Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Are We Being Misled?

By Chester Campbell

I'm reading a book that comes highly recommended, has plenty of glowing reviews, the second book by an author whose first mystery was a best-seller, but I'm still not sure how well I like it. I'm up to chapter five, in the middle forties pagewise, and the real story is just getting started.

The first few chapters have been full of backstory, nicely fleshing out the characters, but not giving much about the mystery. There's been a death, an apparent suicide, but those close to the victim think there may be more to it than a self-inflicted demise.

It makes you wonder about those warnings by agents that we have to grab the reader on the first page. Some even say the first paragraph or first sentence. I haven't read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but from all the comments I've heard and read, the first hundred or so pages get pretty boring. One cover-blurber of the book I'm reading called it a "bullet-fast" thriller. Up to this point, for me the bullet hasn't left the gun.

So how do novels like these get to be best-sellers, indeed, a mega-best-seller in the case of Dragon Tattoo? I work my brain to the bone (there is a brain bone, isn't there?) trying to make that first sentence a great hook that will snare readers. Agents yawn. I did read the opening pages of Dragon Tattoo on Amazon, and he starts out with a mystery about an annual flower delivery. The reviews on Amazon are either "great, amazing" or "boring, awful."

I get the feeling that the key is to go deeply into the characters and don't worry about plotting mysteriously. But where does that leave you with Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code?

Oh, well, I suppose us shadowy toilers in the midlist ranks will have to go on creating mysteries the best we know how, following the conventional wisdom if it fits our situation. We have the solace of comments from our readers on how much they enjoy our books.


Jean Henry Mead said...

I bought both books you mentioned in paperback and I'm afraid I have to agree with you, Chester. I guess those of us who like fast-paced mysteries will have to settle for the midllists, many of which should be the bestsellers.

Ben Small said...

It boggles the mind. As I blogged, if I'd been reading the books, I would have thrown them out the window when Larsson starts with his shopping lists and other such nonsense. But Rebecca and I listened to the books on CD during some long drives, and by the time I pushed Eject to toss it out the window, Larsson had moved on to more interesting stuff. He's a good plotter, but man, some of his writing is tedious.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read a best seller in ages, unless Michael Connelly's THE BRASS VERDICT was a best seller, which it probably was. I ignore tags like "best seller" and "award winner" when I'm looking for a book to read.

The only best-selling authors I read with any regularity are Robert Crais, Sue Grafton and James Lee Burke, and I've only read a few of their books.

If I hear about a book on DorothyL that might interest me I check it out on amazon.com to find out what it's about. If the author has a web page where I can read a couple of chapters, I go there to check out his/her writing style.

So no, speaking for myself, I am never misled. I know what I like and I go looking for it.

Pat Browning

Chester Campbell said...

I hear you, Pat. But I have a book I felt needed quite a few flashbacks to properly tell the story. I've held back on it because of all the cuations about avoiding flashbacks, particularly close to the start of the story. When I see a book like this I think maybe I should ignore all those warnings.

Anonymous said...

Chester, I think all those rules and warnings are a one-size-fits-all thing. If they don't fit your book, forget them. Write your book the way you think it should read. You're not making cookies, you're writing a book, and your book is uniquely yours.

Pat Browning

Ben Small said...

I agree with Pat.

Anonymous said...


For a great example of writing backstory, try J.A. Jance's new book QUEEN OF THE NIGHT. You can read excerpts at Google Books

Jance’s prologue starts with an Indian legend of Old White Haired Woman and Brought Back Baby – she takes her dying daughter’s son away from the Yaqui warriors and home to the Desert People.

After the legend, there’s a brief back story of a murder in San Diego 1959, one in Los Angeles 1978 and another one the excerpt skips over. The story then proceeds to Chapter 1 and a retired homicide detective in Tucson, Ariz. 2009.

Jance spans 50 years in a few pages and moves it right along. It really whets my appetite for the book.

If you go to amazon.com, you find that Publishers Weekly and Booklist have completely different opinions of the book, which is why I don’t rely on such reviews. They are simply opinions.

Pat Browning

Beth Terrell said...

I liked the opening of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. I thought the flower delivery thing was intriguing, but the rest of the book...not so much. I think maybe if Larsson had lived, he would have edited out some of those looooonnnng passages about Swedish economics.

Mark W. Danielson said...

I have read too many novels by big name authors that have been horribly disappointing. Sadly, without having a recognized name, it's difficult for readers to notice your work.