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What we can learn from midlist books #amwriting

As part of my ongoing quest to improve my writing skills, I have been reading a series of novels written by a midlist author (whom I am not going to name), trying to decipher what it that I like about her work and what I don’t like.

Midlist is a term used by the traditional publishing industry referring to books that aren’t bestsellers, but which sell enough to justify their publication. If these authors can build a consistent sales record, the big publishers will probably want future books from that author.

Most books published today are midlist titles. Bestsellers earn the largest portion of overall royalties, but midlist novels are steady earners over a long period, and many of these authors have devoted fans.

So, I have been binge-reading this series of mystery novels, trying to decide why she sells enough to keep her publisher buying her books, and in the process,  I have figured out why she’s not a bestseller. I have come up with a list of strengths and shortcomings, things I can look for in my own work.

The positives:

  • Her plots tend to be intriguing. She is creative with her murders and doesn’t rely on cliché situations.
  • She knows how to sink a hook. The details of how and why each of the murders are discovered is interesting, and at the beginning, logical, so you keep reading.
  • She has good skills in world building. The ethnicity of the immigrant Armenian neighborhood feels solid, as if you know it well.
  • The main characters reveal themselves slowly. They have an air of mystery around them. You never feel like you know all there is to know about them.

The negatives:

  • Her books tend to follow a formula that is recognizably hers, which is why she can put out four novels a year. In that regard, they are like romance novels. Once you’ve read the first three in the series, you know the basic story line.
  • They’re not memorable in any way. The one thing that keeps you reading is curiosity to discover who out of the many possibilities actually did it.
  • Toward the middle and the second half, the story arc becomes jerky, at times almost flatlining. The eye wants to skip pages.
  • Then suddenly, it’s so chaotic it’s impossible to follow what just happened, and no matter how many times you go back and re-read it, you can’t understand what is going on.
  • References to habits, such as obsessive chain smoking, start out doing the intended job, conveying a personality. But these references soon become repetitive, over-used, inadvertent crutches.
  • Her political and technological references place these books firmly in a certain period – a double-edged sword. The political references are the biggest Achilles heel. She began writing the series in in the early nineties. Publishing schedules being as slow as they are, these references immediately made the books feel slightly out of date, rather than set in an era.
  • By book three, the Main Character hasn’t grown or evolved. They’re still locked firmly in their own time-warp.
  • Her publisher misses a lot of proofing errors. This is every indie’s nightmare, so it’s annoying to find so many flaws in a book by a reputable publisher.

In retrospect, I like this author’s work, but certain of her writing habits annoy me as a reader. So, why have I subjected myself to reading so many of her books if I’m so ambivalent about them?

Education.

We all know what we love when we see it. But unless we out-and-out hate something, being able to identify what we don’t love is sometimes difficult.

And this concept is especially true about our own work. Those of us whose vocation is writing fiction must work to ensure our voice and writing style is current and fresh. It is a quest that can take a lifetime and involves more than just reading “How to Write This or That Aspect of a Novel” manuals. Books on craft are important, but they only offer up a part of the picture.

You must read widely, and outside your favorite genre. This is why I study how books in all genres, both good and bad, are constructed.

When you come across authors whose work shocks, rocks, and shakes you, study them. What did you love? What did they do right and how can you incorporate those techniques into your work?

When you don’t like a novel, ask yourself why it failed to move you. What did the author do wrong and how could you write it better?

Read widely, dissect what you read, and then apply what you’ve learned to your own work.

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Author motivation #amwriting

What motivates a writer to write? What makes an ordinary person believe they can write a book that others will want to read?

For me, I want to read certain books, and for some reason, my favorite authors refuse to churn out a book a week–go figure.

So, I try to write the kind of stories I want to read. An idea occurs, a wild moment of “what if” and I must write it.

Sometimes it’s just a scene or a drabble. Sometimes it is a poem. Other times it will be a short story or a novel.

No matter where I am, I want to talk about books. Books and the craft of writing absorbs me. The internet offers me the chance to learn new things about writing craft and gives me a hundred places to discuss them and people to “talk shop” with.

Reading books and writing obsesses me, and everything motivates me.

I’m not sure why, but I do my most creative work when I should be doing something else. My best writing gets done when I should be getting ready to leave the house for an appointment.

As writers, we talk and talk and talk about a character’s motivation, but the author’s motivation is critical. WHY are you writing?

When I am fired up, I do my best work. Life can be complicated here on the homefront, so writing is an escape from dealing with the realities of being the family caregiver and living with chronic pain. I can write anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances. Sometimes I don’t feel too creative, but at that point, my blogging skills kick in. For me, blogging is talking about writing, and that’s writing too. It keeps me thinking.

In many ways, I am a social justice warrior. I write about all kinds of people experiencing hard times and injustice, and the fallout that sometimes occurs. Sometimes the good people don’t win, and how they handle defeat is the real story.

When I have an idea for a story, it’s never with the intention of preaching a sermon—I leave that to better qualified people and more adept authors. The stories I want to write are about people who face great challenges and how those events shape their actions.

Life and all its many detours intrigues me, and as a reader, I gravitate to those kinds of novels, in all genres. Memorable characters grow on you over the course of the book–they are not delivered fully formed on the first page. They are intriguing, and we don’t always know what they will do next. There is a hint of mystery about them, and if the author did their job, at the end of the book we don’t want those characters to leave.

We want to instill an air of mystery in all our characters, whether we write sci-fi, romance, fantasy, pot-boilers, or cozy mysteries. People cease to intrigue you once you think you know all there is to know about them.

It is the complexities of your friends that keep them interesting, the little things you never knew that surprise you when they are revealed.

Developing a character, deploying just enough information at the right moments to pique the reader’s curiosity is a balancing act, and not everyone can do it with finesse. Thus, I read and read and read—classic literature, epic fantasy, cozy mysteries, spy novels, vampire romances, and space operas—I read in all genres, hoping to gain an idea of how it’s done right.

I also find many examples of how it’s done wrong.

My advice today? Read widely, read daily, read in all genres, even those you “don’t like”—but read. Reading widens your mind, and an open mind is creative, and a creative mind puts out great work.

Trying to master the balancing act of creating compelling characters and setting them in intriguing circumstances motivates me. I love the feeling of meeting the challenge, picking up the gauntlet tossed down by my favorite authors, the “ah hah” of having written a story I would want to read.

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