Friday, November 14, 2008

Can you be a flexible mystery writer?

© Gayle Trent, 2008 all rights reserved

“The editor says she likes it, but she doesn’t love it.”

The comment had me scrambling. What would it take to make the editor “love” my partial submission? I wrote back and asked what authors the editor had recently bought. Two names in hand, I hurried to my local bookseller. I bought each of the authors’ books and began one of them as soon as I got home to determine how this book was different from mine.

There were two definitive differences: pace and description. My partial was heavy on dialogue, light on description and set at a rapid-fire pace. Book Number One recommended by the editor was much slower and detailed. Could I slow my book down and intersperse more intricacies of setting, background and plot without having it become boring? That would be a challenge. More of a challenge than you might realize. It brings to mind Kim Smith’s post of November 6 on “fixing” your writing.

Often, if I’m reading a book with huge passages of description, I’ll skim over them to get back into the flow of the story. In order to write a book with larger passages of description, I would have to do so in such a way as to keep the plot moving swiftly forward.

That said, here are my tips for being a flexible writer, mystery or otherwise:

1) Can you fix the manuscript and remain true to yourself and your story? In my case, I could. The editor desired more description and a slower pace. While I enjoy books that seem to race from dilemma to conclusion at a breakneck speed, I found I could slow down the action and give the reader a much more firm sense of place and character while remaining true to the story. In fact, I learned that providing more detail made me do more research and gave me a stronger sense of place and character.

2) Would a change of point of view (POV) help your story? Some editors prefer first person, while others prefer third. Will first person allow you to have more freedom/fun with your story? Or would it hinder you from providing more details about other characters? Or would it make you stretch to find alternatives to providing more details about other characters?

3) Will the change make your story better? Before you answer that, give it a try. Sometimes you’re too married to your own story or writing to realize what may or may not improve it. One exception to this rule is if your mystery is the first in a series and you want to leave some things open-ended. For example, my editor wanted me to tie up loose ends with the stray cat in Murder Takes the Cake. As it stands, the cat is starting to come around and brush up against the heroine by the end of the book but she’s still keeping her distance. My editor said, in effect, “Winter is closing in by the end of the book. I’d like to see the cat moved inside and happy in her new home.” I respectfully declined. The cat in Murder Takes the Cake is based on a real-life stray cat. It took months of my sitting a short distance away from her food bowl before she would even trust me enough to brush up against me. The change would not ring true, nor would it give me a chance to illustrate how rewarded the heroine feels when she finally does earn the cat’s trust.

4) Has the editor caught something you were too close to realize? I’ve done this myself, so I know how easy it is to be so close to your story that you don’t catch something until it’s seen through “fresh” eyes. As an editor, I once suggested a change on a story because the action was completely out of character for the heroine. The heroine was a person of strong morals, and she was constantly concerned about how her actions would reflect on her family. Then the heroine—for no good reason, really—broke into another character’s home and went through his belongings. I told the author, “She wouldn’t do that. She’d be too afraid of getting caught breaking in.” The author replied, “But it’s such a cute scene.” I said, “Okay, then give her a plausible excuse for being in the house. The man is gone; have him ask her to water his plants or check on his cat. That gives her a legitimate reason for being in his house. Then she can snoop.” The author chose to withdraw her submission rather than make the change. I suppose that ultimately is the question: Do you want to be published more than you want to be right?

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About the author: Gayle Trent lives with her husband and two children in Southwest Virginia. When not writing, she can be found baking, shopping, reading or playing video games with the kids.


Kim Smith said...

Hey Gayle! I had to nod and smile while I read your post. Fixing our writing is a whole nother lesson in the writing life, isn't it?

I LOVE Cleo Coyle books for the reasons you mentioned though. They are slower more descriptive and give me a chance as a reader to visualize and "taste" the nuances of the author's focus, which happens to be Coffeehouse stuff.

I am excited abou Murder takes the Cake and will be getting it POST HASTE!
thanks for being here, kim

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Wonderful article, Gail. I'm going to try the "what have you bought lately", but I'm going to go one step further. With my luck, her last read will be one she didn't like. So, to be safe, I'm going to ask, "What was the last book you read that you really loved?"

You're right about the cat. We have 4 strays. Buster was completely wild and I couldn't get near him for 2 years. When he finally came in the house, it was six months before he moved away from the door. They've learned not to trust. To break that takes patience and time.

The youngest stray is 6 now, and she still won't sit on my lap.

Thanks. Great advice.

Gayle said...

Thanks, Kim and Joylene! I appreciate your feedback and encouragement. :-)

Anonymous said...

Gayle, I admire the perseverance in your post! Most authors would take that note from the editor and run away from writing, or give up on the project. Your post teaches writers that if they are not willing to bend, they are broken already!
Best to you!

Gayle said...

Thank you, Carol. I dug my fingernails into that "I like it" and held on for dear life! LOL! I only hope that when I send it back, I get an "I love it" rather than a "now I REALLY don't love it! Get this mess out of my face!"

Kim Smith said...

Gayle, happened upon the book trailer on YOUTUBE for your book~! loved some of the pictures used. Do you find it helps sell a book to have a book trailer?

Kim Smith said...

Hey Gayle,

I just happened up on your book trailer on YouTube today when I was looking at book trailers. Very nice! I am researching to get ideas for mine.

do you think having a bt helps your books promotional efforts?

Gayle said...

Hi, Kim:

I think the book trailer gives the reader something visual to help them get a better feel for the book. For instance, when you watch the trailer for Murder Takes the Cake you realize right away it's comedic. Then there's the guy at the end that brings in the touch of menace and suspense.

I don't think I personally would spend too much money on a book trailer, though. I know they can be pretty expensive. The publisher did mine. I think book trailers are simply one more tool to add to your marketing arsenal. And I think it wouldn't be too hard to put one together yourself with pics from iStock, put them into a slide show and then convert the slide show to video with sound (from a free music site, maybe?). Not Warner Brothers, but it would get your point across.

Hope this helps!

BT said...

Hi Gayle

Interesting post. I thought it a little strange when in point 3 you refused to change things with the cat but in point 4 you sign off with "Do you want to be published more than you want to be right?"

It stirs up a whole new kettle of fish. When do you step back and listen to your editor and when do you dig your heels in?

One could argue that you'll always be too close to your work and "fresh" eyes - with a sound arguement - would more likely be right.

I agree with your stance on the cat, but sometimes people do step out of character on impulse.

Perhaps it's the need for an open mind and great negotiation skills on both sides of the conversation which is required...