Hey! Guess what?
That editor replied to my request right away. “Overall I thought it was pretty good. I would need to know what the hook is and what the series is about. What’s the hook? What’s the overarching theme that links your books together?”
[pause for general cheering and ***squeee***]
OK, deep breath. For cozies that are part of a series, there’s sort of a tradition now saying that they need a hook–think of the many “Catering Mysteries” and “Knitting Mysteries.” I think to some extent she’s looking for such a “hook.” I don’t have anything like THAT, except in the other series (Jacquidon/Chantal), where diabetes control is a minor deal and the addressing of “SIN” in society is a recurring theme (the sex clubs and the recruitment of the unwilling in NICE WORK, the intimidation of the weak in CHRISTMAS WRAPPER.) Y’all know that I don’t want to do some “Crossword Puzzle Mysteries” schtick here, but . . . I need to formulate exactly what my hook IS. I think there’s some potential here to develop a relationship with this editor (perhaps I’m delusional, but spare me reality checks for a moment.)
She concludes the e-mail by saying that the pages are good, but that right now the hook is not quite there for her. “At least not yet.” [Is that not promising? Suggestive of a potential opening?]
So now I need to articulate exactly what the hook is. Aaaannnnddd . . . y’all are invited to help me out. (Isn’t that special? Thrilling? Well, it’s a mitzvah, a good deed. So add a star to your virtual crown.)
Let’s brainstorm this a bit.
THE HOOK. (This always brings to mind Vonnegut’s _Cat’s Cradle_ and “the hyo-o-ok.” But anyhow.)
All of these are Southwest-set mysteries that explore (along with the themes common to all mysteries, which include the morality play and “justice is served”) the setting, which serves as a sort of character. There is also a paranormal or supernatural (or perhaps I should say *supernatural-seeming*, because at least one character always rationalizes it all away, allowing readers to come to their own conclusions) element that is part of the plot and is tied to the setting. In this one it’s the Marfa Lights *and* the esoteric, mystical religious sect that Aaron was involved in, as well as the trickster preacher Gil (who is her “guide,” in a sense, through this “new world.”) In the next, it’s a near-death experience. In the third, it’s a ghost story like “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” or in the teevee show “Ghost Hunters.” Perhaps WOO-WOO is the hook? Even though you don’t have to drink the Kool-Aid to enjoy the book (cynics can sneer all the way through, if they like)?
In every book, Ari is lured into a romance that is a mistake–this will change over time as she grows and “wises up” (as Grandpa would say.) Many mystery novels now include a long-term romance with a police officer or a detective, but that’s not my take on it. Ari (obviously) has a knack for choosing men who are not good for her. Some are merely confused themselves, but others are sociopathic types who simply destroy women . . . and this is something she needs to work through. I hope to provoke women to think about this further, as they may see parallels between their relationships and hers, and might learn to approach things differently. (Ari is the bad example in these first few novels, I mean.)
In this one, Gil (the preacher) is the trickster AND the slippery one who despite his fascinating repulsiveness (smarminess) still has an enigmatic hold on Ari. His pull is tough to define. I’m playing with the concepts of hero and anti-hero there. The musician character is also an obvious anti-hero in the beginning. I don’t know if this could become a “hook” in the sense that the editor wants.
Every book also brings Ariadne to a point at which she has to deal with something in her personal history. Here it’s the death of Aaron, her One True Love, and part of the mystery (as one of my readers noted!) is whether Aaron really loved her after all or was just a ship passing in the night. She faces a reckoning with the past . . . something in her past that is either her worst fear or something she hasn’t worked through. To some extent the premise is that she has a chance to change her fate or destiny–which she misses in the first couple of books, remaining in the Slough of Despond but getting more and more savvy about how she can jump out if only she’ll put on her PF Flyers and take a leap of faith.
(Ari and Zoe both do find happiness in the end. I hope; I haven’t yet actually written all the books that I’ve planned.)
The books also deal with trust and gullibility–and maybe even with the guilty pleasure of being willingly gulled or “taken in” by masters of the talent (Gil, in MARFA LIGHTS, as well as Aaron’s fake “sister” . . . and, ultimately, Ari herself, as she realizes in the end. She could run a con . . . but would it be ethical? Would it fulfill her proper destiny and purpose in life? How would it change her?)
I would like readers to come away from each volume in this somewhat dark-toned series with the belief that defeating despair takes only hope . . . that we should fight fear with laughter as well as with faith and trust (but always protect yourself) . . . that we are allowed to escape from the mundane and achieve our dreams. Also, Ari is a very complex central character, with a hidden past that is revealed slowly. (For once, it’s not rape or sexual abuse. She caused an accident that resulted in the death of a classmate when she was a freshman in high school. Her guilt, feelings of unworthiness, and need for “redemption” is something she’s been working on only recently–Zoe dealt with it at the time by creating a new life with a boy she adored, although this only made things so much worse for everyone–um, it’s a long story. Again, none of this is immediately revealed.)
Later novels build on situations I have set up in the first novel. For example, now that MARFA LIGHTS is the series opener, I have Aaron’s software (which was on a memory stick and was seemingly lost in the creek at the climax of the book) turning up again on a CD. The software goes the present open-key encryption technology used on the ‘net one better, and was the reason for Aaron’s murder. Ari took some music CDs when she left Aaron’s cabin for the last time, and one of them was a Willie Nelson CD that was the soundtrack to one of Aaron’s favorite movies. But in the CD case is actually a backup CD of all his software, including the source code. This is a source of new problems for Ari as she tries to figure out whether to market it or tell anyone–after all, it is an advance in technology that could benefit millions. The interested buyers from the past re-emerge, and bad things start happening. I’ll make it such that this book could stand alone, but for readers who have followed me from the first novel, it’ll be another link.
Does any of this make sense?
The editor adds, “The sisters are cute, but there could be a bit more chemistry between them in their scenes.”
I think she’s specifically hinting that the sisters seem so un-affectionate. This is a result of Zoe’s prickliness and barb-laced remarks, but there are good reasons for this (in her personal history, which I avoided doing an infodump on this time.) The editor feels that the sisters need more “happy” chemistry. Ah, you noticed that the way they interact is through false gruffness and barbs? This could be offputting for “normal” types who don’t know how people like this operate. I need to look at that, without ruining the vibe that I believe is ~real~ for these two.
I can do that. I think.
Obviously, teamwork and problem solving while having issues and incompatibility/bickering as your basis (which can be quite amusing for those whose siblings or spouses communicate in this way, as people may recognize these patterns in themselves) can be entertaining. MOST of today’s sitcoms rely on this, don’t they? Many sitcoms are little more than strings of zingers aimed at other characters. Here we’re dealing with it as a result of past pain and the way of addressing a world that you cannot trust (the only ones these sisters could trust in their teen years, because of the parents’ being in the clutches of a “Cult Church,” were each other. And to some extent ONE aunt. I don’t address this until book three, when the aunt has the “Ghost and Mrs. Muir” deal going on.) At any rate, I can’t take this out of Zoe, and I don’t want to make Ari a needy little thing always fishing for compliments or validation from her sister. I need to make this an asset rather than a drawback. “The Bickersons” was an old radio program that could have been recorded at our house. So these sisters interact using sarcasm or challenges, but with love beneath. Also with issues, of course.
Generally, it’s the romantic couple who serve as Bickertwins: Darcy and Elizabeth, Beatrice and Benedick, Bob and Emily. Obviously the Bickertwins can be done poorly and can read like jackasses sniping at each other because they really don’t like each other (and you don’t like them, either). But anything that can be done wrong can be done right.
It can indicate a problematic relationship, but it doesn’t have to. Because a pair who can argue together, in the best way (zinging back and forth, coming from different viewpoints, both being intelligent, neither backing down until/unless proven wrongheaded), will know each other very well. True knowledge is very close to true love, of course.
Which is not to say that bickering is the only way to express this. Some characters can be all Alan Alda as Hawkeye, all about equality and rapport. But then I live *here*, in Texas, where that Sensitive Man stuff is mocked even by marshmallows who have a soft spot for petting bunny rabbits and saving the cat out of an elm tree. (Said marshmallows can be heavily tattooed, wearing motorcycle leathers, and covered with Anger. But they’re still marshmallows inside.)
In MARFA LIGHTS, a big-time theme is “family secrets,” in both Aaron’s family and in Ari’s. I don’t reveal them in backstory or infodump in the first chapter or two as strongly as I did when I was writing the first two books, and here we are in trouble for not doing it. I didn’t specifically tell her that Zoe had been a teenage single mother who was kicked out on the streets to learn to survive because the parental units were idiots and in a “cult” sort of church, and so she questions whether I’ve messed up:
“On page 15, you write, “last year when Zoe turned thirty.” But based on the age given for Ricky, this would have made her like 17 when she had him. Is that correct?”
Yep. That was supposed to be a hint. But, again, readers don’t trust you when you’re not a published known quantity. This may mean that I need to insert a line explaining this. BUT!! BUT!! AND AGAIN, BUT!! When I do add that “deadwood” line, that will “slow down the story” or be “something we don’t need to know yet” to other editors and readers. You can’t win. (But this time, I NEED TO.)
Family and belonging is a major theme of the series: Ari and Zoe mostly just have one another, as their family is dysfunctional. I spent quite a bit of time on that in the FIRST novel in the series, which I’ve now moved to the position of second in the series because I decided this would be better saved for after readers had become fond enough of Ari and Zoe to stay with them through explanations and mild infodumping. Family is an anchor and a source of order and security/strength in many people’s lives, especially when they start out, but in order to mature, you’ll have to reboot and look at your family more objectively, in addition to understanding your role in it as an adult. This is, however, theme instead of the kind of hook we’re supposed to be talking about.
All of my books contain or hint at a theme of the need for ultimate acceptance–of fate, of destiny, of what IS and what WILL BE–but also demand that people have determination and drive to reach their potential. Although we cannot control the wind, we can set our sails to determine our course through that destiny we can’t change. Also, I always address the mystery/serenity of faith and spirituality. Some of my themes are the typical literary ones such as, “It’s always best to do the right thing in spite of the difficulties and sacrifices.” Or “Don’t trust appearances.” Sacrificial love, the real reasons for friendship, and doing what’s right in preference to whatever is easiest or would be most popular with the masses.
Part of reading my books is knowing that characters are not always what they seem (Ari’s boyfriends tend to be leading a double life, for example) and realizing that the overarching theme or problem that is being solved may be more important than the characters themselves in the larger scheme of things–no matter how this may upset us, as it makes us feel like specks in the vast universe (which we both are and aren’t, because ART elevates us).
There’s always good vs. evil, guilt and regret, illusion vs. reality, etc., all of which I believe I deal with in MOST of my books. Is there a lesson to be learned? A philosophy to consider? I always wham people over the heads with these bricks. Coming of Age used to fascinate me, in the sense that it’s not puberty or age eighteen and getting a driver’s license or credit card but is instead the point when you come into wisdom and mature into a fully-developed person. Order vs Chaos is always good for creating tension and making apparent the role that each value plays in someone’s life. Strong women facing adversity. Yeah, yeah, all these are literary themes and not what she really wants to hear about.
So! Anyway! Should I insert some kind of schtick about “Crossword Puzzle Mysteries” or whatnot? After all, I do show Zoe doing puzzles in ink, and I show that Aaron used to do the same thing. That COULD be a kind of interesting thing, as I wrote software years ago that makes crossword puzzles given a list of keywords (and using common “fill-out” words to complete the grid). I could generate a puzzle or two per book.
But that wasn’t what I really had in mind. I was counting on readers who liked the Anne George “Southern Sisters” mysteries and the Joan Hess wry/ironic mysteries and so forth. I didn’t think about a hook in the sense we’re talking about now. I need one. I think.
What say ye, Hivemind?