Please give a warm welcome to my guest blogger today, Shelly Frome. Shelly offers thoughts on what is being written, promoted and sold in these turbulent times. Read his bio and I'm sure you'll agree he's paid his dues and worth listening to.
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Shelly Frome is a member of Mystery Writers of America, a professor of dramatic arts emeritus at the University of Connecticut, a former professional actor, a writer of mysteries, books on theater and film, and articles on the performing arts appearing in a number of periodicals in the U.S. and the U.K.. He is also a film critic and frequent contributor to writers’ blogs. His fiction includes Tinseltown Riff, Lilac Moon, Sun Dance for Andy Horn and the trans-Atlantic cozy The Twinning Murders. Among his works of non-fiction are the acclaimed The Actors Studio and texts on the art and craft of screenwriting and writing for the stage. His latest novel is Twilight of the Drifter, a southern gothic crime-and-blues odyssey. He lives in Litchfield, Connecticut.
What is tWhat is the Story Here?
by Shelly Frome
To keep up with the times, I thought I’d take out a subscription to a few writers’ magazines and add a few more websites to learn more about what’s now termed “the new era in publishing”.
And lo and behold, within the pages of the magazines, I found this statement to be typical: “Readers of fiction are faced with saturated genres and a limited amount of time and money. Any title has to immediately grab their attention. The market doesn’t lie.”
In one issue, someone calling herself a literary change agent claimed that reaching readers is a matter of blanketing social media, blogging anywhere and everywhere, and “passing out fliers on street corners” if need be.
To meet these demands, contributors who were billed as successful pros offered sure-fire tips like these:
“Use plotting strategies that make the book a winner. Give readers a hook at the get-go. And be sure to leave them with a take-home thought.”
“Make them laugh and cry. When readers laugh and cry they’ll get that emotional high they’re looking for along with that walloping payoff.”
“Before you start, come up with a logline that makes buyers sit up and say ‘gotta read it’.”
“Try this for a ploy. Redesign an old hit TV show for the texting, tweeting, Lady Gaga generation. It’s a great reminder how important it is to always have your readers in mind.”
Ah, yes. Oh, well.
The added websites echoed the same mindset. In fact, the dozens of new daily e-mails snowballed into a promotional frenzy. Urging everyone to check out a fourth winner in a row; or latch onto a P.I. story everyone loves because it’s an ultra rare extraordinary read; and/or get set for a page-turning thrill ride. One lady outdid herself shopping her hair-raising gypsy escapade by tossing in a war-horse. And she continued to push this angle with every post.
One of these networks was caught up in an ongoing harangue over eliminating all middle men. Agents weighed in claiming they alone can wade through the slush given their knowledge of what’s really trending.
Seeking a quieter approach, I began watching conversations with writers on Charlie Rose’s show. Arguably, there’s no more easygoing host than Charlie Rose and no more casual writer willing to share his secrets than John Grisham. Soon, however, it was back to more of the same. Grisham claimed that readers have an insatiable appetite for stories about lawyers and scandals. Novels that don’t work use too many words. And the generator is your big idea. To locate it, you steal something. “Everything is fair game. We all steal, that’s what we do.”
He went on to say, you simply narrow it down to a half-dozen one-sentence pitches and run them by someone. He chooses his wife who never fails to pick the one with the best hook.
Not that there’s anything wrong with this. It’s just that it reminded me of that same vendor-on-the-street-corner mind-set.
Next, I came across an interview with Lee Child. He suggested that a key to his Jack Reacher series was the fact that his main character never changes. Readers always know who Reacher is and are reassured that he’ll always be taciturn, smart and ruthless.
Again, whatever works for someone is fine. I just hate to think that readers nowadays are flipping through their touch screens while on the go looking for some way to pass a few extra minutes before boarding their plane or what-have-you. Along these same lines, I recalled yet another reference to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code in The New York Time’s book review section—e.g., utilizing “a badly garbled version” of historian Elaine Pagels’ analysis of the early church, eliminating characterization as Robert Langdon and other stock figures keep running. The scenarios formatted to quickly “blow the minds of as many readers as possible.”
To reassure myself, I went back to the book review and took solace in author Sylvia Brownrigg’s guidelines: “Will I believe in these characters? How distracted will I be by implausible dialogue or forced plotlines? Hopefully after only a page or two there will be a sigh of relief. I don’t have to worry. She knows what she’s doing. She won’t let you down.”
From there it was only a few pages more to Marilyn Stasio’s Crime Reviews. There, as usual, I found myself drawn to stories designed to unfold organically.
I also found myself remembering something Raymond Chandler once wrote:
“A good story cannot be devised: it has to be distilled. You can never know tillyou’ve written the first draft. What seems to be alive in it is what belongs.”
Perhaps Mr. Chandler also found himself contending with the hustle and bustle of his day and opted for something more genuine.
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