Who are you, and why should I read your book?

For writers, and especially readers, there is a sea of books out there. Oceans of words, plots, characters, all vying for our attention. Sometimes I feel like the deck is stacked against us as writers, that, to mix metaphors, our little boat will sink without a trace. Sometimes as a reader I feel callous and capricious, picking one book over another based on flimsy evidence, a gut feeling, a blurb, a review, a friend’s recommendation. Sometimes I feel like a complete contrarian with my so-called “rules” like ‘I don’t read bestsellers’ or ‘I don’t read [a genre].’ I’m often wrong if I will just give a book a chance. But as I get older my reading time seems so precious. I want to read what I want to read.

So the question for writers becomes ‘Who do I write for’? And its corollary: ‘Who am I?’

I grew up reading mysteries like Nancy Drew, devouring the entire library collection the summer I was eleven. But I moved away after that and didn’t rediscover the genre until my thirties when women began writing great mysteries, women like Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, and Sara Paretsky, transforming what had been in America a frequently dark and hard man’s world. My first novel wasn’t a mystery but a 1920s western set in Wyoming. I enjoyed writing the sections that dealt with a traumatic/dramatic event in the past, and went on to write my first mystery.

Something happened though, and it was September 11, 2001. I couldn’t write about violent death for a long time after, and I stopped reading anything remotely gory. Death was on the news and in my heart. I needed my reading to comfort me, to provide escape as always but to provide a respite from the awful present. Twelve years on, that really hasn’t changed. Yes, I read mysteries again but I have come to terms with my sensibilities and accept them. And my writing has changed too.

My books written since 9/11 (my last series mystery came out in 2002) are different, and I think, better for facing the horrors of that day. Not necessarily better written, but closer to the person I am. Although I can rubberneck at car crashes with the best of them I’m not really interested in violent death. I don’t want to read about serial killers or psychos or hit men. I am interested in the drama that can come out of violent events, as before, but now I like things like family dynamics, the drama of growing up, of dealing with difficult people, the way people relate to each other. That, to me, is the essence of fiction, what I love the best. I’m not discounting all the other wonderful aspects of fiction that you may like to write or read. Absolutely not. I am just trying to focus on what it means to me. Because fiction writing is one of the most intimate communications in the world. As a writer I am asking you to spend days with me, follow me on a chaotic journey, imagine the story I imagined, to like the people I concoct, to care about them and what happens to them. 

In a recent review of my latest book, a thriller with explosions and other violent stuff (okay, I’m not entirely reformed), the reviewer wrote this line at the end, intending I assume to provide a balanced report: “The mystery and intrigue are engaging, the changing landscapes are described subtly but artfully.  By the conclusion, everything else seems almost a backdrop for McClendon’s tale of her protagonist’s own self-discovery.” Did that cost me a star? I can live with that. My character’s self-discovery is what all my stories are about, pure and simple. The events that happen, the actions taken, the drama and trauma done, serve one purpose: defining the protagonist’s true inner story.

Not everyone cares about that. There are readers who will never look twice at my books, never read the description, never glance at the blurbs. And that’s okay. I don’t write for them. I write for people who have my sensibilities. It’s all I can do. I would rather give those readers a deep, satisfying experience if at all possible.  I write for people who want to examine their own lives along side my character’s, who enjoy a little introspection, who marvel at the way people can hurt and love each other, who feel the strange and wonderful ties to family.

That’s who I am, and that’s why you should read a book of mine. For pleasure, for comfort, for a puzzle, for a secret (I admit: I love a good secret identity), for some laughs, and for at least one sentimental moment. But if you don’t want that in a story, I understand.

I’ve given up murder (mostly) so you don’t need to worry. 🙂

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Lise McClendon’s new novel (now under construction) will take the reader back to France and the Bennett sisters of Blackbird Fly. For a sneak peek click here.

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Series, Stand-alone, Genre: pick your poison

book genres/ tumblr

Categories: there are tons of them in fiction. In the crime genre there is hard-boiled, soft-boiled, amateur sleuth, noir, cozy, police procedural, serial killer, private eye, and on. Same with romance novels: historical, regency, steamy, cowboy, time travel. More genres: sci fi, fantasy, horror. We all like to read different things, and write them, so categories help us find something in our favored niche. Categories serve their purpose.

But for writers like me, the category, the slot, the genre feels like vise grips sometimes, constricting and inflexible. Is it necessary? Is it a marketing gimmick? Can’t I just write the damn book and let the readers decide? Well, no, actually. You have to put a label on most everything. It’s called marketing — even though we may call it @#!@#$.

The same goes with writing a mystery series v. the stand-alone novel. The mystery series has been popular since Sherlock Holmes started his serial adventures, and will probably never die. Readers love following a sleuth from book to book. I know I do.  Sue Grafton is almost finished with the alphabet after publishing ‘A is for Alibi’ over 30 years ago. (I had to look that up — 1982! Now that’s a run.) How difficult would it be for me to write 20+ books in the same world, with the same character!? Answer: really hard. Her heroine Kinsey Millhone is stuck in the ’80s too, making her cell phone and internet use nonexistent. Great books by a great writer, in my opinion. Lovely person, Sue Grafton. But I couldn’t do it. All my hair would be gone. Sue’s looks gorgeous.

So after two mystery series I started writing stand-alones. They are harder to sell ( and #*@&! market) without those built-in audiences clamoring for the next installment in a series. And somewhat harder to write because you have to build the world — and the characters — all over again each time. Author Laurie R. King says this about the standalone:

While a series permits a writer to develop a set of characters over a period of time, a standalone novel represents the only opportunity these people have to live and breathe and tell their stories. Even if some of them reappear (and my standalones do have the occasional link and overlap), their book must have a sense of completeness, must contain an entire universe within its pages.

 Other writers consider the “standalone” term more loosely. Here’s Tamera Alexander’s take on it:
Tamera’s series books are considered “stand-alone” novels, meaning they can be read out of order. However, if you’re planning to read all of the books in a series, you should read them in order for the most fulfilling story experience.
So you can have a series of standalones? Hmm. I once pitched a series of linked standalones to my editor, the first ofDSCN1459 which became ‘Blackbird Fly.’ The series was to be linked by five sisters, each to have separate adventures. That idea didn’t really fly (although ‘Blackbird’ did. 🙂 )
Now I find myself in the position of starting a new book about the same characters in ‘Blackbird.’ I’m back to the series idea, with my protagonist Merle Bennett once again in hot water in France. I love writing about France, almost as much as going there. This time I’m going to use some of the experiences I had last year doing a walking tour through the vineyards.
Despite my dislike of being put in a box, pegged a certain way, I am back to writing a series. (And I am loving it! Go figure.) My last novel, written as Rory Tate, was a thriller with lots of action and cops and spies. You would think that’s a pretty tight box to fit into, wouldn’t you? Espionage thriller. Police Procedural. Maybe not.  Michael on Amazon said:
Cross genre writing can be a slog, yet Rory Tate succeeds at crossing multiple genre boundaries. Plan X accomplishes all its goals: From boy meets girl to girl comes into her own and unravels both police-work and personal dilemmas inside a complex and satisfying plot structure.

No matter how hard it is to write the book inside your heart and head and still hit the marketing categories, sometimes readers just see through all that and are glad for the ride. There is little more gratifying to a writer than a reader who ‘gets it.’
Are you more comfortable inside or outside the box? Series, standalones, genre, cross-genre? Love story or category romance? Deep characterization or pacy thriller? What’s your poison?
I leave you with a (classic?) mystery cover. Have a fabulous reading and writing week — and don’t eat all the pizza rolls!