Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Reading (Brockmann and Burke) to learn

Most of my work is genre fiction, and each genre has its rules and tropes – attributes that define the genre. A writer needs to be familiar with these, and to remind herself often of how and when to use them and why. While I'm in the writing phase of writing – the actual typing part – I don't read fiction related to what I'm doing. However when I'm in the planning stages of a novel-length project – working out main plot arc and subplots, mapping the locations, making casting decisions – I do read novels in the genre by writers whose works I admire. I'm not looking for ideas, ideas are the easy part. I'm looking for tips on mechanics, looking at how the tools of our craft are utilized within the genre.

Take romantic suspense. A good (as in top-selling) romantic suspense novel is a taut suspense novel wherein the protagonists think and talk about their feelings a great deal. I haven't done a line-by-line count, but I would estimate that 25-30% of a Suzanne Brockmann "Troubleshooters" novel is Navy SEALs, mercenaries, and FBI agents working their way through past emotional baggage or talking out their feelings and aspirations for the future. A scene comes to mind in which a Navy SEAL and a female FBI sharpshooter are defending a family in an isolated vacation home against domestic terrorists. The terrorists have set the house on fire, but it's a big house so they've got time to respond. He's on his way to the garage to create a diversion and she's on her way to the third floor with her rifle to thin out the opposition when they meet on the stairs and have a three or four line conversation about trust; during the climactic firefight each is thinking of the other and their relationship. Objectively this makes little sense - in the midst of crises you focus entirely on what's happening and what you can do about it - but within the context of the story it works; not only does Brockmann's narrative leading to that moment prepare the reader to willingly suspend disbelief, the conversation and later ruminations under fire set up the satisfying resolution of the romantic conflict. Excise their romantic scenes and Brockmann's novels would rank high in suspense and action markets – and have something like one-tenth the sales. These scenes are vital to the romance trope, and the way Brockmann makes them work – and on rare occasions doesn't quite make them work – is worth careful study.

To my mind first person narrative and detective mysteries are perfect partners – they play fair with the reader, showing her only what the protagonist sees and challenging her to solve the puzzle. I cut my teeth on Travis McGee and Archie Goodwin, and the subgenre remains one of my favorites.
Among current writers James Lee Burke is often cited as the master of the form. He's also known for his ability to set a scene, creating a three-dimensional setting for the action. In a recent summer I read a dozen of his books, written over two decades, back-to-back. Found a few patterns. His evocative descriptions usually hinge on sly use of similes and slightly offbeat adjectives. A sky full of impending storm, for example, looks like burnt pewter or a trailer is dejected. His Robicheaux novels are set in New Iberia, a real town where Burke lives, not far from New Orleans; I suspect some of his descriptions are based on years of familiarity. A few times his descriptions threw me, however. Detective Dave Robicheaux may look out from his dock and smell fish spawning in the bayou or be on a street and smell dead waterbugs in the storm drain. I've never been on a bayou, but I'm a Florida native who (mis)spent a lot of my youth in blackwater swamps and salt marshes. You can't smell fish spawning; they're at the bottom of the water. I think I know the smell he means. Before a storm the water's surface takes on an oily sheen and there's a scent that's no one thing but the whole swamp preparing itself to receive fresh rain. And large colonies of waterbugs (aka palmetto bugs, aka cockroaches big enough to scare the housecat) do have a smell - a musky, musty odor – but it's the live ones, not the dead, giving off the gas.
One limitation to first-person narratives is the difficulty of depicting scenes when the protagonist is not present. In his Robicheaux novels, Burke uses transitions to present pivotal events the detective didn't witness. (Something along the lines of: It took me weeks to get the full story, it came in bits and pieces over beers on the dock, aimless conversations in the shade of the oak, and one long afternoon trolling for bass that wouldn't bite.) However in his Billy Bob Holland series, following a former Texas Ranger turned small town lawyer, the unknowable scenes (a murder from the victim's perspective; precipitating events Holland is never aware of in a distant time or place) are simply dropped in. I've not aware of anyone complaining about this, but it was enough to throw me completely off the series.

The lessons I carried away from my educational summer project? Keep the reader engaged with unexpected descriptors, but nothing that might pull her out of the story. And respect the rules of the genre.

Read widely. Don't analyze while you read. Some books recommend counting lines of dialog, or how many sentences are used to describe characters or actions, or how many pages between sex scenes; this way lies madness. Read authors you know you can learn from, but read like a reader – let yourself experience the book. If a scene from the novel sticks with you – if you find yourself thinking about it weeks or months later – go back and read the passage again. Then analyze. Figure out what the writer did right (or if it's a negative memory, did wrong). You may never write a scene just like it, but you will expand your storyteller's toolkit.


Charles Gramlich said...

I guess because I was a reader so long before I became a writer that I usually don't have trouble 'just' reading, just getting into a story. As you say, only later will I go back and do any analysis. I have to say that the first piece you described. The house on fire and the two characters having a long conversation would probably knock me completely out of the story. Course, it all depends on the talent of the writer so maybe not. I've not read her work.

Liane Spicer said...

I've come to realise that 'bestselling' often does not equate 'good writing'. I suspect that some writers who sell very well get sloppy, or are probably under pressure from their publishers to keep the goodies coming fast while their names/brands are still able to move books. Or maybe their particular audience is not too discriminating.

I'd wonder about the probability of smelling spawning fish and assume it was more of an associative thing than a literal scent. I'd also accept the smelly dead bugs because they're outside of my experience. But that tete-a-tete between the couple on the stairs while terrorists rain fire on them? I'll be passing on Ms. Brockman's books.

If you want to read goodromantic suspense with none of that inanity you describe, check out Paula Gosling's A Running Duck and Zero Trap. Probably out of print but still available used from Amazon.