Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Your Type of Book

Question of the week: Overheard at Bouchercon in Florida last month: "I don't write series *or* standalone; I write books." Do you love/hate/mind/notice/use/ignore the publishers' and booksellers' classifications of your work?

Terry Shames here.
I write a series, and am working on more than one standalone. The first declaration in the “question of the week” seems a little off to me because writing series and standalones are so different. When I write books in my Samuel Craddock series, I have a whole set of characters, background, and setting to draw on that have already been with me for several books. The plot takes place in a physical, cultural, and historical setting I know well and with people that I understand. I know their back stories, what their reactions will be to plot developments, how they will interact with each other, how they react to strangers, and how events might change them.  I know them well, and I don’t have to reinvent them.

With standalones, it’s different. I know nothing about any of the characters or the setting. I have to get to know them from the first pages. Sometimes I have to write out their back story (that is, their history) so that I understand their motivations. It’s a struggle to make sure the characters are firmly rooted not just in the physical setting, but in their cultural and personal setting as well.

Writing a series book is like waking up in my house in the town I’ve lived in for years, with all the same neighbors, the same trees and gardens, the same attitudes, the same city government. Writing a standalone is like waking up in a new town with none of that familiarity. I have to find out if the neighbors are friendly, what their politics are, what the weather is like, what challenges characters face particular to their setting and their lives, where they work, if they are good neighbors, how many kids they have, how long they’ve lived here, how city government works, and much more.  Only when I know all that, can I begin to understand what might have set the story in motion and how it will affect them. That doesn’t even begin to talk about plot. I have to know the characters first.

 The second part of the question, regarding publishers’ and booksellers’ classifications is something I don’t pay too much attention to. I write what I write. Whatever they want to call it usually has something to do with “product placement” and marketing. I think those classifications are important because they help readers to choose books they might like to read. Sometimes the classification is a bit off, but I think they do the best they can to get it right, and that it’s up to authors to keep an eye on whether they are classified properly.

The series books I write are small-town police procedurals in a traditional vein. If I went into a bookstore and found them under Romance novels, I’d have a chat with the bookseller. 

If I went to Amazon and saw that they were classified as thrillers, I’d let them know I thought they had misrepresented them. 

Someone who loves hard-core thrillers might enjoy my books, but chances or he or she would find them too slow. Someone once called my “hill country noir,” which is a label I like. Noir is not the same as hard core thriller, and it isn’t cozy. My characters carry guns and sometimes use them, so cozy isn’t right either. As far as I know, though, “hill country noir” is not a sub-genre generally recognized, so I have to go with the more general description of “traditional police procedural.”

A lot of authors write multiple types of books, or write books that are not easily classified. Where do you put Daniel Woodrell’s books? James Anderson’s? Catriona McPherson writes a cozy series, but she also writes standalone psychological thrillers. They all demand their own thoughtful classification.

 I once ran across a bookseller who was trying to decide whether to stock a popular mystery novel under “Mystery” or the more general “Fiction.” She said the writing was so good in many mystery novels, that she wanted to entice readers who normally would not read mysteries to dip into them. Hard to complain about that intention. I think she is not alone. Industry professionals want people to read books. Classifying them is not meant to put them in a box, but to find ways for readers to find them. So I try to keep an eye on making sure they are classified in a general way that works, without worrying too much about the details.


Paul D. Marks said...

Terry, I often find books that I would have thought would be classified as mysteries or thrillers in the general fiction section. And on the one hand I think that's a good thing. On the other, when I go looking for those types of books it is easier if they're in sections of their own.

And "hill country noir" is a pretty cool designation.

Terry said...

Paul, I often look both in the mystery section and the "mainstream" section, just in case. And yeah, I wish "hill country noir" had a section of its own.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Good post, Terry. And I like that too, Hill Country Noir.

Terry said...

Thanks, Dieter.

Kristopher said...

Excellent post, Terry. Frankly, the Fiction section of the store is really useless - because it is too broad and puts an artificial qualifier on genre books that they don't deserve. I'm all for sections, as it does help people find books that will be of interest to their tastes, but abolish the Fiction section and move those books to the category they most closely fit.

Susan C Shea said...

Kristopher's idea is an interesting one, and I agree general "fiction" isn't terribly useless. But wouldn't that lead to a lot of new niche categories? (The one I most dislike is "women's fiction"!) I do agree that a lot of what is categorized as crime fiction has grown so sophisticated and nuanced in the plots and writing that the category no longer defines it accurately. Think Jane Smiley, Tim Hallinan, David Corbett, Kate Atkinson....

Terry said...

I agree about the Fiction section--although at least it is differentiated from non-fiction. I don't really know how you would break it down, though. One of the most memorable books I've read in the last few years is a sci-fi book that was, as sci-fi often is, an exploration of human reality, manners, and philosophy. Should be "mainstream," but as Kristopher suggested, genre books are artificially qualified, and wouldn't make it in the "serious" fiction world.