Fill-in-the-blanks Novels

My mother-in-law once told me that she’d like to try her hand at some pottery. Ceramics were quite popular at the time and she had thought of trying that, but she decided, “Ceramics is too much like a cake mix: add water; beat; pour into pan. The decoration is the only difference. I want to actually design something.”

Not long ago I got a list of several new books; among them was a blurb for a new cozy mystery. I read it and thought, “This sounds just like the write-up for dozens of other books I’ve seen.” I have to think of Mom’s comment about ceramics. The decorations change: names and professions vary; relationship to the detective and to the victim varies. Otherwise the blurbs are interchangeable.

Ditto with most romance stories written these days. (Another topic for another time.)

Just fill in the blanks and go:

Main character __________ (choose name, Nikki/Mikki/Kelli, etc)
a successful ___________ (profession, lawyer/ chef/baker/wedding planner, etc.)
discovers/hears about her ________ (client/ boss/ ex/ competitor/ neighbor)
_______ buried/floating/scrunched, in/at/on/into a ________.
Now she must team up with __________ lawyer/ male friend/ boss/ ex
_______ (name — Jake being the most popular by far),
to solve the mystery of who killed ______ (victim’s name)
before Detective ______  (name) a drop-dead gorgeous hunk/ grouchy bumbling misogynist arrests ___________ her/her BFF/her ex/her new boyfriend for the crime.

Our MC knows the detective’s set his sights on an innocent party, but someone has done it. So she must become an amateur sleuth (if she isn’t already) and find the guilty one before her efforts make her the criminal’s next target.

Like Mom with her preference for pottery over ceramics, I’m one who doesn’t care much for plots all coming from the same mold. I like originality.

I like stories with believable characters living their lives, where the crime (or romance) isn’t the be-all and end-all, the only focus of the main character. Where she has some life apart from interrogating suspects and ogling the hunky cop or irritating the grouchy one.

Another thing I applaud is a story with team work, rather than a one-woman show. And I dislike an amateur sleuth belligerently demanding answers from suspects — because it’s not believable. In real life people are going to clam up or blow up when pushed like that. Having suspects tell all under pressure may save a serious investigation, but it’s cheap melodrama; a writer sacrifices credibility.

That said, I plan to review some books I’ve read where the main characters lead interesting lives, that happen to include a mystery, a romance, or both. I’d like to lift out  some writers who, I feel, know their craft and avoid the stereotypes.

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Are Readers Being OD’d On Angst?

Have you ever read a book that felt like one long spiel of navel-gazing with a bit of plot thrown in?

I have. And I find it irritating. I’d like to read a story.

Readers are human; we all have feelings. We like it when our story characters seem human, too — even display some faults. When characters show their feelings and inner conflicts we can identify with them and sympathize with their trials. We cheer when they find their answer. In my opinion that’s what a story is all about.

Writers need to give their readers credit: we do “get” how the protagonist feels and we understand that attractions, fears and insecurities are going to be ongoing. But light touches now and then are reminder enough. The writer doesn’t have to tell us again and again and again how insecure, worried or resistant to some change the character feels.

Navel-Gazing: Contrived Conflict

Stories do need conflict, but is really effective in the long run to generate “internal conflict” by rehashing the character’s fears, self-doubt, and suspicions every few pages? Wouldn’t the novel be better if those efforts rather went into plot? Into writing in some actual conflict with life circumstances?

I read one novel where the main characters had joined a wagon train headed for a new life in California. They were going through unfamiliar territory, supposedly anticipating the new life they’d be living. But instead of the trials of their journey, scenic description, or speculation on their future home, the writer served readers a steady diet of the female MC examining her feelings for, and trying to generate resistance to, the male MC. And vise versa.

They spend so much time scolding themselves about their feelings, by Chapter 4 you’re thinking, “Get a life, people! There’s a whole world happening around you.”

I rarely read romance books or chick lit and this is mainly why. But I find this style of writing common in other genres nowadays, too, especially cosy mysteries. In one novel the protagonist finds a dead teen in someone’s empty house and, according to the writer, her thoughts are:
Why on earth did I have to find this body?
What will people think of me when they know I’ve found this body?
What will my family think of me when they hear I’ve found this body?
What will people think of my family when they learn I’ve found this body?

That a person died is pretty low in her thinking. Her fears prove overwhelming, so she jumps in her car and leaves the poor guy lying there. As the story unfolds all her angst gets played out with the mystery as a background. In all fairness, the writer did a good job of spinning out the plot, but the protagonist comes across as so self-centered.

Put More STORY in the Story

I know we live in a world that’s focused on navel-gazing. We’re encouraged to analyze our feelings and reactions. This is naturally going to spill over into the books we read. However, if writers were to delete the monotonous rehashes, I’m afraid some books might lose a third of their word counts — unless they filled the pages with actual happenings. And that takes work.

Maybe my problem is that I’ve been reading the old masters. There’s a lot more going on in Pride and Prejudice than how Liz feels about her feelings toward Darcy and how Darcy feels about his feelings for Liz. Jane Austin’s characters had lives to live, places to go and things to do. Her stories were woven around action as well as romance.

Without a lot of navel-gazing Charles Dickens’ characters managed to rouse people’s sympathies to the point of effecting positive changes in society’s attitudes.

For mystery writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, “Who did it?” was the focus of their stories. Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and Lord Peter Wimsey rarely wrestled with self-doubt or anguished over what others thought of them. Yet they were very human — and often very humorous as a bonus.

The popularity of these writers has endured; you can still find their works in any library and most bookstores. That tells us something.

Beware the SOLID BLOCK

IN PRAISE OF PARAGRAPHS

Pet Peeve #3

Have you ever gone clicking through the blogosphere —
perhaps checking out the Community Pool or First Friday —
or in some other way you’ve discovered some new blogger —
and suddenly you’re facing a solid block of type?
Maybe fifteen, twenty, or more
lines of SOLID words, like a brick wall
from one side of your screen to the other?

The writer may have presented an excellent case or clear explanation.
However, whatever their topic, whatever their opinion,
it’s written as one extremely long paragraph
and the prospect of reading it is daunting,
off-putting,
mind-befuddling
eye-blearing.

Like a different take on how to eat an elephant:
open your mouth and stuff the whole thing in,
then chewchewchewchewchew.
I don’t. I click out.
My policy is: if the writer doesn’t know what a paragraph is,
I’m not going to slog through what they have to say,
be it ever so brilliant.

Awhile ago I agreed to read another writer’s book and do a review.
Two days ago I opened this book on my Kindle. And faced
a solid screen of type.
No headings, no side bars, no quotes,
just one solid block of type.
The next page was two paragraphs. And thus it has continued
for as far as I’ve read. No more than two paragraphs per page.

My brain rebelled. I’ll work my way through it, but…
If this manuscript landed in a traditional editor’s slush pile,
the first reader would slide it from the envelope,
take one look,
and toss it on the RETURN TO SENDER pile.

White space is wonderful stuff!
Or so modern editors tell us
and I’m totally sold on the concept.
Five or six lines is long enough for a paragraph, in my opinion,
if a writer actually wants their work to be read.

Beware the SOLID BLOCK, my friend.

*Pet peeves #1 is when the internet isn’t working.
As it wasn’t when I first tried to post this.
Pet Peeve #2 is when I come back to my computer
and the cat is curled up in my office chair.

Books: A Scottish Holiday

A Scottish Holiday
by Sophie Mays

A short, light read, fairly standard-formula romance.

Adoptee Jillian goes to Scotland seeking information about her great-great-grands and James takes a liking to the attractive American miss when he meets her in line at a fish and chips shop. He offers his help in her search and a quick romance blooms, but no bedroom scenes.

Perhaps the author has been to the part of Scotland she writes about, but she doesn’t really incorporate much detail in her story. We don’t get many of Jillian’s impressions of this land she’s seeing for the first time ever. We meet the librarian and a few locals — but this is supposedly a whirlwind trip. So we get a bit of Scottish scenery and history but mostly scenes of James and Jillian spending time together — until an old flame turns up at a dance and throws Jillian into a frenzy of doubt about the sincerity of James’ affection.

One bit I found hard to believe: as a baby Jillian was supposedly left on a doorstep by her birth mother, who died young, yet she has her great-great grandparents’ names and the area they came from in Scotland. Other than that the story all hangs together and is well told, problems relatively simple, the characters uncomplicated, the writing clean.

Mary’s Faith

And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there And both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage. And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, “They have no wine.”
Jesus saith unto her, “Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come.”
His mother saith unto the servants, “Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it.”
—Read the whole account of this miracle in John 2:1-8

When I read these verses I couldn’t help but be impressed with the faith Mary demonstrated. “Whatever He asks, do it.”

Somebody had a problem. It wasn’t Mary’s problem, but she knew about it – even though the fellow in charge of the wedding feast didn’t seem to be clued in. I imagine the folks giving the feast were relatives, maybe a cousin or even a niece or nephew of Mary, which is why she and her children and even Jesus’ disciples all attended.

So Mary was somehow privy to the problem. She didn’t get in a mad flap (like I might.) She didn’t wash her hands of the situation and leave others to deal with it (like I might.) No, even though it wasn’t her problem, she brought it to Jesus’ attention, believing that He could do something though He apparently hasn’t worked any miracles before.

His response was almost rude. It sounds to me a lot like, “So? What am I supposed to do about it? This isn’t ‘Amazing time’ for me yet.”

Mary didn’t get confrontational. “Listen, Son. These are our relatives and You have to help them out.”

She didn’t nag or scold. “Look, this is a disaster! Don’t just sit there. Get up and do something!”

She didn’t whine, “Something has to change here. Can’t you please, please, do something?”

She didn’t have a solution to suggest. “If you’d kindly make six buckets of wine appear right there in the pantry, everyone would be so grateful.”

So I glean from these verses that Mary was aware of the problem; there was no visible solution; she brought the problem to the only One who could solve it; she kept her cool, sat on her pride, and didn’t argue with Him about it.

I doubt she had any idea what Jesus could do to solve the problem, or even if He would do anything. She simply informed Him about the situation and left it in His hands. Yet she had faith. She prepared for a solution. She told the servants, “Whatever He tells you to do, be sure to follow through with it.”

I’m guessing she quietly took her place among the guests and waited to see if and how Jesus would provide.

These verses make me look at my own prayers, the petitions and the attitudes I come to God with. Do I wash my hands of other people’s problems? Do I bring these needs to the One Who can help, or mull them over for days and weeks first, trying to come up with a great solution to suggest to Him? Do I believe He actually can and will do something? Do I whine? He just has to do something — like NOW!

Suppose Mary had said, “This isn’t my problem.” Suppose she hadn’t wanted to bother Jesus with it. What if she’d been doubtful that He could do something and hadn’t said anything to the servants to prepare them for a solution? Would there have been any ‘water-turned-to-wine’ miracle in the Bible. I doubt it.

Lord, teach us to ask in faith trusting Your wisdom to provide the best answer.