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Guest Blogger: Polly Iyer – Good Books Find Readers – Despite Breaking The Rules

Author Polly Iyer and her books

Author Polly Iyer and her books

Good Books Find Readers – Despite Breaking The Rules by Polly Iyer

Certain things make me grumpy. One is when I finish reading a book then pick up another in the same genre that sounds almost exact. The plot is different, marginally, but in many ways, you know what’s going to happen because there’s a recipe writers follow for that particular genre. I’m sure it’s based on the successes of many bestsellers, but after a while they all start to sound repetitive, at least to me. Is this the result of the demand of those who control what we read, namely agents, editors, and publishers?

Some genres have to adhere to the rules or they become something else. Romance, for instance, has to have a Happy-Ever-After ending because without it, the genre ceases to be a romance, by definition. Even a possibly-together-ever-after ending doesn’t cut it. Readers of that genre expect the Hero/heroine to ride off into the sunset and be together forever. Wedding bells are a bonus. Romantic suspense, which I usually write―all my books have a romance, kind of―is a little trickier, but nevertheless must adhere to the HEA ending. I was speaking to a multi-published romance author recently and mentioned I had just watched the movie, Casablanca, and declared it a romance. “No, no,” she said. It’s a love story but not a romance. She was right. There is no happy-ever-after in Casablanca. But I still think it’s one of the most romantic movies I’ve ever seen.

Then add Conflict to the formula. This is a must and where I have a problem. The writer must find a way to keep the H/h apart or in conflict. I don’t like when the conflict goes on too long, because it becomes forced and contrived. Gone with the Wind is neither a romance nor a love story. So what is it? I honestly don’t know, but Margaret Mitchell sure knew conflict, and readers ate up GWTW when it was written almost 75 years ago. They’re still buying and loving that classic because of the push/pull of the hero and heroine. Conflict.

There are two ways to write conflict in a romance or romantic-suspense: the H/h have an instant dislike to each other for whatever reason, or the story provides the conflict. The latter might put the H/h on opposite sides, but the story is creating the discord. In my not-quite- romantic-suspense book, Hooked, my heroine, an ex-call girl, is coerced by the handsome cop to work undercover at a brothel to find a murderer or go to prison for all the money she stashed in an overseas account and never paid taxes on. (I love characters who cross ethical lines.) She gave up the life, and now the cops are forcing her back into it. Needless to say, she’s not happy. The cop, on the other hand, feels guilty. To make matters more difficult for him, he’s attracted to her. She’s smart, beautiful, and royally pissed at him for doing his job. I won’t mention how it ends, other than to say it’s not a classic romance, but it is romantic. Thoroughly confused?

Mysteries create a similar problem for me. The murder should appear as close to the beginning of the book as possible to draw in the reader. But should it? Yes, for the most part. But there are stories where the author must set the scene or develop the characters so the reader is invested in them before something in the story can take place. I suppose those who read mysteries expect that, but I’m a character-driven reader, and I want to care about them from page one. My book Murder Déjà Vu is considered a romantic suspense/mystery. There are only two pages of conflict between the H/h. The first two pages. They like each other almost immediately. To make matters worse, the body doesn’t show up until page thirty-something. Did I break the rules? Yes, but I believe I needed to develop the story first in order to make sense of what happens later.

Agents and editors are always looking for the next best thing in genre fiction, but what they really want is a clone of another author’s recently successful novel. How many Harry Potter imitations hit the bookstands after the book became a phenomenon? What about the copycats of The daVinci Code published after that success? Why didn’t a publisher pick up Amanda Hocking before she self-published and sold millions of copies of her fantasy books? Or E.L. James, whose Fifty Shades of Gray books have generated shameless counterfeits and opened up erotica, or so called Mommy Porn, to the masses? Those writers made their genres become the next best thing. How many of those in publishing are kicking themselves for not grabbing these future blockbusters at the outset? Lack of imagination? Not having their fingers on the pulse of the reading public? Adhering to the rules? I think so.

Good books that don’t fit a specific genre are rejected all the time by agents and editors because they don’t know how to sell them. Where do they fit on library and bookstores shelves? Can’t place them, reject the book.

Ebooks might be the answer, and self-publishing a means to that answer. No shelves. Just a blurb that gives readers a description to decide if the book is something they find interesting. It is happening, and cross-genre books are coming more into their own. I, for one, am glad. New fiction recipes are being created every day. I think I’ll call them Originals.

A good book is a good book, and a good book will find readers. There are quite a few authors finding that out every day, and the reading public is much richer for it.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Polly Iyer was born on the coast of Massachusetts.  After studying at Massachusetts College of Art andHooked Cover 6x9 Feb-21 Design in Boston, she lived in Italy, Boston, Atlanta, and now resides in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Caroline in an empty nest house with her husband; Joey, the timid cat; and a drooling mutt named Max.  Writing novels turned into her passion after careers in fashion, art, and business.  She is the author of eight suspense books:  Hooked, InSight, Murder Deja Vu, and the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series –  Mind Games and Goddess of the Moon, plus three others written under a pen name.  Writing has turned her into quite the hermit, wearing comfortable clothes she wouldn’t be caught dead wearing on the outside, while she devises ways for life to be complicated for her characters.  Better them than her.  Check out Polly’s website at http://PollyIyer.com .

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  1. March 14, 2013 at 11:28 am

    Great post, Polly. And kudos to Debra for getting it and publishing it.

    The publishers’ response in “cloning is understandable – who doesn’t want to repeat something successful? But rejecting manuscripts that break the mould is baffling, because time and again, it’s a strategy that demonstrably does not work.

    It was inevitable that the independent publishing phenomenon would lead to books that break the rules, cross genre boundaries and establish new genres and sub-genres.

    What is sad, though, is the volume of independent, self-published authors who try to clone successful books. This is one of the reasons behind the stigma often attached to self-publishers.

    In my own writing, I intentionally push past the genre boundaries. Sometimes, I do it just to see whether it can be done; but mostly, it’s because that’s where the story goes.

    I want to encourage all writers to throw away those rules. Who invented them? And why should we listen to them? Follow your muse.

    • March 14, 2013 at 1:28 pm

      Thanks, Scott. It’s gratifying to read that so many writers agree with my take on publishing. I was afraid I’d come off more of a grump than I intended. I am so happy writing books the way I want to write them, without pausing every line to see if I’m doing something the present publishing industry finds unsuitable. (By the way, I really never did that, but that’s the position in which publishing has put a lot of writers.) Why would I want to write a book that’s already been written? All it takes is a little imagination to be original. I’m getting ready to steel myself for the reviews of my next published book, which is really such a cross-genre, I have no idea how to categorize it. I know it will have its detractors. But so be it–no guts, no glory.

  2. March 13, 2013 at 7:18 pm

    I so agree with you, Polly. I prefer to introduce my characters before I have a murder. Also, I see a lot of cloning of popular books. How many characters have you run across where the author is trying for another Stephanie Plum? Usually, the quirky character seems totally forced.

    • March 13, 2013 at 7:55 pm

      Clones will always be a part of successful books, Gloria, just like clones of successful movies. But the originals will always be the originals. I do believe not all stories can follow a pattern, just as not every recipe is made from the same ingredients. I was reading some reviews of a bestselling erotica writer that ticked off the ways her book was exactly like Fifty Shades of Gray. She’s making a lot of money with her rip-offs, but I for one, would be very upset to read that people thought that about my work. We all know there is nothing original. Plots have been done, characters written, but we should all try to make our books our own. Thanks for your input. Much appreciated.

  3. March 12, 2013 at 8:48 am

    I appreciate your in-depth look at romances and how folks get mixed up about them, either in writing them or in calling something that isn’t a happily ever after a romance. As a writer of both mystery and romance, I have to say that the first new books come more easily than successive books. Sure the writing craft improves, but the challenge is to expand from that formulaic framework in a way that is fresh and inviting. Your books do that, and do it with style. I’m a big fan!

    • March 12, 2013 at 9:45 am

      Thanks, Maggie. You’re able to incorporate both genres and make them work. I learn a lot from you, and your comments in critique have certainly improved my weaknesses. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  4. March 11, 2013 at 7:42 pm

    Polly, what a terrific post. You definitely nailed the issues that so many authors face when writing their stories. And having ebooks available, and self-publishing as an option, definitely gives writers more leeway in breaking those ‘old’ rules. I write paranormal suspense with romantic elements and, let me tell you, there are times I’d just love to have my couple separate by book’s end just to create more conflict for the next book. Where it would (probably?) ultimately be resolved. 🙂

    • March 11, 2013 at 8:16 pm

      See? I’m using the Reply. Old dogs, and all that.

      Terri, I hope things will change. I can’t tell you how many people who’ve read Hooked made a comment about the ending. There are times things must be done a certain way or the story doesn’t ring true. I can’t believe that placing books on the shelves in libraries and bookstores account for some great books being passed over because they don’t fit the mold. So some of us stubborn writers will keep doing what we’re doing. The big names can get away with whatever, because they have a shelf with their name on it. But if enough of them break the rules, or some other unknown makes it big by doing something “else,” things will have to change. Thanks for your comment.

    • March 11, 2013 at 8:27 pm

      Great point Terri! It will be interesting to see if the new elements of publishing result in genre rule changes.

  5. March 11, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    I must learn to reply on the post.

    • March 11, 2013 at 8:28 pm

      Thanks for visiting today. Your blog post has really generated some interesting reactions and excellent points — The responses show the emotional changes that authors are having.

  6. March 11, 2013 at 3:48 pm

    Thanks, Cindy. I had lunch with Ellis Vidler today, and we decided that no matter what people say they want, we will write what we want to write. You’ve also come to that conclusion. No humorous romantic mysteries? Tell that to Janet Evanovich. Though romance isn’t a main characteristic of her books, it’s there, although I’m ready for her to bed both guys and have some real conflict. Maybe Stephanie already has. I stopped reading them after book 11. Plus there are dozens of humorous romantic comedies in film. What on earth was that publisher talking about. Your success has definitely proved him wrong. So you, and I, and Ellis, and a whole bunch more individualists will keep on writing what we write and have fun doing it. Thanks for your comment.

  7. March 11, 2013 at 3:42 pm

    I’ve never called myself a mystery writer, V.R. because I’m not sure that’s all I write. My WIP is giving me fits because it breaks so many rules. It’s part mystery, part suspense, a little women’s fiction, part romance, and it bounces back and forth in time. Those are a few no-nos right there. I don’t know what the hell to call it in the end, which makes me glad I publish my own books. I don’t have to fulfill anyone’s requirements but my own, and those are to write as well as I can and to write an intriguing story.

    I wonder if the British reject all the genreizing–that’s my made-up word–that we in US seem intent on doing. I’m inclined to say they do, and I’m also happy to report that my books have done well there with good reviews. Maybe they know something the powers that be in this country haven’t learned yet, and hence the title of my blog post–A good book will find readers.

  8. March 11, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    Sally, I do think it’s hard to keep a romance going in a TV show or in a book. I remember my first introduction to conflict with a H/h was Moonlighting, with Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd. It was fun for a while, then it got old and irritating. Contrived conflict sets my teeth on edge. That’s where the conflict must be the story, not the relationship. That doesn’t mean the H/h can’t have differences, can’t get on each other’s nerves, but there has to be a reason, not just a ginned up fake personality conflict. Then the trick is to make the relationship last by keeping them interested in each other. Tough trick.

  9. March 11, 2013 at 3:24 pm

    Go for it, Judy. Try something new. You may decide it opens up doors and windows and your thought processes. I think trying new things keeps the mind fresh. Thanks for stopping by.

  10. March 11, 2013 at 3:08 pm

    Great post,, Polly. And I love that photo of you surrounded by all your book covers! A few years ago I had a senior editor at a NYC publisher say my book would be fine if I removed the romantic portions. HIs quote was that “there was no shelf in the stores for a humorous romantic mystery.” Typical short-sighted thinking. I won’t tell you what my response was, but I’m publishing what I want to write, and my readers are very happy with that decision.

    Keep those innovative books coming, Polly.

  11. March 11, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    Excellent post, Polly, and not just because I agree with every word—although I do. Last year I stopped calling myself a mystery writer, because the genre comes with too many rules, too many preconceived expectations.

    I think the most troubling outcome of agents and editors looking for “clones” is the narrowing of genre. This is particularly true of mystery. I fell in love with mysteries reading British writer Ruth Rendell, not her Wexford procedurals, but her standalones. Rendell writes unpredictable tales with psychological depth, often with a social conscious. She is considered the reigning queen of British mystery. Yet I can’t think of one of her standalones which would be considered a mystery by today’s circumscribed definition of what constitutes the genre—at least in this country. Now Rendell is categorized as “psychological crime.” When was the last time you were in a bookstore or library with a “psychological crime” section?

    • March 11, 2013 at 8:30 pm

      Great point! Can you imagine if they really did break down the bookstores to that depth…our poor readers.

  12. Sally Carpenter
    March 11, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    A good romance is especially hard to write for a TV drama series. I loved “Castle” in the first two seaons when the H/h were obviously attracted to each other but tried to deny it. But when the two finally had sex, the show lost its zine and sense of humor. Now the H/h at times barely act like a couple in love and the mysteries are so predictable. I’m tired of formulas in books too. I write mysteries and don’t abide by the “body on page one” rule. I have to know and care about the characters first. I seldom listen to experts who try to predict the market. A writer can’t produce work fast enough to capture every changing fad or trend. Good post!

    • March 11, 2013 at 8:31 pm

      Remember Moonlighting? Perhaps the best example of what happens when the formula takes over.

      • March 11, 2013 at 9:22 pm

        Funny, Debra. That’s the exact show I mentioned in Sally’s post.

  13. March 11, 2013 at 9:00 am

    Thanks for a thoughtful post, Polly. I feel that I write according to the cozy formula, but it’s sort of how i learned. Now with four or five mysteries behind me, I’m contemplating a cross-genre and puzzled because the mystery element keeps slipping away.

  14. March 11, 2013 at 8:28 am

    Thanks, Ellis and Elaine. And thank you, Debra, for letting me spout off. I do agree the publishing business is changing, Elaine, because they’ve ignored some ground-breaking writers. It’s really an exciting time. Yes, Ellis, we will keep writing, because we really can’t stop. We have stories to tell, and now every writer has the opportunity to tell them.

  15. March 11, 2013 at 7:21 am

    I’m closer to the middle on this one, Polly. Many readers expect those certain things if a book is labeled in one of those genres. My books also cross genres, and I’ve had a few complaints about their not being what the reader expected. But I’m happy to say I’ve had many more positive responses. For writers like us, It comes down to telling the story we believe in and hoping readers will enjoy it.
    I’m a huge fan of your stories, and I hope you keep on keeping on. They’re great, and I’m looking forward to more!

  16. March 11, 2013 at 5:56 am

    For the most part, I agree with you, Polly. I decided not to pursue publishing my last WIP because it was a cross genre. I didn’t think an agent would pick it up, and I wasn’t sure if the supernatural romantic mystery was the cross-genre I wanted to be known for as my first book. I may put it out to agents later after I try to get the traditional mystery I’m working on now finished and out to agents. But, I read a blog by Donald Maas. He said that cross-genre, such as literary fiction and mystery, were the future in the book world. I’ll have to look for a reference for that blog. I think publishers are starting to realize exactly what you said–they’ve lost money ignoring up and coming books by sticking to formula.But those formulas must make money if they keep churning them out. It’s a conservative investment, whereas new more experimental books are a riskier investment. Thanks for your interesting take on the market.

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