NOT YOUR USUAL SUSPECTS

A group blog featuring an international array of killer mystery, suspense, and romantic suspense writers. With premises and story lines different from your run-of-the-mill whodunits, we tend to write outside the box. We blog several times a week on all topics relating to romantic suspense and mystery, our writing, and our readers. We welcome all comments! and often have guest bloggers.

We find our genre delightfully, dangerously, and deliciously exciting - join us here, if you do too!


Julie Moffet . Clare London . Cathy Perkins . Jean Harrington . Daryl Anderson . Nico Rosso . Maureen A. Miller . Marcelle Dube . Sandy Parks . Lisa Q Mathews . Sharon Calvin . Lynne Connolly . Janis Patterson

Friday, February 3, 2012

What’s a Writer’s Biggest Challenge?

Above all else, writing calls on an author to be an “imagineer.”  To repeat the same old, same old, or to structure each new project on the tried and true, means an author’s not being true to himself.  He’s holding fast to somebody else’s rules of writing’s right and wrongs.  He’s playing in the shallow end of the pool, afraid to take chances, to color outside the lines.
 
            Say you’re baking sugar cookies.  You measure the ingredients carefully, mix them well, and time the baking perfectly.  The result is round, bland and predictable cookies.  Instead, consider taking a muffin pan, turning it upside down and baking the sugar cookie dough over the bottom of the muffin wells.  What you end up with are sugar cook cups.  Fill them with ice cream, sorbet, pudding, fruit, top them with whipped cream, strawberries, sprinkles, butterscotch sauce or the queen of flavors, chocolate.  Now you’ve taken the boring and predictable and morphed it into a glam dessert.
Why not do the same with your writing?  Why not experiment with breaking the “rules” all writers are advised to obey if they ever wish to be published?  I don’t mean all the rules of course, ala James Joyce or Samuel Beckett, but some.
A case in point:  I recently wrote a blog on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None in which she does exactly that, breaks some of the rules.  In the first 20 pages of the book she introduces 11 major characters.  Count ‘em, eleven.  And for 10 of them, she piles on backstory.  Pages of backstory right at the book’s beginning.  Imagine.  Haven’t you been told to avoid doing so, that it’s tantamount to an authorial crime?
Best of all, she gets away with it.  The book is a literary icon.
The truth is some rules deserve to be broken.  The antihero can act heroically, the heroine can have mousey brown hair, the cozy mystery can have—gasp--sex and a guitar player as the protag.  For me, being able to make unexpected changes like this is what makes the writing game worthwhile. 
That said, some rules remain virtually inviolate especially in the mystery form.  Justice prevails.  The culprit is caught.  The good guys win.  In And Then There Were None, all 10 victims are killed because they had committed crimes.  So Christie retained a vital rule.  She served justice while breaking enough other rules to give her book an interesting edge.          I’ve tried to emulate her example.  In Designed for Death I had my heroine work in an arty business, made her a grieving widow with sexy, showgirl legs, and tossed in a few wild characters of a type not usually found in cozy mysteries  But . . . and we all know nothing matters till we reach the but . . . the good guys do win in the end.
So a lot of innovation can take place within the boundaries of a form.  I’m learning to keep what has been proven to work but to put a fresh spin on it.  Sometimes you want a round sugar cookie to dunk in your milk.  Other times, you transform that raw dough into a little vessel that will hold all manner of surprises.  The chance to choose between the two, not to have to follow the well-trodden path, is what makes writing such an exciting journey.
Now I’m off to find the kitchen.   
   
Check out DESIGNED FOR DEATH by Jean Harrington

13 comments:

Rebecca said...

Great blog post - I agree that we should mix it up as writers. Writing needs to be fun for both the writer and the reader.

And now I'm craving sugar cookies. :)

Teresa Reasor said...

Loved the blog. And I totally agree. When you follow too many rules the whole outcome is formulaic and not much fun for the writer or the reader.

I loved your last book and looking forward to the next!!!
Teresa R.

L. j. Charles said...

Fantastic post, Jean. As one who breaks a lot of rules, I especially appreciated your insight on And Then There Were None. Because I write series, there has to be some backstory in the beginning of my books or the reader would flounder.

But I really love to play with all sorts of twists and turns--a little cinnamon in the sugar cookie.

As someone who's had a sneak peak at what's coming in your next book, I can only say readers will be glued to their ereader or print copy.

L. j.

Maureen A. Miller said...

Bravo, Jean. I'm all about breaking the rules. But one rule for me will never be broken...the happy ending. :)

Joyce Wells said...

I agree with the happy ending, but do you ever, ever, just wish one time that you could pull the rug out from under the hero and say, "Nope, you're not quite good enough for me."?

NancyCWeeksAuthor said...

You're so right, Jean. Sometimes,we need that simple sugar cookie. It's comforting. But I love breaking the rules, trying something that hasn't been done before. I want my readers to say, "Wow, I didn't see that coming." That's the greatest compliment because it means I'm not a predictable writer.

Rita said...

think you need to know the rules before you can break them. Too many authors don't take the time to learn what the rules are. And I do think that the rules change. They are squished and punched and pulled into new definitions over time. Romance novels have changed incredibly since the 70s-thank you gawd. But that came about because of risk-taking authors, agents and editors. If any of you were at nationals this summer or have heard Sherrilyn Kenyon tell her story of a particular rejection from an editor who said, “this book is awful. It will never go anyplace and never ever submit another book to this house.” Yup. Wonder what he's doing now?

Lynnette Hallberg said...

Excellent post, Jean! I'm all for a little rule breaking. It's what makes life...and stories worth doing. BTW, I absolutely loved your first book in this series and cannot wait for the next!

Marcelle Dubé said...

Yum! Jean, I think I gained five pounds reading your blog. I like rules -- they sound so nice when they break...

Shirley Wells said...

Great post, Jean. I totally agree that rules are there to be broken. It's the only way we can bring a freshness to our writing. Throw out the bland and predictable, bring in the fresh and exciting.

By the way, you're welcome at my house anytime. I'll supply the muffin pans!

Joyce Henderson said...

Hey Jean,

Rules? We have rules? Shoot, those pesky details slap me upside the head all the time, but I seem to make a practice of breaking every one I stumble upon. I love your cookie baking analogy, but I'd prefer salsa my Westerns, adding jalapenos whenever possible. :) As you know, "sweet" I'm not, and dessert is the farthest thing from sating my taste buds. Can't wait to read your book. I wish you a ton of sales and years of writing for everyone's reading pleasure.

Diane O'Key said...

Great job, Jean. A so-typical blend of intelligence, cleverness, and humor. Can't wait to read your new mystery! Buying an Ereader this week...
Diane O'Key

jean harrington said...

Thanks to all my fellow writers, readers and friends who commented. Loved reading your posts. Best to all, Jean

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