Thank You for Not Enjoying My Book

Since my turn on this blog comes around on the fourth Thursday of the month, every year I get to explore a new facet of gratitude on Thanksgiving. This year, I asked myself, what’s the most unusual thing I’m grateful for? How about thanking someone who didn’t like one of my books?

As a member of Sisters in Crime, I’ve stayed in the Guppies subgroup, short for “great Unpublished,” long after moving out of unpublished territory. Like many authors, I find the group’s benefits too valuable to leave behind. One benefit is the opportunity to do a manuscript swap with another author and give each other feedback. In addition to getting input from my regular critique partners, I always seek out at least one new critique partner or beta reader per book, someone who is not familiar with my series.

This time, I did a swap with an author who turned out not to like my work, and I didn’t like hers. It was great. Since neither of us was wrapped up in plot and character, we saw all the technical problems each other needed to address. She noticed some things the other six people who gave me feedback didn’t. They were following the story, turning the page, emotionally involved, and wondering what would happen next; she was disengaged. Though I continually get better at weeding out my crutch words and my over-used habitual phrases, certain ones are so natural to me they become invisible. But they were visible to her, and likewise her habits were visible to me. She also noticed where I needed clearer time transitions at the beginnings of chapters, where the background was unclear, and where a long chapter should break in two. I thank her for not enjoying my book. She helped make it better.

This was the second time in writing my six-book series that I’ve had this experience. Years ago, I swapped an early draft of a book that later evolved into The Calling with a woman who didn’t even finish it. Her assessment was harsh, not as tactful as the Guppy guidelines suggest we should be. My prior swap partner on that manuscript liked my characters so much, the plot and pacing weaknesses didn’t register with her. This ruthless second critique motivated me to study plot and structure and then revise from the ground up. After that, I reworked the book chapter by chapter with a critique group. The final product has been well-reviewed, and bears little resemblance to the version that my swap partner so disliked. I am grateful to her for tearing it apart.

Of course, I’m equally grateful to critique partners who did like my books. It’s useful to get insights and suggestions from someone who enjoys the work in progress, noticing where it could improve but also telling me what they find effective. When my critique partner who didn’t like the book still said that the end of Death Omen made her cry, I was sure I’d done something right.

Death Omen

The sixth Mae Martin Psychic Mystery

 Trouble at a psychic healing seminar proves knowing real from fraud can mean the difference between life and death.

At an energy healing workshop in Santa Fe, Mae Martin encounters Sierra, a woman who claims she can see past lives—and warns Mae’s boyfriend he could die if he doesn’t face his karma and join her self-healing circle. Concerned for the man she loves, Mae digs into the mystery behind Sierra’s strange beliefs. Will she uncover proof of a miracle worker, or of a trickster who destroys her followers’ lives?

The Mae Martin Series

No murder, just mystery. Every life hides a secret, and love is the deepest mystery of all.

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Book one in the Mae Martin Series, The Calling, is currently free on all major e-book retail sites.

Keeping a Series Strong

Amber in tree finalI hope this hasn’t happened to you, but … have you ever picked up the sixth or seventh book in a series you follow and been let down? Maybe the author crushed you with backstory aimed at new readers. Or worse, the author took your loyalty for granted and got self-indulgent with a book full of “darlings” that should have been killed. Series fans, myself included, sometimes forgive all of that and keep reading because they love the characters. New readers who happen to start with a later book in the series won’t be so forgiving.

Authors who handle backstory well (in my opinion) give very little and slip it in only as needed. In one of Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon novels, she briefly mentions that Anna acquired her dog, Taco, after accidentally causing the death of her friend who owned him. That’s it. No other details. The story moves on. To me, this was brilliant. The reader knows just enough with this bit of painful background to understand Anna’s feelings about Taco. I hadn’t yet read the earlier book, Blind Descent, in which the accident occurs. When I did read it, nothing had been spoiled.

I’ve started other series late in their progress and quit without finishing due to backstory overload. It wasn’t just dull; it ruined the earlier books for me. Of course, a series character’s personal life changes and grows in each book, and it’s inevitable that book three will give away transitions in the lead character’s love life or family life, but it shouldn’t spoil the mystery plots of books one and two. I suspect that most people like to begin a series at the beginning, but others grab the newest book first. Sometimes the new release in a series is the only thing my library has available in audiobook, so off I drive with no prior familiarity with that author. It’s usually a good experience, but once in a while I get a book that threatens to put me to sleep at the wheel with tedious summaries of the characters’ previous adventures, sometimes in the worst way possible: expository dialogue. “Remember when we solved the mystery of the missing heiress? You saved my life and hers.” “But it was your quick thinking that got us there.” “And then the press made a hero out of her husband, of all people.” On it goes. Both characters were there and know what happened and yet they tell each other so the author can tell the reader. Yawn. Hit eject button. Pull over for coffee. Try a different audiobook.

This experience has motivated me to get a new critique partner for each book in my series. I have long-term reliable partners who know my work and my characters, and who do great plot critiques, but I also need fresh eyes on each book. Because of my aversion to backstory, I include as little as I possibly can. The new person who hasn’t read the prior books lets me know what was unclear, and then I can insert the necessary minimum at the right place. The new reader also will not be as tolerant of scenes that are fun for me and for people who have a long relationship with my characters, but which are slow in moving the plotsymptoms of that other error which can creep into a long series: self-indulgence. My new critique partner will catch it and help me cut the fluff.

I want the person who picks up book five first to have a complete, compelling experience within that story, and to be curious what happened in the rest of series. Also, I hope for the later books in the series to be as alive and exciting for long-term readers as the first book was.

Mystical Mysteries

Mystical Mysteries

If I could channel the spirit of any author to mentor me, it would be the late James D. Doss of Los Alamos, New Mexico. I discovered him through a review in New Mexico Magazine and read all seventeen of his Charlie Moon mysteries, some of them more than once, and I know I’ll read the whole series again. Though I don’t attempt to write like Doss—no one else could—he influenced me greatly as a writer of unconventional and mystical mysteries, where the ordinary and the spiritual meet.

Here’s a short list of the things I love about Doss’s books:

  • Characters. Complex and eccentric, they surprise the reader. I love the ongoing characters and the unique, colorful people introduced in each of the books. My favorite one-book character is six-year-old Butter Flye in The Night Visitor. Doss wrote child characters with unsentimental realism. Butter is tough and strange and yet likeable, and I have never laughed louder or longer reading any book, let alone a mystery, than I did when I read the encounter between Charlie’s irascible aunt, the shaman Daisy Perika, and Butter in the back seat of a truck.
  • Spirituality. The visionary experiences that Daisy and her ward Sarah Frank have are written in a way that makes me feel as if I’ve taken the shaman’s journey with them. The spirit world is integrated seamlessly with earthy realism and humor that says Doss understood this aspect of Indian culture: the sacred and the comic are not opposite or incompatible. He mixed Catholic mysticism into the books as well with beauty and sensitivity, another Southwest truth. Many people adhere to both Native religions and Catholicism at the same time. My favorite character for expressing that unique blend of spiritual worldviews is Nahum Yacitii, the old Ute shepherd who apparently ascended to heaven in a windstorm and comes back to visit the few who can see him.
  • Language. I read a Doss book and I am in the place. When he takes us for walk in the Canyon of the Spirits with Daisy, I hear every step and smell and feel the air. Even the description of the nervous, jerky second hand of a ticking clock is a marvel of observation that sets the mood of a scene perfectly. (I leave you to find this treasure, also in The Night Visitor.)
  • Mastery of the omniscient narrator. Most writers can’t pull this off, but Doss could show the thoughts of every character in a scene without causing the slightest confusion or disorientation in the reader, often to humorous effect. He could even use the point of view of an animal—a bird, a deer, or a prairie dog—as the only witness to an event, and make it work.
  • Hanging out with the guys. Doss wrote real, not hyper-masculine, male characters. Charlie often fails to understand the women around him, but he does it so sincerely I like him for it. The friendship and repartee between Charlie and Scott give me a sense of hanging out with the guys in a way a woman doesn’t often get a chance to in real life, even when some of her best friends are men.
  • Humor. I get a kick out tall tales Charlie Moon tells just for the fun of it, pulling people’s legs. While the essence of each book is serious, dealing with life and death and love, there is a layer of humor as well, coming from the genuine interactions between characters and from their various eccentricities. Daisy is a spiritual visionary and also a quirky, cranky old lady.

Doss resolved the tangles of Charlie’s love life finally in the last book. I wonder if there were more books in his mind when he left this world, though. Daisy was the oldest living member of the Southern Ute tribe, and Sarah Frank, a young adult by the end of the series, was trained—somewhat—as Daisy’s shaman’s apprentice. Was Sarah destined to inherit all the spirits in the canyon, and the ancient little spirit-man living in a badger hole, the pitukupf? I’ll never know. It’s the sign of a good series, though—I still think about it. The characters live on.

This is revised from a tribute to Doss originally posted on http://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com.