No romance, please. We’re mystery readers.

Every so often, I pop over to the newsgroup rec.arts.mystery to check out their latest chatter, and I came across this particular topic: “Do romance writers have an advantage?”  It asked, in short, do romance writers have an easier time getting published as mystery authors, and how on earth would such awful writers as Sandra Brown, Janet Evanovich, Nora Roberts, and — ahem, yours truly — ever manage to get their mysteries published otherwise? 

Normally I’m a rather mild-mannered person, but there were follow-up comments on this topic that made me want to get out a gun and start shooting people.  The majority of those comments said, essentially: “Romance writers are talentless hacks who write purely by formula.  I read one (or two) romances back in the Pleistocene Age and wouldn’t dream of even picking up another one, unless I was sick and dying of boredom in the hospital.”  There was this one comment that pretty much sums up what they think about romance:

 Romance seems to be pretty much nothing *but* formula —
the identical formula of the love triangle and the woman who
has to “tame” the “wild” man — maybe 90% worth.

Mysteries, while they do have formulae, have a huge field of
variations — serial killer procedurals, psychological thrillers
told from the killer’s pov … So far as I
know, Romance doesn’t have anything like that.

Mind you, these are comments coming from people who actually admit that they haven’t read a romance since they tried Barbara Cartland as teenagers.  That’s like saying, “oh, I ate chop suey once, when I was ten.  I haven’t tried it since, because I know that Chinese food is awful.  And of course I’m an authority on the subject.”

Or: “I read a Hardy Boys mystery when I was twelve, and it was awful.  So I’ll never read another mystery because I know what they’re like.”

As Tabitha King once said, “That’s a really powerful position to argue from!  Ignorance!”

But, okay.  Deep breath here.  I’ll ignore the post that said GRAVITY was such a poor book it goes to prove Tess Gerritsen’s a hack.  (GRAVITY has enough glowing reviews and awards and a listing in Stephen King’s ON WRITING as one of his favorite books to take away the sting of that post.)  I’ll just address the topic here: Do romance writers have an unfair advantage when it comes to selling mysteries? 

Since I’ve been honored in both genres (a Rita Award for THE SURGEON; a Nero Award plus an Edgar nomination for VANISH) I think I’m qualified to address this issue.  And my first reaction is this: why would anyone think that being published in romance makes selling a mystery any easier?  There are legions of romance novelists who have not been able to break into the mystery/thriller genre.  Just as there are legions of writers of all stripes who haven’t been able to break in.  The examples cited in this discussion thread (Sandra Brown, Nora Roberts, Iris Johansen) happened to have been mega-selling authors before they started writing mysteries.  (Oh, and by the way, Nora Roberts’s mysteries weren’t even written under her name, but under the name J.D. Robb, and they sold well even before anyone knew who J.D. Robb really was.)  So, imagine you’re a publisher.  Imagine that an author who regularly sells a  million paperbacks a year says, “You want to publish my new thriller?”  Do you suppose you MIGHT want to publish that book?

Of course you will.

So the examples cited on the discussion thread have nothing to do with the fact these ladies are romance authors.  It has to do with the fact they have a zillion fans and a proven track record.  Their romance writing isn’t what gave them the advantage; it’s the fact they’ve already demonstrated they can reel in readers.  Stop attributing it to the fact they’re romance writers.  They are bestselling writers, period.  No wonder they’re published.

When I sold my first thriller Harvest, I was not a bestselling romance novelist.  I was earning, oh, about ten grand a book.  My previous sales were definitely not an advantage to my being published as a thriller writer.  Do you suppose the editor who bought Harvest thought: “Oh!  An unknown!  But she’s a romance author, so let’s put a ton of money behind this book!”  Of course not.  They put their support behind the book because, I assume, they thought it was a great book. 

Do romance writers in general — even those who aren’t already bestselling writers — have an advantage when it comes to selling a first mystery?  The fact that they’re already published, in any genre, is of course an advantage.  Just as a published SF writer or horror writer would have a better chance — because they’ve already demonstrated they know how to write, unlike the millions of merely aspiring novelists who can’t even land an agent. 

But romance novelists, as a group, may actually face more challenges than other genre authors when they try to break into mystery.  And the reason is written all up and down that discussion thread: many mystery readers loathe a romance plot in any way, shape, or form. Some of them even admitted that if an author at any time in her career ever wrote a romance, they wouldn’t pick up her mystery novel. Their hatred borders on the irrational.  They think they are too discriminating and literary for such drivel.  A brush of the lips, a longing glance, and BAM!  They slam the book shut.  They will eagerly devour pages and pages of spattered blood and glistening entrails, but a man and a woman falling in love?  Horrors! 

Those who’ve read my books know that I do not shy away from glistening entrails.  Heck, I’m one of the few who’s actually seen glistening entrails and I’m not afraid to write about them.  I can write about them with more authority than 99% of mystery writers.  But I also write about human beings.  So how do we human beings get on this earth?  We fall in love, have sex, and have babies.  We’re much more likely to do these things than commit murder.  And to ignore such a powerful emotional force as sexual love is to revert back to Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys sexlessness — mysteries which are far less realistic than any romance novel.  (Does anyone really think that Nancy and Ned weren’t getting it on in the back seat of her convertible?)

I’ve blogged in the past about my struggles to be accepted as a thriller writer.  Even though I’ve now written more thrillers than romance novels, there’ll still be some critic somewhere who’ll dismiss me as “just another romance author.”  In BLOODSTREAM, I wrote a four-paragraph love scene.  This was in a book filled with autopsies, gory deaths, an amputated thumb, and school shootings.  Yet the critic zeroed in on those four-paragraphs as evidence that, yes, I was just a romance author.

So no, I do not think that romance authors have an unfair advantage.  I think we have a disadvantage, because certain jerks think that once you’ve written a romance novel, you are somehow tainted for the rest of your life and no one should ever take you seriously. 

Lawrence Block, an award-winning crime novelist and one of the most gifted writing instructors around, has never been shy about his past as a writer of paperback porn.  Why should he be ashamed of it?  It was a writing gig, it paid the bills, and he used it as a vehicle to hone his craft as a storyteller.  No one ever puts down Larry Block as “just an ex-porn writer.”  Dammit, he’s a crime writer.

But those of us who once wrote romance will, it seems, never be accepted as crime writers.  We’ll always find our names popping up in “they’re just stupid romance authors” discussions.  And the comments are always along the lines of “and because of romance writers horning into the genre, serious mystery writers don’t stand a chance.”  Because of course, mystery authors are the real artists here, the ones who never write a bad book, the ones who never write by formula.

Well, lemme tell you the mystery formula:  “A crime is committed.  An investigator seeks out the truth.  The truth is revealed.”  Most crime novels cleave to this formula.  Some writers do a dazzling job with it.  Some writers are, to put it plainly, hacks. 

Is there anything wrong with the formula?  No.  Just as there’s nothing wrong with the formula for a romance novel: “A man and woman are attracted to each other.  Conflict or crisis keeps them apart.  The conflict is resolved.”  There are a million different ways to tell this story, just as there are a million different ways to tell a mystery.  And any mystery reader who continues to insist that romance novels are all exactly the same doesn’t know squat. 

Why do these discussions keep popping up?  Beyond sheer ignorance of the romance genre, there’s another theme beneath the surface.  And that’s jealousy.  Whenever I hear a mystery writer whine, “These ex-romance authors are crowding the mystery market!”  I think: “Ah.  You can’t sell your book because it’s just plain lousy and no publisher wants it.  And you have to find someone else to blame.” 

It’s so much easier to blame “those romance novelists” or “the narrow-minded industry” or “ignorant editors” when one’s book doesn’t sell.  I’ve taught enough writing courses and read enough amateurish manuscripts to know that there’s a reason that 99% of those manuscripts remain unsold.  And I’ve also heard the writers of those same awful manuscripts complain bitterly about how well Patterson or King or Cussler sells when “my book is obviously so much better!”

They have to blame someone.  And it might as well be the evil romance writers



The new baby has a name

I’ve blogged in the past about how hard it is to come up with a great title for a novel.  You’d think it’d be easy, right?  When aspiring novelists talk about their books in progress, often that’s the first thing they’ll blurt out — the title of their opus.   “Wait till you hear the name of my novel!” they’ll crow.  “MANAGED CARE!”  (Or even more of a groaner: “MANAGED DEATH!”)  At which point they expect me to tell them how brilliant their title is. 

The truth is, picking a great title is one of the hardest — and most important — things you’ll ever do as a novelist.  Many aspiring novelists have no idea what makes a great title.  Too many of them end up with puns or plays on words.  They think that cleverness will sell books.  They  don’t understand that a great title is often a visceral experience — something that appeals to readers for reasons that are hard to explain.

For the past few months, my new book has had the working title of THE RESURRECTIONIST.  The reason I chose it is purely historical.  In the 1800’s, “Resurrectionist” was the word for grave-robber, those creepy guys who’d sneak into cemeteries at night and steal bodies, to be used in medical schools.  I liked the title because of its significance.  My new book opens in the present day, when a woman digging in her garden uncovers a human skeleton that’s 175  years old.  Then the story shifts to the 1830’s, and it’s about medical students and grave-robbers and the horrors of surgery.  And oh yeah, there’s a possible serial killer.  THE RESURRECTIONIST, I thought, was the perfect title for it.

Right away, I ran into resistance from various members of my publishing team — namely, folks at my literary agency, my editor, and the publicity team at Ballantine.  The first objection was that no one knew what a resurrectionist was.  The second objection was that it sounded somehow religious (i.e. “the resurrection”) and there were no religious themes in the book.  A few liked it because it reminded them of THE ALIENIST by Caleb Carr — another title using an archaic word, which ended up being a megaseller.  Overall, though, most people had problems with it.

The major objection came from my UK publisher who said that the word “Resurrectionist” was simply impossible to design a cover around.   “It’s too long a word,” they said.  “To fit it on the cover would force us to use very small print.”  I suggested maybe turning the word 90 degrees — print it sideways, so that it’d have the whole height of the book.  Oh boy, did they object to that.  “We’ve tried it with other titles.  It was a disaster!”

The Resurrectionist, in short, was out.

I was stuck in the same crisis I had to go through a year ago, with my last book.  You may remember all the versions I was working with then.  First the book was called COPYCAT.  Then it was EVIL.  Then it was FALLEN ANGEL.  And finally, thanks to a little prodding by Sessalee Hensley, the buyer for Barnes and Noble, it became THE MEPHISTO CLUB.  

Now I was stuck again.  I considered THE BODY SNATCHER.  Nixed by my agent.  “It sounds like a B-movie title.”  I thought of, simply, SNATCHER.  Ditto.  I finally just gave up in disgust and packed for my book tour in the UK.  I’ll think it about it later, I decided.

Once in London, my editor Selina Walker kept prodding me about the title for my new book.  Couldn’t we come up with one?  My mind was a complete blank.  Then, on a stormy day, with trees being blown down all over London, Transworld took me and about ten others from the publishing house to have lunch at a restaurant, to celebrate the release of THE MEPHISTO CLUB.  We had champagne.  A lot of champagne.  And wine, too.  About midway through the fabulous meal, Selina began bugging me about the title again.  (Did I mention she’s persistent?)  Wasn’t there some word that came to mind, she asked, some theme in the story I could use for the title?

“Well,” I told her, not really focusing on the task, “I’ve always liked the word ‘bone.’  Or ‘bones.'”  But beyond that, I was stuck.

Selina, who’d had a few glasses of champagne by that point, thought about it for a moment.  And suddenly said, “What about THE BONE GARDEN”?

The instant she said it, I knew: this is it.  It gave me chills.  It was visual.  It had that strange, creepy juxtaposition of someting scary (bones) and something seductive (garden.)  We went around the table, asking opinions.  Everyone’s eyes lit up.  Yes, they all agreed.  That was the title.

The question, of course, is: why the hell didn’t I come up with it myself?  But I didn’t.  Even after hours — days, even — of agonizing over various word combinations having to do with graves and robbers and murder and bones, I couldn’t come up what an editor, with a few drinks under her belt, had managed to dream up.

There is no moral to this story.  Except maybe this: sometimes the author is the person least capable of naming her own book.  Sometimes we hang on too stubbornly to something we thought was brilliant, and we can’t see beyond it.  Sometimes it takes an editor, or a publicist, or an agent.  Sometimes it takes a few drinks.  Or a lot of drinks.  What an author does need is an open mind and the ability to recognize a great title when she hears it.

Even when it wasn’t her idea. 


“Is your character really you?”

A few weeks ago, I arrived at an out-of-town ibrary where I was the guest speaker for the evening.  The librarian who greeted me asked: “So which car did you arrive in?  A Lexus or a Subaru?”  I was stunned — and a little spooked.  Because it just so happens I do drive a Lexus.  How did this woman, whom I’d never met before, guess which car I drive?

“How on earth did you know?” I asked.

She laughed.  “Because in your books, Maura Isles drives a Lexus and Jane drives a Subaru, and I figured that one of those two characters must really be you.”

A very good assumption, as it turns out. 

 Like other authors, I’m often asked whether any of my characters are really me.  I’m quick to admit that, yes, Maura Isles is me.  At least, she started out a lot like me.  I’m not talking about physical appearances; rather, I’m talking about how she views the world. Her philosophy, her beliefs, her approach to life.  She’s trained in science, she values logic and reason, and she’s introspective.  Whenever I wrote from her point of view, I felt as if I was back in my own skin, and if I needed to include any trivial biographical details, I’d automatically pull them from my own life.  Where she went to medical school, for instance (U.C. San Francisco).  Or which musical instrument she plays (the piano.)  Or which magazines and wines and TV channels she enjoys.  I didn’t have to think twice about these details; that’s how much I identified with Maura.  You’d think that it would be a pretty cool thing for a novelist to do:  Write yourself into a book and become your own heroine!

Then a reader told me, “I love your character Jane.  But that Maura Isles is sorta boring.”

I couldn’t bring myself to tell her whom that boring character was based on.

Of course, Maura Isles is more than just me.  When I create characters, I may draw from certain aspects of my own personality.  But I know very well that I’m not made of heroic stuff.  I’m not a gal who’d run around with a gun, chasing monsters.  I, at heart, am a coward.  My heroines are not.  Which is why they’re the heroines, and I’m the one sitting safely in my nice warm house with the doors locked.  With no intention of going monster-hunting anytime soon.

There were times when I got tired of writing from Maura’s point of view, simply because she feels too familiar.  She’s so reasonable, so rational (most of the time) and she just doesn’t do many things that startle or surprise me.

That’s why I find it so refreshing to write about Jane Rizzoli.  Jane is everything that Maura and I are not: hot tempered, passionate, and painfully blunt.  When Jane comes onto the scene, I’m never sure what she’s going to say, or what outrageous stunt she’s going to pull.  Sometimes she infuriates me.  (And infuriates my readers as well.)  But one thing she never does is bore me. 

I’ve heard that actors have more fun playing the hissing villain than playing the squeaky clean Boy Scout.  I can understand that.  As a writer, I live for scenes with grand emotions.  I can’t wait to write the parts where characters are consumed by terror or hatred or good old-fashioned lust.  A character like Jane, who’s not afraid to blurt incendiary comments, whatever the consequences, is a joy to write about.  You know she’ll get herself into trouble.  And you can’t wait to see those consequences.

But Maura — ah, Maura.  So self-controlled, so logical, so averse to conflict.  This is a character who shuns big emotional blow-ups.  She’s not a drama queen, which is why she’s been such a challenge to write about.  Yes, from the point of view of that one reader, she may be a bit boring.  How interesting is a character who never does anything unwise, anything self-destructive? 

Then, in Mephisto Club, she surprised me.  Like so many other women have done through the ages, she made a desperately unwise choice.  All in the name of lust. 

Suddenly, Maura Isles is a lot more interesting to me.  She may have started out as me (boring though that is.)  Now she’s spun out of my control.  She’s grown into her own person, a woman made of more than cold logic.  A woman who will no doubt start to infuriate readers with her foolish choices.

I can’t wait to see what she does next.   

boston globe arts and entertainment weekend

                                       boston globe

Over the weekend I had the privilege of sharing the stage of the Schubert Theater with three amazing authors, in a forum sponsored by the Boston Globe.  Joining me were Michael Palmer, Joe Finder, Matthew Pearl, and moderator Brian McGrory, for a 90-minute free-wheeling discussion about the art of writing mysteries and thrillers.  This was an event I was really looking forward to, and it turned out to be a lot of fun.

I got into Boston the night before and met Michael Palmer for dinner.  Michael and I go back a long way.  We share the same literary agency, we’re both doctors, and together we teach an annual course for doctors who want to be writers.  Michael is one of the most generous people in the business.  Despite his success, he is disarmingly humble and funny and sweet.  In short, he’s a guy I’d hang out with even if we weren’t both in the same business.  (His new thriller, THE FIFTH VIAL, goes on sale February 20th.  Check it out!)  He brought his friend Robin, and with my husband Jacob, the four of us headed to Boston’s Chinatown for dinner.

As usual, I wasted no time chowing down.  Can you tell I’m the daughter of a professional chef?  (as an aside — my husband and I were going through our family photos and it occurred to me that a great number of these pics show me either about to eat, in the act of eating, or just having finished a meal.  It’s starting to get a little embarrassing.)


(You’ll notice that I’m the only one at the table who’s got a fork in her hand.)

The next day, it was off to the Schubert Theater, where I met up with the rest of the panel.  I already knew Joe Finder, whose superb thriller High Crimes has so many jaw-dropping twists, you get a shock every time you turn a page.  I’ll be honest — Joe scares me a little.  Whenever I’m around him, I think: “This guy feels … well, dangerous.”  (Please tell me it’s all an act, Joe.  And don’t kill me.)

I was really anxious to meet Matthew Pearl, author of the historical thrillers The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow.  Knowing some of his background (Harvard Law graduate!  Brilliant historian!) I was also a little intimidated.  And yes, he is brilliant – but also funny and down-to-earth and charming.  You’ll never guess what we ended up talking about.


Matthew is an activist for animal rescue.  I mentioned that we’d bought farmland in Maine, and he asked me whether we’d have space to take in some rescue pigs.  I’m actually kind of excited about the idea.  And no, I don’t plan to eat them. 

During the panel discussion, we talked about how we got into writing.  Matthew told us that The Dante Club actually started off as a university thesis, which he then turned into his best-selling novel.  Michael said he was goaded to write his first thriller because his sister told him he was “too dull” to be a novelist.  So he decided to prove her wrong — and boy, did he.  Joe was trained to be a spy (honestly!) but when he was pointed to a cubicle and told to translate Russian documents, decided he’d rather do something else.  Like write bestselling novels and make a ton of money.  And I told the audience that I’ve been a writer since I was seven years old.

Where it really got lively was when Brian McGrory asked us how we react to bad reviews.  Suddenly all four of us started to get agitated.  Matthew in particular gave such a passionate speech about how unfair the review process was, I wanted to hug him right there.  I ended up just giving him a pat on the shoulder.

At the end of it all, we vowed to see each other again — hopefully at Thrillerfest this July. 


 Michael Palmer, me, Matthew Pearl, and Joe Finder



Some links of interest

Thought you might want to view the podcast of an interview I did over in the UK.  (I’m not a techie, so I hope this doesn’t turn into something too complicated to view!)

Also, check out two debut thriller authors whose books are now on sale:

  The first is Robert Gregory Browne, author of Kiss Her Goodbye.

The second is Patry Francis, whose new book is Liar’s Diary.



“the author didn’t play fair”

Sometimes I see this criticism leveled at an author, and it has to do with who the villain is.  “She sprang that villain on us out of the blue.  She didn’t play fair.”  Meaning, the author didn’t give the reader enough clues to guess the villain’s identity.

Patricia Cornwell has certainly had to face this criticism.  I believe it was in BODY OF EVIDENCE where the killer didn’t show up until the climax — when he threatens Kay Scarpetta.  I happen to think that book worked perfectly well.  Although you never see the villain until the end of Cornwell’s story, you do see the investigators piecing together bits and pieces about him.  Her book was simply giving us a taste of reality.  Real-life investigators don’t have the benefit of an Agatha Christie line-up of suspects, who just happen to be hanging around to make the detective’s acquaintance.  True investigations must often chase forensic and behavioral clues before they even encounter the killer.  The killer isn’t nicely sitting in the drawing room, waiting to be identified.

But crime readers don’t really want reality.  They want the artificial guessing game.

The result is far too many crime novels where the villain turns out to be a cop or insider or lover who’s insinuated himself into the investigation.  The author feels compelled to use one of these tired old devices for only one reason — so THE READER will feel satisfied when the killer is finally revealed.  (“A ha!  He was there all along!”)

Sometimes, though, even when the villain has been there in the story all along, readers STILL aren’t satisfied.  

In a major newspaper review of one of my books, the critic complained that my surprise villain was “sprung out of nowhere”.  “This character was hardly even mentioned anywhere in the book,” he said. 

The reviewer was obviously not paying attention.  That particular villain took part in scenes that made up FORTY PAGES of the novel.  The character appeared in four separate scenes, speaking dialogue in every one.  Clearly, the villain was there all along in the book, but the reviewer was oblivious to the character’s significance until the very end.  Why?

Because I, the author, was too damn clever for the critic.

This is what really bugs me as an author.  We work hard to make villains blend unobtrusively into the story.  We slip them into the story in ways so organic that they seem invisible.  And when their guilt is identified, the reader sometimes doesn’t even remember seeing them before –even though they’ve been there all along.

How many times should a villain appear in the story before his unveiling is considered “fair”?

In general, I try to introduce him/her into at least two, and preferably three or more, scenes. 

But sometimes it’s not possible.  Sometimes there’s no way to introduce a villain earlier into the story without sacrificing verisimilitude.  In BODY OF EVIDENCE, the surprise really wasn’t the villain’s identity — it was HOW he gained access to his victims’ homes.  And I was perfectly satiisfied with that shock.  I didn’t care who he was; I just wanted to know how he chose his victims and why his victims let him into their homes.

So I think readers should cut Cornwell a break on that one.  

If a reader demands an Agathie Christie line-up of suspects, then maybe the reader should stick to Agathie Christie. 

Check out what the “Ad Man” says

Head on over to MJ Rose’s site for the first blogpost by a man who knows what advertising is all about.  Greg Hufstutter will return there with other posts featuring the ins and outs of advertising.  I know it’s fashionable to say that ads don’t really make a difference in bookselling.  But I think they do.