Thursday, September 30, 2010

Let Me Out of My Box. Please!

Trying to Break Out of the Box
- Sculpture by Peter Kiss

Last week someone left a review of my latest book, Murder In Vein, on Amazon, giving it only one star, and that was because they couldn’t give it zero stars.


Honestly, at first the review bothered me. While authors don’t expect everyone who reads their work to fall in love with it, no author wants to see his or her work disliked that much. Then I read and digested the review. The reviewer, although she called Murder in Vein “[b]loody, nasty, and totally unlikeable,” didn’t dislike the book because of its writing style or character development or even the plot. She hated the book because it wasn’t like my other two series. The reviewer even told Amazon customers: “If vampires aren't your thing, stay away no matter how much you may enjoy the author's other books.”

What it boils down to, Murder In Vein was vilified because it was a vampire book and dark. Because it wasn’t a cozy like my Ghost of Granny Apples books or cozy-ish like the Odelia Grey novels. But then again, the cover and back of the book make that quite clear, so I’m not sure why the reader was surprised by what she found on the page.

Rather than throw stones at the book, I wish the reader had recognized what I was accomplishing with Murder In Vein – I was breaking out of my box.

Breaking out of your comfort zone is difficult in any situation. People love the comfy little boxes they create for themselves. We decorate them with fluffy pillows and cushy rugs and pipe in soothing music. We set up house in our personal emotional places and defy anyone to drag us out. It’s no different in writing.

I’ve never wanted to write just one type of novel. I’ve always dreamed of writing across genres, envisioning my name on mystery novels and general fiction alike, whether they be cozies or hard topics with difficult and unsavory situations. Last month here on Inkspot I wrote about other ideas I have for future books. They run the gamut from fun romantic capers to painful coming of age novels to very dark character studies. I would never tell myself I can’t write those books because they are not like the other books I’ve written.

For example, I love pizza. It’s my favorite food. Calorie and fat content aside, I don’t eat it every night because I would quickly become bored. It’s the same with writing. Creating the same type of book over and over can be boring for a writer. And if the writer is bored with the writing, there could be the danger of that boredom translating onto the page, creating a boring read.

Most publishers build a brand for the author and want everything that writer produces to fall within that nice safe box of reader expectations. After awhile, some writers end up writing the same book year after year after year because that’s what their readers expect and the publisher and author do not want to rock the boat. My publisher, Midnight Ink, didn’t hobble me with such limitations. I wrote the book I wrote and they loved it. Thank you, Midnight Ink. Thank you for letting me break out of my box. And fortunately, most of my readers and the reviewers have loved and accepted Murder In Vein as a “Sue Ann Jaffarian” book.

And talk about timely. This coming Sunday, October 3rd, at 2 pm, I will be on a panel at the Los Angeles Chapter of Sisters In Crime discussing writing across genres. My panel mates will be the distinguished Edgar winner Naomi Hirahara and the always entertaining and gusty Christa Faust. You can be sure I’ll be mentioning my one star review as an example of a reader feeling assaulted by change.

Since I started this post with the worst review Murder In Vein has received to date, I’m going to end it with the best, just so I can remember I’m heading in the right direction – straight out of my box.

Like Stuart Kaminsky, Jaffarian juggles her franchises deftly, giving each a unique voice and appeal. Her latest series kickoff may be her best yet, blending supernatural sexy with down-to-earth sassy. – Kirkus

Sue Ann Jaffarian
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Keith Raffel said...

No box will ever hold you, Sue Ann. Bravo!

G.M. Malliet said...

The rating system isn't efficient at Amazon. Barnes and Noble has a better way that allows people to judge various parts of the story, like character and plot. Five stars for plot, maybe, and four for dialogue or whatever. The choice of "I hated this because I was in a bad mood when I read it" is not an option, but should be.

"Supernatural sexy with down-to-earth sassy" sounds scintillating. Kirkus got it right.

Lisa Bork said...

Doesn't it seem like every time one works up the courage to think out of the box, someone tries to shove them right back in?!?

You go, girl!!!

Michelle said...

I think ALL of your books top the charts!

Alan Orloff said...

I could be wrong, but I'm guessing the folks at Kirkus know a little more about books than Mr./Ms. Anonymous. Just sayin'

Darrell James said...

It takes courage to push the envelope. You've got it, Sue Ann!

michael said...

The reader often does not want their favorite writer to break out of the box. Your name is a brand. When they buy a book because your name is on it they expect certain things. When you don't deliver on those expectations they feel let down and disappointed.

The answer is not to conform but to do what any brand name product or talent does, create more brand names.

Follow the path of Donald Westlake, Nora Roberts, etc. When you write with a different voice or style, give it a new name.

Mark said...

See, this kind of thing leaves me torn. When I write a review, I feel like I'm supposed to rate based on how much I enjoyed something. So there are times that something is technically good but I didn't enjoy it. I try really hard when I write those reviews to express that with reasons why I didn't like something.

And, yes, I can understand the frustration when you pick up something expecting A and get B instead.

Then again, I can understand authors wanting to try new things. Doing the same thing every day gets boring. But their readers should be free not to love it.

Of course, I would also love the option of rating something "I hated this because I was in a bad mood when I read it."

Still haven't made it to Murder in Vein yet, but I am going to try to approach with an open mind.

Carol Grace said...

You have a great attitude, Sue Ann!
I follow Michael's advice and change my name with each genre, but I still get some of those chilling reviews. Does the name Mrs. Giggles (self-proclaimed romantic granny turned critic) ring a bell with anyone else?

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Thanks all for the encouragement.

Mark - You always have such an open mind in your reviews and put a lot of thought behind them, even when you don't care for a book.

Readers should take responsibility for reading the back cover and sample the insides of a book before jumping to conclusions about the topic and then putting the "blame" on the author when they are disappointed.

Michael and Carol - I know a lot of writers use pen names but I really don't want to go around saying to folks: "Today I'm (fill in the blank)". My name is my brand and I don't plan on adopting a pen name unless forced to by a publisher.

I remember years ago reading and enjoying Faye Kellerman, then picking up a book from a different series of hers. I really didn't like the book and never read another, but still enjoyed her other series. I didn't for a moment think she should be writing under a different name or sticking to her original series.

Alice Loweecey said...

Sue Ann, your fans--and their numbers are growing daily--know what a great writer you are. And so do we. Bravo!

Leigh Russell said...

I've just written the fourth in my series of crime thrillers. So far so good, the first two have been bestsellers, and the third one is out next year. But writing a series I wonder whether my readers would like the familiarity of a 'formulaic' approach - or would they prefer something completely different in the next book? It's a tough one.

michael said...

Sue Ann: I understand why you want to write under your own name, but you will have to expect a rare reaction like you got from the Amazon critic. Fans come to expect certain things from their favorite writer to where they will buy your grocery list if you publish it. If they don't get what they expect they can feel betrayed.

Fans understand when their favorite writer wants to grow. I like the way Nora Roberts does it. Few fans do not know J.D. Robb is Nora Roberts mysteries. Some prefer her mysteries, most prefer her fiction. By doing it this way, she keeps her original fans happy and attracts new readers.

Also, I have burned out on the cozy formula and am reading more crime thrillers. You can write the most brilliant crime thriller ever, but I have read your cozies so I probably don't try your new work because I am expecting your original style. Don't think of just your current fans but your new additional fans who will enjoy your new books over the old.

I am sure you will make the right choice for yourself. This is a pretty good problem to have.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Sue Ann - Like you, I've resisted suggestions to use different names. There are advantages and disadvantages to either approach, I'm sure, but it should be a personal decision. I say good for you for all you've accomplished!

Vampires aren't my thing, so I'll stick with your other books. But I didn't have any trouble figuring that out.

Diana said...

Sue Ann, I love that so many of the Midnight authors stretch their wings!!

How disappointing would it be for Alan Orloff to take a new name now that he is writing a series?

I'm afraid I heartily disagree with Michael. I'm not a fan of authors slipping on pen names
like a new pair of shoes.
I love knowing when a fave author comes out with a stand alone or a new series. I want to be able to follow them. I'm sad when I find I can't but I make educated choices about my purchases.
I don't follow Jeffrey Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme series, but I was very open to purchasing "The sleeping doll" recently in his new series featuring Kathryn Dance.
I love JA Jance's J.P. Beaumont series, but do not enjoy her Joanna Brady series. I didn't get upset because one series was not what I expected, it just didn't inspire me.
Intelligent readers make intelligent choices... no matter whether the name on the cover is JD Robb or Nora Roberts.

michael said...

Diana you make some great points. I do agree it is the writer who should do what they feel is right for them. I also agree it is frustrating to learn your favorite writer has been writing other books under another name without you knowing about it.

I used Nora Robert/JD Robb as an example because the front cover of her books say "Nora Roberts as JD Robb" above the title. So it could be "Sue Ann Jaffarian as J. Doe".

My favorite story about writer's names is the Donald Westlake/Sam Holt story. Westlake had become a famous writer and wondered if people were buying his books because he was talented or famous. So he wrote a series of books under the name Sam Holt with orders to the publisher not to reveal Westlake was Holt. He was to do 6, he did 4 before the first was published. The first published had on the cover Donald Westlake as Sam Holt. The reason for writing them gone he never finished the series.

The important thing is there are more Sue Ann Jaffarian books coming.