Damsels in distress
One of the good things about touring is that you get a chance to read. And after days of hearing the sound of your own lips flapping (talking about your own stuff) it's blessed relief to sink into someone else's book at the end of the day.
When Kelly and I were on our recent Michigan Mitt Tour, we read alot. Whether we were sprawled on the nylon bedspread in a suburban Livonia Best Western or sitting on a balcony of a cottage overlooking the woods in Leland on Lake Michigan, books were our sanctuaries.
We read Harlan Coben, Robert Crais, Stephen White, T. Jefferson Parker, PJ Tracy, Jan Brogan, MJ Rose, Allison Brennan. Lots of good, entertaining stuff. I had a great time with Charlie Huston's "Caught Stealing" and absolutely loved a quirky Michigan novel called "The Lake, The River & the Other Lake" by Steve Amick.
But then I hit a wall.
A friend gave me a book by an author whom I hadn't heard of before. I love discovering new authors, especially first-timers. I read the back copy. Good premise. I skimmed the first page. She had me. I forked over the cash.
That night I cracked the spine and settled in. I was in bed. I was ready. I wanted to be seduced. The first chapter was really good. A female cop, a grisly setup, a clear narrative voice, taut writing that teased me to turn the page.
So I did. And damn, I wish I hadn't because things went downhill fast. This female cop suddenly turned into a blithering mess. Worse, her ex-boyfriend came sniffing around and after she took him back, he took over the case. HER case! Suddenly, this cop -- traumatized though she might have been -- allowed weasel boy to take charge of everything. Worse, the writer LET HIM DO IT! Every time there was a new twist in the case, it was weasel boy who led the charge. Where was our heroine? Weeping and whining on the sidelines, a pathetic Hamlette, torn by indecision.
The thing degenerated into a writhing mass of bad romantic cliches. Complete with a see-it-coming-a-mile-away pregnancy that by book's end gives our girl a good reason reason to quit her police job and make waffles for weasel boy.
I was furious. Do you ever have the urge to throw a book across the room? I was sitting out on my friend's deck and heaved this one into the bushes.
It wasn't just because I hate women in distress books. The female in jeopardy is a standard of our genre and in the right hands, this can sometimes rise above cliche. But this author was dishonest. She started out with a premise that promised a woman of strength and depth. And I had expectations that this character would rise above her awful trauma through her own grit and courage. THAT was the story, wasn't it? As I finished this book, I found myself thinking about another book I had read, Theresa Schwegel's "Officer Down." This was also a debut and as such, it has its flaws. (Though it won Best First Edgar this year). But at least the author let her female cop heroine solve her own problems. She wasn't waiting for Dudley Do Right to right her ship.
In the end, I decided I was angry about this first book because I had been misled. I don't begrudge readers romantic escapism. Hell, I used to WRITE it. But this book was so schizophrenic it was like the first three chapters were written by Germaine Greer and the rest by Phyllis Schlafly. If your setup is a dark tale of a woman cop's redemptive journey, you can't switch tones mid-book and start going for the Rita Award.
What's the lesson here? Be honest with your readers. I don't mean be predictable. Be honest. That means finding a tone for your work and sticking with it so that the reality you create on your pages is believable. If you want to write romance or romance suspense, go for it and do it well.
But don't promise me Diana the huntress and then give me a damsel in distress. The book will end up in the bushes.