Monday, June 14, 2021

What Not to Do: Guest Post by Donis Casey

Donis Casey:

What Not to Do 

Besides writing mystery novels, for a few years I've had a side gig as a free-lance mystery reviewer for Publishers' Weekly Magazine. I don't choose the books I review. The editor at PW sends me three or four advance reading copies (ARCs) a month to review. Usually these books will not be available for purchase for several months, and an ARC is not the final version, so I don't pay undue attention to typos or other minor flaws that will more than likely be corrected before the book hits the shelf. 

I try never to be mean with my reviews, because as a writer myself I know how that feels. Besides, just because I don't enjoy a particular type of character/plot/setting/time period, that doesn't mean it's not well executed, and other readers may love just that kind of thing. But I know an epic fail when I see one, and when I do, I'm honor bound to tell the truth. I've been doing these reviews for about three years, and I've seen the best of the best and the worst of the worst, and both have taught me many things I've tried to apply to my own writing. In fact, I'm currently in the midst of getting a lesson on what not to do. I'm reading the second or third installment of a series in which some loose ends are left from earlier books, and the author keeps interrupting the action to catch us up on what went before. Now, it has to be done, but said author does it with such lengthy digressions that when he returns to the action, I've forgotten the details of the story. 

As I read, I'm furiously taking "what not to do" notes, especially considering I'm in the midst of writing the second installment of a mystery that contains loose ends from the first. How do you catch the reader up on what has gone before without bogging down your momentum? Do it in short intervals, I think, and try to work it into the action naturally. That's what to shoot for, anyway. 

Here are some other comments I've sent to the PW editor about fails in books I have reviewed which all writers would do well to watch out for. None of these comments actually showed up in the review I wrote for publication, and the names, situations, and details have been changed to protect the guilty. 

"The plot had so many holes that I have a headache from slapping my forehead so many times while I was reading." 

"She had an idea for a plot and bent all her characters out of shape to fit it." 

"This is a historical, but I couldn't tell what the year actually was and the author never actually said. From things the author wrote in the beginning I thought it must be in the 1850s or so, but I kept revising my estimate forward as more and more modern items kept showing up. I think maybe the 1870s." 

"The sleuth's method of detection consisted of basically going from suspect to suspect and loudly accusing him or her of murder in hopes someone would crack. The motive was stupid and the killer was stupid for falling for (X's) lame trap." 

"No proper English lady would go on 'vacation' with a single male acquaintance in 18--." 

"Great characters and deft handling of the mores of the time. But I wish (X) hadn't cleared (Y) of the murder by having the coroner pinpoint the murdered woman's time of death within half an hour! In the 19th century!" 

 "I like the unusual setting and the characters are fun. She handled tension well, but I would have liked it better if the big showdown between the sleuth and the murderer hadn't ended with a slapstick food fight." 

"She certainly studied the manual on how to write a cozy, so cozy lovers will find much to like. But that ending! The protagonist and her sidekick lay a trap, then hide in the bushes to eavesdrop on the conversation between the killer and the person who agreed to be bait. I always get annoyed when the killer confesses all in excruciating detail, and at the drop of a hat!"* 

But really good characters cover a multitude of sins: "Her editor would have done well to have her condense the beginning quite a bit, but it eventually picked up nicely and the main character was well drawn and realistic. She was actually emotional about the deaths! It wasn't hard to figure out whodunnit, but there's enough atmosphere and crafting and eccentric characters (and a hunky detective and a kitty) that cozy lovers won't care."

*This is a pet peeve of mine. Can you tell?


Donis Casey is the author of Valentino Will Die, the second episode (following The Wrong Girl, 2019) in a fresh new series starring Bianca LaBelle, star of the silent screen action serial,The Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse. Donis is also the author of ten Alafair Tucker Mysteries, an award-winning series featuring the sleuthing mother of ten children, set in Oklahoma during the booming 1910s. Donis is a former teacher, academic librarian, and entrepreneur. She lives in Tempe, AZ


Maria G. Swan said...

very interesting. You're more patient than I would be.

Judith Starkston said...

I feel for you with the "fails", but I'm admiring your ability to learn from the worst reading experiences :)
I certainly agree that being overly mean in a review is pointless and beside the point. Honesty yes, cruelty no!

Diane said...

Love, love, love your critical comments! I’ve read books that drive me crazy because of the incorrect historical actions. Some books, inaccuracy doesn’t bother me because the story and characters are so well written, I’ve developed a philosophy that if the book doesn’t grab me by the hundredth page, it’s done. Too many books to read, too little time. We watched a murder mystery movie last night set in 1940s London with Agatha Christie as the protagonist. It was so wrong in so many ways with ridiculous characters and I correction information about Agatha in that particular year. Ugh! Kept up your critical reviews, they help me chose books.

B.J. Porter said...

ARCs implies these are traditionally published books, no?

How do you think these rather flawed books got past all the gatekeepers in the process to reach this point with these problems?

carl brookins said...

As a reviewer of crime novels, as well as a crime writer, myself, I couldn't possibly agree more. Her comments are particularly useful for cozy authors, but any writer of crime fiction would do well to post these criticism nearby.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much. A plot so fragile, I dare not touch it with the naked hand. I just went through a well-(many)published author who uses the MC's feline for telling and buckets of interiority. This occurs every third chapter and I got to the point I'd cringe as I saw that moment approaching.

With great appreciation,

Mary (M. A.) Monnin said...

Thanks for the tips on what not to do! I hope I manage to keep them out of my writing.

Donis Casey said...

Thanks for the comments and insights, all! My philosophy is that I'm reading fiction and not true crime or a history book, so minor glitches don't make my head explode. But anything that is a glaringly obvious mistake and takes the reader out of the story is a big no-no. If your reader ever has to stop and say "whaaat!" or "wait a minute, who's this guy, again?" or "Why is Caesar wearing a Rolex?" then you've defeated your purpose. As for how these things get by editors, B.J., I can only think it has to do with having to read and correct dozens of books in a short period of time. Besides, copy editors aren't necessarily subject experts, so it's wise for an author to have her MS checked for content. Things do get by you. For me, character is the thing. If I love a character and care about what happens to him, I'll forgive a lot. I remember everything about Hercule Poirot, but I don't remember a lot about how he solved all his cases.

Priscilla Royal said...

Thank you so much, Donis, for these great points!

Anonymous said...

Um, well never having posted here, I wanted to comment on the ARC thing. We indies do get ARCs, free or at cost or whatever, depends on the program we are using. However, I would never expect PW to put an indie ARC anywhere but in file 13 so I would never send them one, nor would any other self respecting indie author. Trad writers don't (for the most part) understand the cost entailed in indie writing and self-promotion, and choosing where we promote is a big financial decision that would never (perhaps learned with experience) be spent on PW.