to organize and explore my thinking on these issues, and I find I get very insightful feedback from those who read my blog. They come at things from a completely different angle or open up new vistas entirely.

Yet even though I generally avoid naming names, I’m walking a fine line and I suppose it’s inevitable I’ll sometimes teeter over the edge. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t mean to offend anyone, or insult anyone. I’m just having fun exploring ideas and learning about writing, because I know I have so much to learn.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Real Men Don’t

My writers group is still looking at first chapters. This week as I listened to the first chapter of an up and coming female mystery writer’s book, I found myself jerked out of the story at the point where the main male character meets the female protagonist. I found myself thinking, “Wow, she sounds like a romance writer here.” (Sorry all ye romance writers out there, but as this is a mystery and not a romance, this is not a good thing.) Let me emphasize here that this is a writer whose work I admire. Yet her storytelling obviously wobbled a bit at that point, and we spent some time trying to figure out how and why. We came up with several reasons, but the most obvious is that real men don’t think or react this way.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there are a few men out there in the world who might react this way, but I suspect they’re almost as rare as women who look in the mirror and catalogue their assets. Here’s the passage:

“His challenge brought the woman’s chin up, and she snapped her head around, zeroing in on the two policemen. She was plain, no makeup and nondescript dark blond hair scraped back in a ponytail. She had that overbred look he associated with rich women from the north side of town: high cheekbones and a long thin nose that was perfect for looking down at folks…He felt himself coloring. Her eyes were the only exceptional thing about her, true hazel, like granite seen under green water.” Uh, and her body? All we’re told is that she is “athletic-looking” –despite the fact he first comes at her from behind and she’s bent over.

In my experience, men are no better at detecting that women are wearing makeup than they are at detecting that women dye their hair. Unless it's overdone they don't notice it (actually, if it's applied well you aren't supposed to notice it). And maybe an artist would wax lyrical about a woman’s nose and the color of her eyes, but a cop in a tense situation? I don’t think so. Plus, when was the last time a male of your acquaintance commented on a woman’s body by saying, “Hhmm…athletic-looking.”

I’m not saying all male characters need to zero in on the tits and ass of every woman they meet. That annoys me, too, when it’s done in sexist language. But it doesn’t have to be. Here’s James Lee Burke first describing a similar woman: “[She] wore her hair in blond ringlets and her body was as lithe, tanned, and supple-looking as an Olympic swimmer’s.” Or another women (for whom Robicheaux will have some romantic attraction) : “She wore an orange silk shirt and khaki slacks and sandals, her funny straw hat spotted with rain, her hair dark red against the gloom of the day, her face glowing with a smile that was like a thorn in the heart.”

Yes, I know; JLB writes wonderful prose, but the male voice is still authentically there. Our female author’s touches about the nose and the eyes are nice, but they’d have worked better if she saved them for later, as the cop gets to know our heroine and in a more relaxed setting, rather than shoving them on the reader all at once up-front in an inappropriate setting. Despite them, I still didn’t get a good “feel” for this woman. The image is too superficial, distant.

I suspect another reason this mystery writer’s passage struck me as romancy is because the romantic nature of the relationship that will develop between these two is so obvious it’s as if our writer has run up a flag decorated with red hearts and kisses. Our cop meets two other women in this chapter—one of whom will be a suspect—and neither is described with more than half a sentence. Plus, all the romance cliches are there--the chin coming up, the head snapping around, the woman looking down her nose at the man who thinks she's arrogant, and then the lingering on the eye color. I’d expect this kind of obvious “meet” in a romance, but not in a mystery.

I’m nitpicking, I know; but it’s little things like this that can make a story feel off-kilter. I don’t think this writer’s errors are as egregious as yesterday’s example, but it was this passage that started me to thinking about the mistakes in gender portrayals that writers can inadvertently make. I know I’m not immune from such errors myself, and I’d be interested to hear of other examples people have noticed.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Real Women Don’t

This is obviously an archetypal male fantasy, because I have read it far too often in books written by male authors and it drives me nuts every time. Picture the scene: A woman takes off her dressing gown and sits in front of a mirror to brush her hair. As she strokes the brush through her beautiful locks, she admires her elegant neck, her pert breasts, her flat stomach. Perhaps at this point our author’s male readers are nodding, the image forming perfectly in their heads. But any readers lacking a Y chromosome are laughing—or screaming. No, no, no, no!

Clumsy, amateur writing, you say? Consider the following scene (set in the 1940s) from the book that put DS on the NYT bestseller list:

“Upstairs in her bedroom, Margaret…pulled off her nightgown and sat in front of her dressing table. She quickly brushed her hair. It was ash blond, streaked by the sun and unfashionably short. But it was comfortable and easy to manage. Besides, she liked the way it framed her face and showed off the long graceful line of her neck.

“She looked at her body in the mirror. She had finally lost the last few stubborn pounds she had gained while pregnant with their first child. The stretch marks had faded and her stomach was tanned a rich brown. Bare midriffs were in that summer, and she liked the way everyone on the North Shore had been surprised by how trim she looked. Only her breasts were different—they were larger, fine with Margaret because she had always been self-conscious about their size. The new bras that summer were stiffer, designed to achieve a high-bossomed effect. Margaret liked them because Peter liked the way they made her look.

“She pulled on a pare of white cotton slacks, a sleeveless blouse, knotted beneath her breasts, and a pair of flat sandals. She looked at her reflection one last time. She was beautiful—she knew [it]…”

Leaving aside the ham-fisted cramming of research about bra types and women’s styles, and the fact that when stretch marks fade they show white against tanned skin (even after twenty years), the above image is just plain silly. Now, DS’s wife is on television, so maybe she does look at herself in the mirror and think she’s beautiful. But I doubt it. Every woman I know—even the young, gorgeous ones—looks in the mirror and examines her faults. Her nose is too big. She needs cheek implants. Her breasts are too small. Her thighs are too big. Etc, etc, etc.

Oh--and no woman takes off her clothes to brush her hair. Those bristles hurt when they hit naked flesh.

This is an example of writers seriously failing to accurately portray characters of the opposite gender. Tomorrow’s blog entry will be Real Men Don’t…

Monday, April 09, 2007

The Down Side of Fast Pacing

While I admit I get bored easily these days myself, I’m beginning to wonder if the trend toward a faster and faster pace isn’t killing storytelling. These thoughts were provoked by two related experiences this past week. First, I read Len Deighton’s BERLIN GAME. Then I watched the movie NO WAY OUT. Both the book and the movie were made in the Eighties, and both were highly successful in their day. Yet I doubt either one would do as well now. Why? Pacing.

I took BERLIN GAME to Florida with me. I was already so far into the main book I’m currently reading (Charles McCarry’s TEARS OF AUTUMN) that I was afraid it wouldn’t last the trip. I’ll be honest: if I hadn’t been stuck in an airport and then on a plane, I might have given up on BERLIN GAME. The beginning is soooo sloooow. But by the middle of the book I was having a hard time putting it down, and I finally stayed up until two o’clock the other night finishing it. These days, it’s rare for me even to reach the end of a book; for me to stay up to finish one is incredible.

Then, Saturday night, we watched NO WAY OUT. I remembered that film (I first saw it in 1991) as being incredibly intense. But this time as I sat watching the beginning, I found myself thinking, This is slow. Once the trap began to close around the hero, I again found the film gripping. So why did a film that I found completely absorbing in 1991 now strike me as slow to get started? Because I’ve become so accustomed to fast pacing that I’m out of the habit of allowing a story to develop naturally.

It seems to me that as writers succumb more and more to the pressure to turn out fast-paced books and movies that are full of action from the get-go, the general public is losing the patience to sit through the kind of build up scenes typically required to lay a solid groundwork for the emotional investment that lets us really care about a story’s characters. The second half of NO WAY OUT wouldn’t be nearly as powerful without that first hour that lays out the situation and introduces the main characters and makes us care about them, just as BERLIN GAME’s gripping finale would have been impossible without that slow, layer by layer build up.

I generally find today’s “action” movies dreadfully boring. They rip along at a spanking pace, blowing things up while people chase back and forth and shoot at each other. Who really cares? Not me. All too often, today’s storytellers simply don’t dare to take the time to actually develop a STORY. Character development slows down pacing, and fewer and fewer people have the taste for it these days. We become accustomed to what we watch and what we read. And I don’t think I like where this trend is going.

Oddly enough, I was on the verge of putting down TEARS OF AUTUMN before I went to Florida. Now I find that this book, too—originally written, again, in the Eighties—has caught me. And I find myself wondering if this is why I so seldom finish books these days: the fast-paced ones eventually lose me because they lack the true character and story development required to “hold” me, while the more solid books lose me even sooner because by comparison their beginnings seem too slow.

Storytelling has always evolved. Never having been a fan of Dickens, I’m certainly glad we’ve moved on from the Victorian version of storytelling. But I do like Twain and Dumas, and I’ve probably read the ILIAD five times. I wonder if there’s anything being written today that will be read and reread a century in the future, let alone two thousand years from now?

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Bestsellers vs. the Midlist

Last Monday, our writing group did an interesting exercise. We took two sets of similar books—one a bestseller, the other from the midlist—and compared them.

First we looked at two mystery-thrillers set in Eastern Europe. One—GORKY PARK (GP)—was a huge best seller. The other—we’ll call it ALSO RAN (AR)—was not. We took turns reading aloud the first several pages of each. The differences were immediately apparent and startling. GP instantly captured us with its brilliant, concise imagery, its deftly drawn characters. We were quickly introduced to our main character, in action, and in conflict with another character. Two members of the group who’d never read GORKY PARK announced their intention to read it. Others have been inspired to reread it.

By comparison, the prose of the ALSO RAN was flat. We suffered through huge info dumps. There was no action, no conflict. We couldn’t even decide who was the main character. We were left wondering why the book did as well as it did. Perhaps it improves. No one was inspired to read it and find out.

The next set of books we read were thrillers written by women who used to be romance writers. The first, Lisa Gardner’s THE PERFECT HUSBAND, was her breakout book. At that stage in her writing career she hadn’t yet banished the last vestiges of her romance-writing habits. The beginning was, we thought, over long. But her prose sparkled, her characters were well drawn, the conflict intriguing.

Then we read aloud the first two chapters of the newest thriller by another former romance writer who has yet to hit the NYT list (I mean really hit it; she has made the extended list) despite several huge pushes from her publishers. This is her tenth thriller, so in a sense it really wasn’t fair to compare this book to Lisa Gardner’s first thriller rather than to her latest, yet it made the differences all the more telling.

Our midlist thriller writer presented us with the killer laying out the body of his latest child victim (child victims are always a cheap trick to ratchet up the stakes, IMO). The killer was a cliché and the writing was riddled with clichés. Chapter two presented us with the detective who was also a cliché. Worse, interwoven with crime scene descriptions and melodramatic attempts to tug at readers’ emotions, our writer delivered huge extraneous info dumps that practically screamed “Look at me! I know my forensic stuff! I’ve done RESEARCH!” Except that since the info dumps about insects, etc, had nothing to do with this newly dead corpse, all she did was provoke laughter…not the response the writer had intended.

This exercise dramatically illustrated that some writers do indeed deserve to be on the bestseller lists while others, with equal justice, linger in the midlist. We found it so interesting we intend to do something similar this coming Monday.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Choices Writers Make

When I first started writing, every day was a huge adventure. My story simply spilled itself across the page, dragging me with it. Sometimes we ran with glee, at other times we found ourselves slogging up seemingly impossible rocky crags. I didn’t know what I was doing but I was having fun. I was writing by instinct rather than intellect.

But the more I wrote, the more I learned. I began to realize how many choices a writer could consciously make—decisions not only about the direction a story will take, but about point of view, characterization, style, pacing, chapter length, and on and on and on. The more I learned, the better writer I became. Yes, something was lost—the spontaneity, perhaps even some of the energy. But I am a much better writer today than I was twenty years ago.

This is why I think there is value in looking at what makes a bestseller vs. what condemns a book to midlistdom. It’s all about educating ourselves as writers, about making informed choices. If a writer has a certain story she desperately wants to tell and a certain way she wants to tell it, than I think it would be a shame if commercial considerations corrupted that process. But if I can make choices that in no way compromise my integrity as a writer while considerably boosting my book’s sales, then I want to know what those choices are. Hence my interest in what sells and what doesn’t.

I have this theory that the more an author is naturally in tune with the Great American Majority (GAM), the better his or her books will sell. This is a rather discouraging theory since I am not very much in tune with the GAM. I’ve lived huge chunks of my life abroad. Not only has this left me with a radically different worldview, but it’s also left embarrassing holes in my knowledge of Americana. I still remember the looks I received when, visiting the States, I had to ask, “Who’s Oprah?” and “Who is this Martha Stewart woman?” I still don’t watch much television. I hate FRIENDS and SEX IN THE CITY. I was one of the 8% of Americans who thought going to war against Iraq was a huge mistake that would lead to civil war, the rise to power of the Shiites, and the radicalization of the Middle East. In other words, very out of touch with the GAM.

This means I can’t simply trust my instincts when it comes to making writing choices. What I like isn’t necessarily what other people like. My fantasies aren’t necessarily the GAM’s fantasies, and their fears aren’t my fears. It is therefore very easy for me to inadvertently make choices that work against my books’ success.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to write a book about a Rambo-type American hero who saves the world from crazy Arab terrorists. And as much as I’d love to have Dan Brown’s money, I would be mortally embarrassed to have written his books (all those historical gaffs!). But I don’t have a problem with making my chapters shorter. I can write cliffhanger endings. I can simplify my language—my prose does not sing so gloriously that the world will be losing something wonderful. And I can analyze my characters to try to make them into the kind of people with the kind of problems the GAM and I can both relate to.

Discovering these secrets leads me to think, Okay, what else am I missing? Steve Malley mentioned how TDC flattered its readers by letting them feel smug when they figured out the very obvious answers before the “genius experts.” My sister, the author Penelope Williamson, also mentioned this aspect of the book as a piece of its success. I just saw it as more clumsy writing (like I said, I can be clueless.)

I know this all sounds so clinical and calculating. But take heart. Last Monday, my writers’ group compared two bestselling books with two similar midlist books, and we found the exercise both fascinating and encouraging. Yes, the bestsellers we chose were not only commercially successful but also good books. But the lessons we learned from the exercise were incredible, and I’ll talk about them next time.

How’s that for a cliffhanger ending?

Friday, April 06, 2007

Slip Sliding Away

Some changes in our lives or writing styles are so dramatic that their impact is unmistakable. Both my move to the States and my decision to switch to writing historical mysteries and thrillers obviously fall into this category. But other changes are so gradual they sneak up on us.

I am pondering these changes as I sit on a beach in Florida. It occurs to me that at most points in my life I could look back over the previous six years and name a dozen or more countries I’d visited in that span of time. But since moving to the States, I have only been to Paris (very briefly) and Morocco. That’s it. In fact, I haven’t even traveled out of the Deep South within the States.

This isn’t the result of some conscious decision; it’s just…life. I’ve been focused on getting settled in a new country and remodeling our house, on helping children negotiate the path through high school and into college and, in one’s case, into law school. And then came Katrina to swallow nearly twenty months and counting. Did I notice this shift in focus as it was happening? No. The funny part of it is, in the last six years my CHILDREN have been to Europe and South America, Africa and the Pacific. Mom now stays home and writes feverously to pay for all of this. I’m only in Florida because Daughter Number Two and I came here to look at a college (that's a picture of the college, not St. Pete's Beach).

In one sense, this trip fell at an opportune moment because it has given me some down time to consider my editor’s revision suggestions. She thinks ARCHANGEL is too fast paced and needs more character development. Now, if you’ve ever read my historical romances, you’ll know how funny this is. There was a time when I wrote very character-intensive books. But I’ve been picking up the pace because I’ve noticed that fast-paced books are more likely to hit the bestseller lists. Another gradual change, one that in my editor’s opinion, at least, has gone too far (but then, she was a fan when I wrote historical romances).

So now I find myself wondering what other changes have taken place in my life and my writing that I haven’t noticed, that just “happened” as a part of the natural progression of life and storytelling. I watch the waves crash into shore, listen to the sea gulls cry, and I could be anywhere—Mykonos, Alacante, Cannes, Aqaba. How the hell did I end up in Florida?

On another note…Steve Malley and others have made some great comments on my last post, and I’ll be revisiting that subject again over the next week.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Stuck in the Midlist

Everyone knows what the midlist is, right? Every month, publishing houses release one or two books they expect to be bestsellers; these are their “lead titles.” Everything else is midlist. (It would follow logically that some books must be “endlist,” or bottom feeders, but no one ever calls them that.)

My writers’ group has spent years trying to figure out what makes a bestseller. We’ve had some fascinating discussions. Last week one member suggested we flip this and look at what keeps some books in the midlist. We’re not talking quality of writing here. Surely Dan Brown shattered forever anyone’s illusion that quality of writing has anything to do with reaching the bestseller list. For literary fiction, yes; for genre fiction, no. So what elements in a writer’s books could be keeping him or her from grabbing the brass ring?

We bounced around some interesting possibilities. It’s all speculation, of course, because we have no way to prove that our ideas are right. But we came up with the following “rules” that authors ignore at their peril. Like any list of rules, one can always find exceptions, but here’s what we came up with so far:

Respect the appeal of the familiar: Americans like to read about Americans, or at least white Americans like to read about English-speaking Caucasians. So if you set a series in medieval Japan, your hero had better be Caucasian. Make him Japanese and you will probably condemn your series to the midlist. If you’re going to write about an African-American hero, he’d better sound and act like a white man. One member pointed out that he hadn’t realized James Patterson’s Cross character was supposed to be black until some throwaway comment by a secondary character near the end of the book; JP knows what he’s doing. Likewise, Daniel Silva’s Israeli hero would be very out of place in most parts of Israel; basically, he’s an American.

Don’t violate reader expectations. Cozy readers, for example, don’t like angst. Make your cozy heroine the angst-ridden mother of an illegitimate child, and you’ll lose readers. My historical mystery series is set in Regency England. Regency England is associated in many people’s minds with light comedies of manners, but the Regency England of my books is a darker, more dangerous place. Has this hurt me? Perhaps. People looking for a light book might be shocked by some of the things I write. Other readers who like darker, more dangerous books might be put off by the Regency setting, since they associate it with frothy romances.

Don’t violate your readers’ moral codes. Julia Spencer-Flemming is a wonderful mystery writer. She’s won all kinds of awards but her books have still not hit the NYT. Why not? Well, one reason may be because her heroine is a priest. It’s possible that people who want to read about priests don’t want to read about bloody murder. It’s also possible that the kind of people who want to read about priests might object to that priest having an adulterous affair. At the risk of spoiling things for readers not up to date with the series, that aspect seems to have gone away. Our prediction: she’ll probably hit the Times soon.

This is a topic we’re going to be kicking around for a while, so I’d welcome any input from my blogeagues.

I won’t be posting again until the end of the week.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Going Against Cliché

I have a writing rule I borrowed from one of the books I’ve read on screenwriting (sorry; I don’t remember which one). The basic concept is that whatever idea first pops into a writer’s head—whether it’s for a character, a setting, or the direction a scene will take—is usually the cliché. A wise writer will ignore that easy answer and keep looking. I’ve found it to be a useful rule to follow. Recently, I had a good example of just how useful it can be.

In THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT, one of the protagonists has a next-door neighbor. When it came time to create him, my first thought was to make him gay. Bzzzz. Cliché, right? So I kept searching. The result was a character named Ambrose King.

Now, the funny thing is that both my agent and editor raved about Ambrose King. They both said, What a great character! Can’t we see more of him? My first reaction was, huh? This guy is little more than a walk on, a hole filler: I needed someone to take care of the heroine’s cat. He appears in person in exactly one scene. There is another brief scene where the heroine calls him and asks him to take care of the cat, and a two-line paragraph where the bad guys mention his name and what he does for a living (he plays the sax at a tourist dive down in the French Quarter).

I was puzzled. What was it about this character that touched such a chord with both my agent and editor? So I asked my agent exactly what she liked about Ambrose King. Her answer? “I think every woman would love to have a male next door neighbor like that. The kind of guy friend she can ask to take care of her cat.”

Her answer made me think about the genesis of Ambrose King, and how he started life as a stereotypic heroine’s gay friend. Instead, he turned into a scraggly musician with long hair and a beard. I had a lot of friends like Ambrose when I was young--irreverent rebels with a built-in antagonism to the forces of the law. The role Ambrose plays is still that of a nonsexual male friend. The only difference is, he isn't gay. That’s what makes him unique, and that’s what makes him memorable.