CONTEST WHINING and mysteries: What we’re up against

We were just talking about what makes a good mystery. Here’s a mystery that’s rated above my contest entry, if anyone would like to take a gander at it. You don’t have to comment on the entry at the site if you don’t feel like it, but we could discuss some of the tropes used in general if you happen to read it. (I don’t know the author–I was just browsing the ones that have been scored higher than my book.)

My reaction? Well, I had to ignore the punctuation errors (missing and misused commas), because those are in just about every other entry that’s up. (The contest, I feel, is supposed to be for pros, and pros don’t submit copy that isn’t proofed and copyedited . . . how can a contest not be for pros when the prize is a Simon and Schuster contract? I suppose they feel they can send the winner’s manuscript to a developmental editor and then to a copy editor and poof, there’s perfection, even if it didn’t start out clean. Nobody else cares about that any more, anyway.)

However, I couldn’t help thinking how silly the introductory paragraph before the flashback was. It reads like a bad version of a Shell Scott imitator doing a ridiculously bad parody of “The Cheap Detective”-style noir stuff that’s in itself parodic of a Sheldon Leonard take on Hammett. But then, I could be wrong. Are there “humorous” mysteries out there that actually are like this one? I wouldn’t mind getting one out of the library to study, because it could be fun to try this kind of thing.

(I like the Shell Scott books, even though they are pretty silly, because they’re campy and kitschy. They were that in their day. There are no punctuation errors in them, by the way. His turns of phrase are really good. I would not put that mystery-genre contest entry in quite the same category as books by Richard Prather, a true pro. Also, Dash Hammett was a very good prose stylist, and I wouldn’t put that entry in a category with him, either, for the record. Just clarifying this because I made the comparisons, albeit somewhat in jest.)

What do I typically read when I sit down to read a mystery? Well, I’m not much of a fan of the bestsellers that are billed as mysteries (except for _The Secret History_, which was a literary novel for classicists). I like genre cozies that have some humor. The cozy market, according to new agent Caren Johnson, is “saturated,” so that gives me even less hope that there’s room for another series, but I see new ones coming out daily. Some of the authors on my buying list are Donna Andrews, Jerrilyn Farmer, Susan Wittig Albert (another Texas writer), Joan Hess (but not the Maggody series–the Claire Malloy series), Joyce Krieg, and Monica Ferris (who used to write as Mary Monica Pulver.) I used to like Janet Evanovich’s Plum series, but now they’re having her write the same book over and over; I’m sure she’s ready to move on, but she can’t. (She has done some other books, but the demand for Stephanie Plum continues, although she has pretty much used up that situation, IMHO. The longer a series runs, the more danger you are in of running out of freshness and ideas, which is exactly why the great Bill Watterson ended the perfect Calvin and Hobbes” when he did. The endless series with the same hero/heroine is problematic. There’s only so much you can do when you have to return to square one status quo at the end, as in a sitcom.) I miss the books by Carole Berry and Marissa Piesman, because their books used to be very interesting. I especially miss Anne George, who only stopped writing because she crossed over to the Other Side. Fans of her Southern Sisters series might like my Jacquidon books, maybe. I think Kathryn Lasky Knight is doing other genres now, but I liked her Charley mysteries.

is exactly right when she comments that formulaic, 12-chapter mysteries would not sell in today’s market and aren’t the standard by which today’s mystery novels are judged (see comment thread on earlier entry.) I just posted that outline because I thought that if a writer is trying to get a handle on the basic structure of a mystery, it wasn’t such a bad thing to read. Nobody should sit down with that and try to write a mystery using the outline; it’s a tool for analysis.

Mysteries today are one of the few places where you can actually read some digressionary stuff about characters and get some sense of their lives outside the plot-engine scenes. I don’t know how much longer that’ll last, but for now, some mysteries are actually fun to read.

But if you didn’t know anything about the modern mystery, you might get the impression from reading that contest entry that we’re still stuck back in the old pulp detective days. Remember the Stacy Keach television series that was based on Spillane’s Mike Hammer? That’s perhaps what people think when they think “traditional mystery.” Or they think of Dame Agatha and the somewhat formulaic structures that she often used. Maybe they think of the Thin Man movies, which would be OK with me, as I adore them. (They rely so much on dialogue and witty clever repartee, whereas films made after 1980 pretty much don’t.) Or am I wrong? Is that contest entry a brilliant comedic success, and I simply can’t perceive it?

Only time will tell. I suppose it’s as likely to win as any of the others. There are now 500 entries on the site. And they accepted ALL genres. You’ll see YA, horror, mystery, chick lit, mainstream literary stuff, and whatever else you can think of. I’d have expected them to stick to their rule of “commercial fiction that fits the Touchstone imprint,” but they didn’t. The Touchstone imprint is going to get a big surprise, perhaps. *grin*
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The thirteenth-century Persian poet Sa’di (c. 1213 ~ 1291) wrote, “Whoever is aware of his own failing will not find fault with the failings of others.”

I think it’s just the opposite. When I see someone with the flaw(s) I hate in myself, THAT’S what drives me bats.


CONTEST WHINING: Well, my rating went up a LITTLE!

NOTE: American LJ Idol entry is the previous entry. My intro is still here–scroll down. This entry is contest whining.

I’m still in the running at the First Chapters Contest. If you’d like to go rate my chapter *ahem*, it’s up at the Little Rituals chapter page. But when you try to click on a star or put in a comment, if you’re not a Gather member, they’ll take you to a registration page. I have not had any spam or mail from them since I joined, so that shouldn’t be a problem, but it is a consideration (sometimes you just don’t want to give out your e-mail address.) Some people have gotten sixty votes or more! However, please don’t feel pressured. They told us to go pimp publicize the contest and get people to vote on/rank our chapters, so that’s what I’m doing.

_Abigail’s Dragon_, by our colleague , is still hanging in there with a fairly good score. (See, I’m being fair in hyping that chapter as well as mine.) I also liked a couple of the other higher-rated stories on the site. However, a few of the highly ranked stories have flaws that I believe would keep them from being pulled out of the slush at most literary agencies. The biggest flaw that seems to fly right past most readers, though, is the problem of starting too much “in medias res.” We as readers need to identify with the main character before we can sympathize or care much about what happens, so when the first line is, “Hurry! Run for your life!” and is about someone being pursued, that can work against you. After all, you are supposed to ramp up tension and anticipation across the book, and after this kind of opener, tension is necessarily going to drop. If you kill off that first character immediately, it’s going to be the “Mars Attacks” effect–some readers (me) will throw the book against the wall in frustration. It’s a high-wire tightrope act. However, many online readers seem to like those kinds of openings.

It’s kind of neat the way I keep getting comments from people I don’t know and didn’t contact. I hope they are hitting the star for a rating of “10,” though, because I need it to pull that average up. They’re only taking the top 15 entries on to the next round. *gloom*

*sunlight shafts through clouds* Although I did get cool comments from most everyone. Okay, y’all already know/suspect that Dennis is a little in love with me* my long-time friend and critique partner, and might have been a LITTLE biased because he was already an advocate for LR to begin with, and I begged Jack R. to go over there from Writing2 (a mailing list I’ve always been on) and rate it, but he also e-mailed me with a long list of questions and things that I can use to improve the next book–basically, he talks about a plot engine to drive a story rather than character quirks, and since he’s on the staff at a Canadian TV show, he should be listened to. It was really cool that he went over to vote! But most of the commenters are people who ran across the chapter on Gather, apparently. They cared enough to post, so that’s cool.

* [Only kidding.]

I have to stop checking my ranking. I mean, if my chapter doesn’t make the cut, it’s not the end of the world. (That’s a song by Skeeter Davis that was covered by Herman’s Hermits, and is still one of my favorite wallow-in-misery songs–has been since junior high. I inherited the Peter Noone crush from my older cousin, who donated her records. I’m not THAT old.)

Twitfiltered, I suppose

Oh, well. I’m cursed. As usual, even though I sent my contest entry for that First Chapters Competition that is hosting (but isn’t putting up a decent interface into, IMHO) on the first day (the 11th) around noon, my entry hasn’t been posted. I haven’t gotten any e-mail from them in reply to the four I’ve sent over time asking about why I haven’t heard. The rules state that you WILL hear within two days. Well, I haven’t gotten any answers to the e-mail I’ve sent over the past week.

Someone on their staff must know me (or believe he/she does) from sometime in the past or on the ‘net, and has decided to have a bit of revenge for some imagined slight. Typical. I don’t know how to get around that, as I can’t resubmit under another name or whatnot, and I can’t get through to them as myself.

You’d think this contest would be fairly exciting. However, the entries so far are pretty lackluster. Very slushpile-worthy, except for a few. Interesting sidelight: they said they wanted commercial fiction, which would imply to me that it should be mainstream/blockbuster stuff. However, we’re seeing YA fantasy, fantasy/SF, and other genre work. They’re possibly not doing ANY rejecting on the basis of something being genre. They should’ve just said, “any genre.”

They absolutely need to have a better way to display the entries and vote on them. Right now the only way I’ve found to do it is to “list all posts by First Chapters Administrator” and then page down through the entries. They should look at the way Dorchester runs the American Title contest. Great front end, easy voting, simple interface. That one seems to work well for Dorch.

Still, I’m kind of dejected about the way that my usual bad luck in these things is manifesting once again. I sent this follow-up today:

I have not heard about the status of my submission to the First Chapters Competition, and I sent my work on Jan 11th, Thursday, around noon.

The rules state: “Either way, an email will be sent to you within approximately two (2) business days of Gather’s receipt of your entry.”

Should I resubmit? How can I tell whether my book, _Little Rituals_, is still in the queue to be considered, or did not reach you at all?

I don’t know how they could possibly construe this as hostile. However, they probably will. I just don’t have any luck with people. I need to get busy on that changing-my-name and moving-to-Timbuktu thing.

Right now, though, the ice is too deep to go outside.