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Tag: Louise Penny

The good news about self publishing is you get to do everything yourself. The bad news about self publishing is you get to do everything yourself. – Lori Lesko, Wise Famous Quotes.

Indie Issues

Lately, I’ve been increasingly bothered by a cluster of tendencies I call “Indie issues.” They crop up in the writing of otherwise-competent self-published authors, and they happen often enough that I’ve started to recognize them.

Perhaps you’ve noticed, too. No, I’m not talking about plain old bad writing. Of course, beginning writers often write less well than seasoned pros. And yes, a number of Indie writers don’t yet know their craft. To get to “good,” a writer has to go through a period of “bad.”

If you don’t allow yourself the possibility of writing something very, very bad, it would be hard to write something very good. –Steven Galloway, Wise Famous Quotes.
(Steven Galloway/Wise Famous Quotes)

Those aren’t the “Indie issues” I’m calling out. I want to focus instead on the problems that happen when otherwise-good writers try to produce a certain kind of book too quickly, in a format that’s too short.

“Indie issues” described

A book that’s not the right length for the story develops all kinds of problems. It may have the potential for a great plot. Maybe the characters have interesting quirks or intriguing problems. There may be some pretty sound action sequences.

But the book comes off feeling half-baked. The pacing doesn’t always feel natural. Characterizations come off oddly shallow. Contrived plot twists may sometimes force the action. The novelist may attempt to grapple with important themes or interesting problems, but these don’t resonate through the characters’ lives in authentic ways, because everything is moving too fast. The writer does more “telling” than “showing.”

The result may be good enough writing. But it’s not great or memorable writing. And that, I would argue, comes from trying to keep the story too short.

A perceived need for speed

Before new writers launch into independent publishing, they may harbor illusions about being able to tell the story they want to tell, with no gatekeepers to interfere.

Then they learn about Amazon’s algorithms. They bump repeatedly into the seemingly iron rule that to succeed financially in this business they must write as fast as possible. Ideally, they should publish a new title at least every three months. Wait too long and people will forget who you are! Or so the conventional wisdom goes.

There’s a sound reason for this push to write fast. It works! Publishing new stories frequently will  catch the attention of Amazon’s algorithms—and that will bring the story to more readers’ attention. Write fast, publish as often as humanly possible, and focus on small collections of books (trilogies and tetralogies). That’s the formula.

Traditional publishers do this, too. And it’s currently the most reliable Indie approach for actually making money on this writing thing. As long as what you write is well-suited to the “speed” model, you can write some really excellent, entertaining, worthwhile, and vivid fiction.

Here’s Diane Kelly with her dog Junior and the 9 covers of her “Paw Enforcement” Series.
Here’s Diane Kelly (with her dog Junior). She provides an excellent example of the “shorter and often, but good” model. (Artdog Adventures/The Weird Blog).

What does “well-suited to the model” mean?

I don’tmean “formulaic.” I don’t mean falling back into clichés. I don’t mean sloppy writing or shallow characters or other such flaws.

The stories best-suited to the “fast and often” model are generally fairly short (between about 250-350 pages). Genre can be anything. Mysteries, adventure novels, thrillers, romances, westerns, and a host of others can and often do sparkle at this length.

From humor to grimdark and all things in between, it’s fully possible to conceive, write, and polish a really excellent story in a matter of just a few months, once a writer has unlocked the necessary discipline and skills.

Length makes a difference

Depending on a number of characteristics, any given story has an ideal length. The idea will just naturally “work best” at that length.

(Lorrie Moore/Writers Write)

Some ideas are best-suited to flash fiction. Some work better as classic short stories (the SFWA standard for the Nebula Awards is up to 7,500 words), while the “sweet spot” for others ends up about novelette (7,500-17,500 words), or novella (17,500-40,000 words) length. Technically, anything longer than 40,000 words is a novel.

But I’d like to argue there are “degrees of novel,” too. And a lot of great story ideas are perfect for that 250-350-or-so page-length. A lot—but not all. I think the “Indie issues” I’ve encountered lately stem from a mismatch of story idea to length.

No, you can’t just trim down some ideas

If you’re locked into the idea that to have a serious career you absolutely have to publish a book every three months, six months, or other arbitrary (but short) time period, your mission is clear. You absolutely must develop a mindset that creates ideas well-suited to that length.

All well and good. But what if the idea that feeds your soul and keeps you up at night needs more room? What if the story’s more complex, the interactions more multilayered, or the setting/culture(s) require more words? What if you have a lot of “moving parts” to orchestrate?

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. – Maya Angelou, Wisdom Quotes.
(Maya Angelou/Wisdom Quotes)

Going to greater lengths

What if, to shoehorn it all into a 350-page novel, you’d have to amputate major elements and essentially destroy the story?

If you’re an Indie who only gets ideas for long, richly complex books that take a lot of labor and time to create, you have a real problem—and potential “Indie issues”—if you’re convinced the “write fast and publish often model is the only way to go

I beg of you, please don’t amputate big chunks and publish half-baked books. There is another way. It may be harder and longer, but it exists.

A different kind of books

Did you ever notice that some writers only publish a book every one or two years? That’s not because they’re lazy or slow, or because they need serious editing.

It’s because they write a different kind of books. Books that need more “room” (400-500 pages or sometimes more). And books it’s impossible to write, polish and publish in just a few months. Let’s look at a couple of internationally bestselling mystery writers whose books follow this “bigger books” pattern.

Author Louise Penny with soon-to-be-released “Inspector Gamache” novel #17, “The Madness of Crowds.”
Longer novels, produced at longer intervals, have catapulted Canadian author Louise Penny to much-deserved international bestseller status. Have you discovered her books? (BookPage/GooglePlay).

Maybe you’re familiar with the work of Louise Penny and her “Inspector Gamache” novels. Or perhaps you’re a fan of Deborah Crombie and her “Kincaid and James” mysteries. If you are, you know that they have wildly successful series and tens of thousands of devoted fans.

Looking at some facts, ma’am.

I collected some statistics on both writers’ careers. The stories they needed to tell weren’t shorter, faster-to-produce stories in a variety of trilogies or other short series. Instead, each has developed a long-tailed series that follows the stories of the same handful of “core” characters.

Penny is set to release Book #17, The Madness of Crowds, in August (it’s already a bestseller, based on presales). Crombie’s most recent was #18, A Bitter Feast, released in October, 2018 (yes, that long ago. That’s an eternity in “Indie time,” but her devoted fans are willing to—impatiently—wait).

Deborah Crombie with the cover of her book “A Bitter Feast.”
Photo of Deborah Crombie from her website is by Steve Ullathorne. The cover photo for A Bitter Feast is from the detail page on Crombie’s website. (Deborah Crombie/Artdog Adventures/The Weird Blog).

Since Book #13 of each series, these two award-winning masters of their craft have produced consistently longer books than the “Indie standard” of 250-350 pages. Penny averages 412 pages per book, and she produces a new one approximately every 12 months. Crombie averages 447 pages per book. Her average interval is 19.3 months between books.

“Big Books” aren’t limited by genre

Some of the most influential books ever written fall into this “big books” category. For instance, in my “home genre” of science fiction, the hardcover edition of Frank Herbert’s epic novel Dune weighs in at 528 pages, according to its Amazon listing. A game-changer when it came out in 1965, the genre has never been the same since.

We’ve heard a lot of buzz about Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower recently. Its hardcover edition is 336 pages long, but the sequel, Parable of the Talents, goes to 416.

Big sf books are still being published. N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became weighs in at 448 pages in its hardcover edition. Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun runs to 464 in its hardcover.

Dune by Frank Herbert, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler, The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin, and Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse.
Some “big books” of science fiction from the past through the present. (see IMAGE CREDITS below).

Is there a place for “big books” in Indie fiction?

I can hear the complaints already. “But those are all traditionally-published!” True. Big corporations with big promotional budgets have bankrolled all of my examples. Indies don’t have big bankrolls for huge promotions. Does this mean people who write “big books” can’t make it as an Indie?

I hope to God it doesn’t! What’s Bred in the Bone weighs in at 464 pages in paperback. And if I can get A Bone to Pick published by September, that’s a little more than 2 years’ interval between them. So I definitely have dogs in this hunt!

The good news about self publishing is you get to do everything yourself. The bad news about self publishing is you get to do everything yourself. – Lori Lesko, Wise Famous Quotes.
(Lori Lesko/Wise Famous Quotes)

A different model of success to counteract “Indie issues”

It looks to be a longer, much-slower-paying game for an Indie who writes “big books” and refuses to succumb to the “Indie issues” that go hand-in-hand with compressing a long story into an arbitrary shorter length.

But traditional publishing has made the longer form work profitably. The careers of Penny, Crombie, and many others demonstrate that truth. And that doesn’t only hold for the big-budget books. But it absolutely is a longer, heavier lift.

If we Indies can’t find a way to make “big books” work for us, then ultimately we aren’t going to have as many deeply-thought-out, in-depth books available to read in the future. And that carries with it the seeds of a profound loss for the field of fiction, as well as for the reading public everywhere.

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to Wise Famous Quotes for the Steven Galloway and Lori Lesko quotes. The montage of Diane Kelly and her “Paw Enforcement” series reprises its appearance on this blog. The Deborah Crombie illustration is also from this blog. I appreciate Writers Write for the quote from Lorrie Moore, and Wisdom Quotes for the quote from Maya Angelou.

I’d like to thank BookPage for the photo of Louise Penny, and GooglePlay for the photo of her The Madness of Crowds cover. Finally, I’m really grateful to the Bookmark for the cover image of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Thanks to Octavia Butler’s website for the covers of Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. I’m grateful to N. K. Jemisin’s website for the cover of The City We Became, and to Rebecca Roanhorse’s website for the photo of John Picacio’s striking cover for Black Sun. All montages are by Jan S. Gephardt.

Top Row, L-R: Deborah Crombie (with Dax), Anna Lee Huber, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Catriona McPherson, and Louise Penny. Middle row: Ingrid Thoft, Jenn McKinlay, Julia Spencer Fleming, Paige Shelton, and Rhys Bowen. Bottom Row: Hallie Ephron, Elly Griffiths, Maggie Robinson, and Amy Pershing. (See complete photo credits in IMAGE CREDITS below).

Mystery Woman

By G. S. Norwood

Male authors, including Edgar Allen Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, were pioneers in crime fiction—a genre which arose in the mid to late 1800s.  Even Charles Dickens tried his hand, with his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. But, from femmes fatales to the distraught daughters of the landed gentry, there has usually been a mystery woman at the heart of any crime novel. And it wasn’t long before women began to put their own distinctive mark on this form of popular fiction.

Dame Agatha Christie

At left is a montage of 36 of Agatha Christie’s book covers. At right, a black-and-white shows her in her home, typing.
Masterful mystery writer Agatha Christie wrote at least 77 books, of which the montage at left shows 36 covers. (montage: Cocosse Journal; photo: Getty Images, via Forward).

One of the first women out of the gate in the race to include female voices in crime fiction was Agatha Christie.  And what run she had! She sold her first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in 1916. Her 66th and final novel, Sleeping Murder, was published in 1976. Over the course of her 60-year career, she defined the conventions of the mystery genre for all the generations since.

She wrote a continuing series of novels that featured professional private detective, Hercule Poirot. Her Miss Marple character became the archetype for all the amateur sleuths who populate today’s sub-genre of “cozy” mysteries. Her 1926 novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was voted “Best Crime Novel Ever,” by the British-based Crime Writer’s Association. Christie’s play, The Mousetrap, set the world record for longest initial run of a play—November 1953 until the coronavirus pandemic shut the theatre down in March 2020. 

Agatha Christie has sold more books than any other crime writer. Her novel, And Then There Were None, is one of the best-selling books of all time. She was rarely out of the best seller lists during her lifetime. Her works have spawned countless plays, movies, homages, and outright rip-offs.

Is there a way to dispatch your enemy that Christie didn’t think of first? Her victims were stabbed, clubbed, strangled, and shot. She served in hospital pharmacies during both World Wars, and was rumored to have spent at least some of her time there studying up on deadly drugs and poisons.

By the time this mystery woman left the scene, the genre was well-entrenched in its traditions—many of which were pioneered by this one redoubtable writer.

Kicking Butt and Taking Names

P.D. James with the covers of her two Cordelia Gray novels.
P. D. James’ fictional detective Cordelia Gray kicked butt in 1972. (Express/SecondSale).

About the time Christie’s career was winding down, a new type of mystery woman stepped onstage. Christie led the way, of course, with amateur sleuth Miss Marple’s sharp tongue and very pointed knitting needles. Then in 1972, British novelist P. D. James took a step back from her investigator Adam Dalgliesh to offer us a professional private eye who was a woman—Cordelia Gray in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

But over in America, the genteel female detective caught the wave of mid-century feminism.  Somewhere along the way, she swapped DNA with the grimmer male private eyes of authors like Dashiell Hammett and John D. MacDonald to give birth to a whole new breed. Sara Paretsky’s V. I. “Vic” Warshawski was as hard-boiled as the big boys, a woman, and completely ready to kick your ass if you suggested there was anything wrong with any of that. 

If fictional detectives had embraced feminism by the early 1980s, it was glaringly apparent that Mystery Writers of America had become something of a boy’s club. All the critical acclaim, major awards, and fat movie deals were going to male writers and male detectives, even though MWA had been founded to promote the work of all mystery writers. Paretsky was a leading force in founding Sisters In Crime, an organization meant to promote the careers of female mystery writers. Both organizations now actively support efforts to be more inclusive of diversity in all its forms.

Sara Paretsky and covers of her 20 V. I. Warshawsky novels.
Sara Paretsky with her 1995 Jaguar XJS convertible, and a montage of her 20 V. I. Warshawsky novels. (CrimeReads/FantasticFiction).

You Can’t Keep Secrets from the Help

From 1992 through 2000, author and activist Barbara Neely published four Blanche White novels that are not only outstanding mysteries, but give readers a fascinating window into the Black female experience rarely seen in detective fiction. 

Blanche White was the antithesis of her name, and far from the femme fatale. Heavy-set and dark-skinned, Blanche was a mother, a housekeeper, and far smarter than the greedy, pretentious, entitled snobs she worked for. And you know what they say—you can’t keep secrets from the help.

Neely broke new ground and crushed a lot of stereotypes with her Blanche White mysteries.  In December 2019, Mystery Writers of America awarded Neely their 2020 Grand Master award.  Neely died in March 2020.

Black mystery writer Barbara Neely with covers of her Blanche White mystery series.
In a field dominated by white people, Barbara Neely drew on her activist instincts to inform her Blanche White series. (YouTube/Goodreads/Bookshop).

Killer Romance

Giving Dame Agatha some stiff competition for that best seller title, romance writer Nora Roberts entered the mystery field in 1995.  Roberts is a prolific writer with more than 225 titles to her credit.  Her books have spent a cumulative 1,045 weeks on the on the New York Times best seller lists—the equivalent of 20 years.  With more than 400 million copies of her books in print all around the world, it’s estimated that 27 copies of her work are sold every minute.

When she launched her In Death series under the pseudonym J. D. Robb, Roberts was looking for a way to release more books each year without being in direct competition with herself.  The novels written as Nora Roberts tended toward classic romance and romantic suspense.  She wanted J. D. Robb’s books to be completely different. Featuring Lt. Eve Dallas and her husband/partner Roarke, the In Death mysteries are futuristic police procedurals that combine gritty street life, adult behavior, crackling dialog, and characters who have continued to evolve over a span of 52 books and counting. 

I confess!  I have read and enjoyed all of the books in this series, and sometimes re-read a favorite when I wanted the opportunity to slip back into the very entertaining community Roberts/Robb has created.

Nora Roberts as J.D. Robb, with a montage of her “In Death” novels.
Nora Roberts in her J. D. Robb persona, with many of the covers in her “In Death” series. (MysterySequels/USA Today).

Find Your Own Favorite Mystery Woman!

Today, women are killin’ it in the field of mystery fiction.  No matter what your taste, from the coziest of cozies to the hardest of hard-boiled, you can find many outstanding mystery novels by women. Any one of these excellent writers are guaranteed to give you a great reading adventure:

Louise PennyJulia Spencer FlemingDeborah CrombieElly GriffithsJenn McKinlayCatriona McPhersonHank Phillippi RyanHallie EphronRhys BowenPaige SheltonAnna Lee HuberIngrid ThoftMaggie Robinson

This montage shows photos of the fourteen women listed in the final section of Norwood’s post.
Top Row, L-R: Deborah Crombie (with Dax), Anna Lee Huber, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Catriona McPherson, and Louise Penny. Middle row: Ingrid Thoft, Jenn McKinlay, Julia Spencer Fleming, Paige Shelton, and Rhys Bowen. Bottom Row: Hallie Ephron, Elly Griffiths, Maggie Robinson, and Amy Pershing. (See complete photo credits under IMAGE CREDITS below).

And add a bright new talent to the long list of fine mystery women! Amy Pershing published her first mystery, A Side of Murder in February 2021.  It’s a delight.

Do you need another clue?  Get reading!

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to Cocosse Journal for the Agatha Christie novel-covers montage, and to Getty Images via Forward, for the photo of Christie at work. We are grateful to Express for the photo of P.D. James, and to SecondSale for the Cordelia Gray book covers. Many thanks to CrimeReads for the photo of Sara Paretsky with her 1995 Jaguar XJS convertible. Also to FantasticFiction for the cover images for all twenty of the V. I. Warshawsky series covers (in separate images). Jan S. Gephardt assembled the montage.

We’re really grateful to YouTube for the photo of Barbara Neely at Book World Prague in 2012, to Goodreads for the Blanche on the Lam cover, and to Bookshop for the covers for Blanche among the Talented Tenth, Blanche Cleans Up, and Blanche Passes Go. In addition, we’re thankful for the photo of Nora Roberts personifying J. D. Robb, we thank “MysterySequels.” And we deeply appreciate USA Today for the “Wall of In Death” montage of covers.

Contemporary Mystery Women

In addition, we have what seems like a bazillion people to thank for the Contemporary Mystery Women collection. Jan S. Gephardt put together this montage, too. On the top row, we really want to thank Deb Crombie for the photo of her with her German Shepherd, Dax, WBOI for the photo of Anna Lee Huber, Tor Forge and photographer Chitose Suzuki for the photo of Hank Phillippi Ryan at home, Enterprise and photographer Sue Cockrell for Catriona McPherson’s photo, and BookPage for Louise Penny’s photo.

Also, we’re really grateful to Sisters in Crime of Puget Sound for the great action shot of Ingrid Thoft, to Jenn McKinlay for her photo, and to Peter Hedlund IMGP7808.jpg (original image) and Wikipedia for the photo of Julia Spencer Fleming. In addition, many thanks to Goodreads for the photo of Paige Shelton, and to Criminal Element for the sunny picture of Rhys Bowen, all on the second row!

Finally, several whoops and a holler of thanks go to Wild Mind Creative for the photo of Hallie Ephron, to The Norfolk Wildlife Trust for the Elly Griffiths photo, and to Poisoned Pen Press and photographer Jan De Lima for Maggie Robinson’s photo. Lastly on Line Three, Penguin Random House provided the photo of relative newcomer Amy Pershing. And we thank them for that.

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