Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Back Where We Started; Here We Go Round Again*

Yesterday, I had an interesting comment exchange with Maxine from Petrona about crime fiction series where a new installment in the series comes out just about every year. There are several good reasons for this kind of pace. For one thing, popularity can be a fickle thing, so if a crime fiction novel makes a hit, it makes sense to take advantage of that popularity. Publishers and agents know this, so there’s often pressure on the author from that quarter. Also, if a crime fiction novel is well-written, so that the characters become popular, then fans want more. I know that the characters in my favorite series have become “friends” that I look forward to “seeing.” So fans also clamor for more. For an author, fans’ demands for more can amount to a siren song; it’s very, very heady. Also, for authors who are not “household words,” it can be difficult to get people to take notice of their work; that task is even harder if the author has only one or two novels out. The more novels an author writes, the more likely it is that readers will be aware of that author.

But being prolific is, if you will, a double-edged sword. If books are released too frequently, there’s a great deal of pressure on the author to create new stories. That pressure can mean that some sub-standard work gets released, just so that there will be a new book by a popular author. Most fans will forgive an author for an occasional slip, but after a time, fans will turn elsewhere if the quality that made them fans in the first place isn’t maintained. I’m sure that we can all think of authors whose work we used to admire, but no longer do. Even when a certain level of quality is there, it’s very easy for plots to become formulaic and characters wooden. There’s also the issue of satiation. Even (perhaps especially) in the case of well-written books, fans like to savor what they read. If books are released too frequently, it’s more difficult for fans to keep up with their favorite authors. It can also be hard to keep characters, plots and events organized. Does this mean that authors shouldn’t release a new book every year? I don’t necessarily think so. There are authors (more on that in a moment) who are able to write extremely high-quality work quite frequently and there’s no reason that they shouldn’t. That said, though, there is an argument that the focus should be on the quality of the work rather than on how long it’s been since the author’s last release.

Some very prolific authors maintain quality by continually re-inventing what they do, even “bending rules” to do that. That’s part of what made Agatha Christie such a well-regarded author. Christie wrote 80 detective novels, dozens of short stories and several well-received plays, including the longest-running play of all time, The Mousetrap. Despite such a volume of work, though, many people regard Agatha Christie as one of the finest crime fiction writers we’ve ever had. Part of her success came from trying different kinds of plots. Of course, there’s the “English village” plot made famous in several Miss Marple mysteries such as The Body in the Library. Christie also wrote several “murder-on-holiday” novels, such as A Caribbean Mystery and Evil Under the Sun. She also wrote what one might call psychological mysteries such as Appointment With Death and Sleeping Murder. There are even several spy novels such as The Secret Adversary and N or M? among Christie’s novels, and that’s just a sample of the variety of work Christie wrote.

Christie also kept her work fresh by inventing new sorts of plot twists and surprises. One of the most famous is the dénouement of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing death of retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd. Christie took a great deal of criticism for “breaking the rules” in that novel, but it showed her willingness to try new things, and it’s now regarded as one of her best books.

Some authors are able to maintain very high quality by allowing their characters to develop over time, and by sharing that development with readers. That’s part of what made Ian Rankin’s John Rebus books so consistently popular. There are 17 Rebus novels written over 20 years; yet, many fans were very upset when Inspector Rebus retired at the end of Exit Music. One reason for this fan loyalty is that over the years, Rankin allowed the characters of John Rebus and Siobhan Clarke (as well as other “regular” characters) to grow and develop. Through the years, we follow Rebus as he moves from Detective Sergeant to Detective Inspector. We see his struggles to be a good father as his daughter, Samantha, grows up, and his efforts to have a relationship with his ex-wife, Rhona. In other words, Rebus is a well-rounded character who grows and changes over time. That, in itself, makes him interesting.

Of course, strong plots are important, too, and Rankin’s books have focused on solid plots. Rankin’s known for creating several plot threads that seem unrelated at the beginning of the novel, but are, in reality, connected. He’s avoided being too formulaic through being willing to explore all sorts of plots, including “personal” murders, gang wars, political plots and police corruption.

Michael Connelly, too, has been a prolific author whose novels remain very highly-regarded. He’s written 15 Harry Bosch novels in the last 17 years, and each one is eagerly awaited and often well-received. One reason for this is that, like Rankin, Connelly is not afraid to explore all sorts of plots and themes. His novels have taken up serial killers, the Mob, police corruption, gambling, drugs and many other topics. Connelly has also made Harry Bosch very much a real character. We see Bosch develop through the years as he moves among some of the different departments in the L.A.P.D, from Robbery/Homicide to Open-Unsolved, to Homicide Special. We even follow Bosch as he leaves the L.A.P.D. at one point to work as a private investigator. Those professional changes add life to Connelly’s novels, and they’re part of what makes Bosch a real character whom people are glad to “know.”

Connelly also ties in Bosch’s personal life with the cases he’s exploring. We see this in The Concrete Blonde, where he’s the subject of a lawsuit relating to a murder case he investigated. We also see it in Trunk Music, where his investigation of what looks like a Mob murder leads him straight to a former lover, Eleanor Wish. That integration of personal and professional plot lines can be extremely engaging and it’s arguably part of what keeps Connelly’s novels from being formulaic.

Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is also very well-regarded and (admittedly, this is my opinion) consistently well-written. McCall Smith has released 11 installments in this series since 1998, and it remains extremely popular both commercially and critically. One reason this series remains fresh and interesting is that the characters are appealing and three-dimensional. For instance, Mma. Precious Ramotswe, McCall Smith’s sleuth, is smart, brave and independent. And yet, she’s also traditional in many ways. She has traditional views on home life, relationships among the generations and, to a great extent, relationships between the sexes. For all that, she’s not particularly judgmental. In short, Precious Ramotswe is a complex, interesting character. So are many of the other “regular” characters in the series. There’s a great deal of depth to most of them and as the series goes on, we get to see them grow and change. In fact, those changes add a lot of interest to the stories. For instance, we follow along as Mma. Ramotswe’s assistant, Grace Makutsi, moves from being a secretary to Assistant Detective and later to Manager of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors as well. Mma. Makutsi even starts her own business, the Kalahari Typing School for Men. Those stories-across-stories in which the main and recurring characters develop and change are an important part of the series’ freshness over time.

So in the end, is it possible to be a prolific author and still write very high-quality work? These few examples (there are, of course, many others) would suggest that it is. However, there are just as many examples of authors who’ve been very prolific and whose work has become a pale imitation of itself at best. One key seems to be a willingness to explore new themes, plot devices and situations. Another (perhaps even more important) is the effort it takes to develop characters into whole, real people who change and grow over time. Finally, authors who are both prolific and well-regarded seem to keep their focus on the things that make for a high-quality crime fiction novel: a solid plot that makes sense, characters that we can believe and a mystery that challenges the reader. That’s a tall order for an author to fill, and there’s not a long list of authors who can do so. Yet, it seems to be possible. Of course, mine is only one view on this; what’s yours? Do you think “prolific” has to lead to “stale?” Who are
your favorite prolific authors?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks' Do It Again.

13 comments:

  1. No, I think I told you this before. I love Val McDermid and she produces a new novel every year. I look forward to each and eagerly wait for. That's the same for Elizabeth George. Some authors do get stale but not the ones I love.

    ann

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  2. Ann - I know exactly how you feel, and of course I remember your comment about Val McDermid. I'm the same way about Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. I also very much like Elizabeth George, and Val McDermid, too. There are authors who never seem to lose their touch, and you've given great examples - thanks.

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  3. There are some authors who write a new book each year and it's like waiting on Christmas for the book's publication. You're excited because you know it's going to be as good, if not better, than last year's. As you said in your post, they develop their characters and let them grow as you read each book to the point they become "family and friends" to you and you want to know more and more about them. You want to have more than one book a year, but yet you know that would take away from the quality of the plots.

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  4. I love Agatha Christie. The thought of getting to a point where I have too much writing to do it well is an interesting one.

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  5. Mason - You put that quite well. There really are authors whose work is so consistently good that fans wait for each book as though it were a rare gift. In part, that's because the author has created characters we can identify with and feel could be real. We look forward to their adventures just as we look forward to hearing how members of our own "inner circle" are. That kind of author creates a lasting series.


    Tara - Oh, I'm an Agatha Christie fan, too! I'm in awe of her ability. I know what you mean about wondering what it would be like to have too much writing to do to do my best at it. I haven't gotten there, and in a way, I suppose that's a good thing. I wouldn't want to lose sight of doing my best work on everything I write.

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  6. Lovely post, Margot, and great examples. I particularly like Michael Connelly - some of the Bosch books aren't quite as good as others, but there is no "downwards trend" as you see with some authors- the last two Connellys have been among the best, I think. Last year he wrote two books, such is his enthusiasm for his fictional world! Another way he (and others) keep a series interesting for regulars is to start apparently unconnected books but then draw them in (eg The Lincoln Lawyer and journalist Jack someone or other, and Rachel the FBI agent). Robert Crais has done something similar with Demolition Angel, an apparent stand-alone whose main character now appears in some Elvis Cole books, and in Joe Pike the sidekick, who for many books was just an enigma but who now has a back story and books in which he features as the main character. Harlan Coben is another who does this well.

    Val McDermid, who has been mentioned in the comments, is a very good writer - again, some are better than others but there is no one-dimensional trend. Some of her novels are a bit forumlaic. To date, she's written or is writing three series, and also standalones. So far, the various worlds don't interact although some characters in the standalones appear in more than one book.
    Ruth Rendell is another author who has kept up an amazingly consistent yet prolific output, with one series (Wexford), many standalones and short stories, and a whole other identity as Barbara Vine. Incredible!

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  7. Maxine - Thank you : ), and thanks for mentioning Michael Connelly's Mickey Haller. I thought it was terrific the way he and Harry Bosch work together in The Brass Verdict, and it looks like The Reversal will be quite good, too, when it's released. A creative strategy to tie those characters and books together.

    I'm a bit less familiar with Robert Crais, although I do like his Elvis Cole character. I think that that kind of creativity - where the author creates new characters and then integrates them into other stories - is part of the key to keeping novels and series fresh. I have so much respect for authors who do that! No wonder they have so many fans.

    I think when an author takes that time and makes that effort, readers do forgive her or him for the occasional novel that's not as good as others. Thanks for mentioning Ruth Rendell - you are right that she and her alter ego, so to speak, Barbara Vine, have created many, many wonderful novels through the years. I must learn from that!

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  8. These authors leave me wordless with admiration, however, I think this is a multi-edged sword. As much as I understand the publishers and their attendant marketing departments wanting to feed the public's hunger for a particular character, there is the danger of too much too quickly. Eat too much of anything and indigestion is sure to follow.

    However...

    If you are as gifted as Dame Agatha and can write many different types of mysteries with many different protagonists then the public will hunger for any book by you. I guess this would come under the heading of 'be careful what you wish for'.

    In almost 5 years I've written (both for the public and for custom customers) 26 murder mystery games - so I guess that makes me somewhat prolific. But being able to write novels that quickly? I don't think I have the talent.

    Although never underestimate the power and terror of a deadline!

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  9. Elspeth - You do raise a good point. Too much of anything, even a good thing, can lead to, as you put it, indigestion (I love that analogy, by the way). There are the few exceptions (and Christie is one of them) who can write with such skill and using so many different plots and characters, that readers don't tire of them. However, that's not the norm.

    I have to say that I admire your ability to create so many different murder mystery games. That takes not just talent but creativity. Novels do take longer to create, though, so for most of us, once a year is a very tall order. As you say, though, deadlines can certainly fan the flames of creativity : ).

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  10. It seems that it is possible to write one or two good novels every year provided that the writer has ´a room of her own´. I think of a mental or symbolic room, rather than a physical one. Until writers have a major breakthrough, most of them are forced to work part-time or even full-time, and many writers have several other obligations, e.g. children. But for writers who turn out more than one or two per year, it seems that the quality often slips.

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  11. Dorte - I'm glad that you brought that important point up! Writers do need time and space in which to gather their thoughts and use them to create good stories. As you say, most people who write do other things, too, which can make it very hard to put the necessary energy and focus into creating a gem with each new release. It's often better to have one release every few years than force oneself to churn out something of poor quality just to say it was done. Of course, that doesn't take into account contracts and deadlines....

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  12. 'Prolific' can mean different things to different people, I think. John Creasey, who wrote, in some years, about a book a month, was incredibly prolific, but I think the quality tended to be moderate. Ruth Rendell, a great writer, is prolific, though not on the same scale. However, I think that of late some of her work has been a bit repetitive of earlier plot-lines and themes. It's very difficult for any writer to produce more than two really good books a year, I think, and for most of us, even one good book a year is a challenge.

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  13. Martin - You've made a very well-taken point. Even the finest of us (and I, like you, include Rendell among the great writers), can only write so much high-quality work per year, or even every two years. It takes time to craft a quality plot and develop interesting characters. Too much time pressure simply pressures the author into using "what's always worked..."

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