Just a Dash of Serious…

One of the reviews I received on Amazon for my first novel The Epidaurus Inheritance ended with the line: “This might be to the taste of those who like their adventures more Hallmark channel than cable, which is perfectly fine, but this just didn’t ring true to me.” At first I was hurt by this, until I realised that the reviewer had a good point. I had obviously categorised my book in the wrong genre.

My novels are not serious. I write ditzy heroines who step in a bit too deep and have to sink or swim. There is always a macho flawed hero who reluctantly helps out the heroine against his better judgement, or against hers. And yes, as I have said on my website: I do like happy endings. I enjoy writing something that is far-fetched but I’m not the next Dan Brown. I don’t like violence – neither in real life nor on my screen (be it Kindle or TV), so I suppose I am a Hallmark kind of a gal.

I have a close friend who, after reading that first novel of mine, introduced me to the works of Mary Stewart. I was delighted to find a writer who not only wrote the kind of stuff that I love to read, but the kind of stuff that I love to write as well. Bearing in mind the negative review I had received on Amazon I went back to my book’s product page and re-worded my blurb so as to leave a prospective reader in no doubt that my book is “a light holiday read with a mixture of adventure, mystery and romance, written in the genre pioneered by Mary Stewart – Romantic Suspense.”

A year or so later, the same friend who had introduced me to the Mary Stewart books (let’s call her L) lent me an Amelia Peabody book, written by the wonderful Elizabeth Peters. I have since worked my way through almost the entire series – some of them twice. I just love that family of Edwardian Egyptologists! They get into scrapes between the pyramids, discovering both ancient mummies and fresh corpses, all against the backdrop of the First World War and the days before Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb.

My own novels always feature a South African woman travelling in exotic places, and stumbling across some crime or mystery to solve; a sort of fish-out-of-water story in which she has to rely on her South African wits to stay ahead of the Bad Guy. The latest of these is slightly different in that this protagonist has already settled in Australia but discovers some unfinished family history and has to return to South Africa to solve it, bringing with her an Australian who is now the fish out of water. I have been getting good feedback from beta readers on this WIP, but one of those came as a bit of a shock.

My friend L didn’t finish reading it because the South African situation depressed her too much. I was disappointed at first, and then I realised that I was actually disappointed in me, not in her. At first she avoided telling me until finally we thrashed it out last week. (Okay, maybe I bullied her just a little bit. Sorry, L!) The main reason for L’s dislike of my novel was a lot more useful to me than the nice things she had said about my characters.

I have realised three things from this:

One: I am a bad friend and shouldn’t bully people. I had strayed from the straight and narrow path!

Two: I had strayed from my writing path too. I don’t like serious writing. I never have, never will, and I should probably not have tried to bring more depth to my novel than the bare essential backstory I usually include. L, besides getting me onto reading both Mary Stewart and Elizabeth Peters, is herself a writer of fantasy and sci-fi which is the ultimate in escapist reading. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not implying that L’s stuff is light and fluffy. Far from it. It’s a lot more complicated than anything I write.

Personally I don’t read sci-fi because I struggle to understand the technological bits, and my version of fantasy seems to be a genre or two removed from the accepted definition of that word. The Mary Stewart and Elizabeth Peters books that I have read so far are neither fantasy nor sci-fi, but both writers have penned far-fetched adventures; escapist stuff which is definitely my cup of tea.

Heavy South African literature is not. There are plenty of excellent South African writers who are brilliant at that type of stuff, but I am clearly not in their bracket and nor do I want to be.

Three: I should just stick to what I’m good at: light-hearted, frivolous romantic stuff with a bit of a mystery to solve and some interesting places to explore along the way. I need to return to my MS with a keen critical eye and examine just how heavy and depressing the text is. It’s good to have a bit of gravitas, but how much is too much? So far, my readers seem to enjoy the light-hearted adventures of The Epidaurus Inheritance and Benicio’s Bequest and so do I. That’s why they read them and that’s why I write them. However, the light-hearted stuff often needs to contrast against a darker background. So that’s what I’m going to be looking at in my eighth draft. I don’t want to lose the South African flavour, but perhaps it needs to be added with a lighter touch. After all, to my overseas readers, South Africa is a foreign, exotic place.

Like many South Africans, I find myself bogged down in our day-to-day struggle against crime, corruption, unemployment and poverty. My friend L isn’t the only one who wants her reading to take her away from it. All my life I have enjoyed reading books that take me elsewhere.

I guess the word “elsewhere” is the key. I don’t want to go to other planets or battle scientific things I don’t understand. Neither do I want to meet supernatural, paranormal beings whose worlds I don’t believe in, but I do want to go somewhere slightly exotic on this planet and have adventures that I wouldn’t normally have in my own life, but which could be believable if the world was a kinder, more romantic place.

I’m not averse to killing off a character or two along the way of course, but most of the time they have been written in purely for that purpose and the odd shocking death moves the story along, cranks up the tension and helps to increase the reader’s belief in the serious evil of the Bad Guy.

What I’m saying is that I like far-fetched stuff, with just a dash of serious. The question is: how much is a dash?

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6 thoughts on “Just a Dash of Serious…

  1. Sue
    I loved both your books. Thoroughly enjoyed, I don’t enjoy dark violent movies I enjoy family, light hearted movies. I do have a THEORY though, I believe writers have very real, major competition in order to get the reader involved in a written story, the visual and graphic of the media has definitely undermined our ability to imagine. Some reviews will reveal more about the reader than the writer, so you can’t take it on. Your writing is a part of your thinking and a subtle remark really attacks the deeper part of you, I have always loved your stories. Keep them coming…do a toilet book too…short funnies about ten minute sittings ! It will promote your writing and stimulate the internal muscles ! Love you !

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    • Thank you, Rose. And thanks for reading my books! There is huge competition out there from movies and TV, and I’ve also noticed that contemporary readers don’t like descriptive passages. If you look up a Mary Stewart book on Goodreads or Amazon, half the reviewers complain that there is “too much description” when she sets a scene. Stewart is a master of setting up a scene, particularly when it plays out later in the book, but some people have lost the ability to imagine. Good topic for a future blog? I’m not sure about the toilet book, but will give it some thought. Love you too, miss you and think of you often.

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  2. Well I think David has said it all …
    I also think the dash, like that piece of string, varies from reader to reader, so good luck with finding the exact weight of it all.

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