True confession time:
Twelve years ago when I began my first Sasha Solomon manuscript, I wasn’t a big mystery fan. Like many people who don’t know much about the genre, I had a pejorative, limited view of it. With a self-satisfied smirk, I called it, "bubble gum for the mind," and believed my own faulty rhetoric.
Still, common sense — and advice gleaned from writers’ groups and conferences — convinced me to try to get published in a definable genre rather than to go straight for mainstream fiction.
Oh, how I fought that advice.
I thought there was a formula, a magic one-two-three, that every mystery author stuck to. This repelled me; I despise being told what to do. The more rigid the structure, the more I want to blast it to smithereens.
So, my first two manuscripts were pieces of crappola. In them, I scoffed at all the conventions of the genre and ended up with about 800 unusable pages of cliches, lousy prose, and meandering plots.
Since CLOVIS’s publication, I’ve met many aspiring novelists. Our conversations often begin like this:
Pari: Tell me about your book.
AN: It’s not a typical mystery. It’s a thriller, mainstream novel with elements of literary fiction.
What intrigues me about this are two ideas. First, that there is a typical mystery. Frankly, the more I learn about the genre, the less I believe it’s true. And, second, the writer’s attempt to squiggle out of the genre. (I recognize the tell-tale signs . . . )
Before I started writing my mysteries, I didn’t know about the battles among our community’s subgenres. Hell, I didn’t know there were subgenres! I also didn’t know about the Otto Penzlers of the fiction world who actually derived pleasure from denigrating certain manifestations of crime fiction.
No, I fought the conventions of crime fiction simply because it was defined at all. I suffered from creative machismo. Somehow, I thought that to have a structure within which to work was admitting a lack of imagination or thought.
The truth is, I didn’t get published until I learned about the structure and general requirements of "traditional" mysteries. I now abide by many of those rules. Sasha Solomon, my protag, is an amateur sleuth. My books don’t have much graphic violence, sex, or profanity. They’re absolutely who-dunits.
I break rules, too. Sasha is a reluctant sleuth. She steps up because she has to, not because she’s particularly noble or curious at the moment — though she always grows in my books. Sasha also travels to many small towns — rather than staying in one charming or quaint little place — and all the towns have weird names. (This is a real marketing no-no. Oh, well. I have a weird name, too.).
What’s the lesson here?
Sometimes the fight is just plain stupid.
Now, when I read a review that says something like, "It transcends the genre," I think to myself, "That reviewer doesn’t know what he or she’s talking about."
At least in mysteries, the genre is a very flexible, very big, and tremendously satisfying canvas for both readers and writers.